It’s hard to picture it now, but Charlotte was once a bread-challenged city, where biscuits were easy to get but anything with a crust was something you smuggled back from New York in your carry-on bag.
Then a young couple from Serbia hit town, bringing artisan-style European bread with them.
On Wednesday, word started to spread that Sladjana and Vlado Novakovic, the owners of Nova’s Bakery, plan to close on December 13 after 24 years.
“It’s been a difficult decision,” Sladjana said. “But we had to do it.”
She and Vlado were already cutting back, planning to ease slowly into retirement. Both are in their 50s, but the work of running a bakery, particularly for bread, was starting to take a toll. They trimmed their 60-member staff in February and stopped deliveries.
Then came March, and the statewide quarantine for COVID-19.
“It has been a struggle from the moment they closed the restaurants,” she said. Many of their customers are restaurants and food shops, like Cajun Queen, which has been a customer since they started in 1996, and Laurel Market.
That’s the second announcement of popular Plaza Midwood food businesses in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Sammy’s Deli confirmed it would close December 1, following news that the Central Square shopping center at Pecan and Central has been bought and is targeted for redevelopment.
In the beginning, the Novakovics never intended to sell to the public. They didn’t even plan to come to Charlotte.
They had left Serbia during the Serbian-Croatian civil war in the 1990s, settling in Boston with their young children. Vlado Novakovic, whose family had been millers, got a job baking at a well-known bakery, Iggy’s Breads.
In 1996, they were planning to relocate to Florida and open a bakery there. But a friend who had a restaurant uptown told them to come to Charlotte: Other than Fran Scibelli’s Metropolitan Bakery, there weren’t many bread bakeries.
They settled here and opened a bakery business in an industrial building on Iverson Way, just off South Boulevard. They planned to sell bread to stores and restaurants. But word got around in bread-hungry Charlotte, and pretty soon people were coming to the building, begging to buy fresh, crusty loaves. The Novakovics added a small storefront for the public.
Sladjana remembers that her English was so limited, when an Observer editor stopped by and said her olive spread was “killer,” she freaked out: She thought he meant it would kill people. Another customer had to tell her, “‘killer’ means it’s good.”
The bakery grew quickly, even adding a food cart (the forerunner to today’s food trucks) and selling fresh bread at busy locations like Founder’s Hall. It added a vendor space at the Charlotte Regional Farmers’ Market that’s still stocked on Saturdays with baguettes, brioche, dinner rolls, and pastries like croissants, muffins, and scones. The farmers’ market spot will also close on December 13.
Around 1999, the business had grown so much, they added a corporate client, Harris Teeter, and they expanded, opening a much larger location in Plaza-Midwood.
“We were always pioneers in everything,” she says. “We would start something or be a part of something.”
It wasn’t always easy, though. In 2002, they got caught up in the great “Harris Teeter bread war.”
That’s when the supermarket chain announced it was bumping local artisan bakeries in favor of a par-baked baguette from California’s La Brea that was shipped frozen and baked on-site in store bakeries.
After a public outcry, Harris Teeter agreed to continue carrying Nova’s bread, but made it difficult for the small bakery by running two-for-one specials and loyal-customer deals on La Brea. After a few years of trying, the Novakovics gave up and focused on other clients.
In 2018, another customer, Dean & Deluca, left them with a big unpaid bill when it closed and eventually declared bankruptcy.
She feels bad about closing, she says. Customers have asked where they can get similar products, and she doesn’t know what to tell them.
“A lot of our customers are like, ‘what does it take to make local bread?’ I say, ‘try it.'”
Go while you still can: Nova’s Bakery remains open until December 13. It’s located at 1511 Central Avenue and is open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. on Monday-Thursday and 7 a.m.-5 p.m. on Friday-Sunday.