Rich Cannici Jr., right, looks over some goodies with pastry chef Melinda Lachapelle at Sweet Caroline’s Bakery in Palm Harbor. Cannici recently expanded the business at 3347 Tampa Road to include a café.
PALM HARBOR – In mid-May, Palm Harbor’s Sweet Caroline’s Bakery got a new neighbor; Sweet Caroline’s Café. It continues the dream of Rich Cannici Jr., a U.S. Marine veteran who opened the bakery nearly four years ago and has now expanded the business.
“If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be operating a bakery I would not have believed you,” he said. “I was always comfortable around the kitchen and food so when the opportunity arose to start this business it seemed to fit.”
Cannici, 33, said his experience in the Marines helped him run the business, as did the three tours of Iraq he served from the time of his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2002 until his military retirement in 2007.
“I always had a passion for running my own show and running a business and the Marines reinforced it a lot,” said Cannici, a retired Marine captain. “I was in charge of young guys. I like being in control.”
Cannici admits it is a lot tougher being in control in Iraq than in the bakery. There is so much more at stake.
“Tough? It was different than anything I ever experienced. It was taxing, mentally and physically challenging,” he said. “I had 50 to 60 young guys under me and I was blessed that they were such great guys, it made everything a lot easier. They were amazing; it was a lot less tough than it could have been.”
Less tough or not, there were times in Iraq he said that he had to work hard to keep it together.
“I learned lessons that I will keep with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “We lost some of them, some got injured, but we had to keep coming back day after day. It was difficult to keep your emotions compartmentalized and still come to work.”
It was tough on his family back home too. His dad, Rich Sr. and his mom Mary dreaded the time when he was over in Iraq.
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever experienced,” said Rich Sr. “Back then there was a report on the news every day that someone was killed in action and we had no way of knowing who it was. We never knew if somebody would show up at the door in a Marine uniform to give us the bad news. It was a frightening and anxious time for his mother and me.”
The frightening times turned into good times as young Rich came home. His last assignment was at MacDill Air Force Base with Special Operations Command. Then, when he got out, he opened the bakery at its present location at 3347 Tampa Road in Palm Harbor. His parents are glad to help.
“I had retired from a 38-year career in data processing,” said the elder Cannici. “I don’t know anything about the food business but I’m glad to help clean up, sweep the floor, wipe tables whatever is needed.”
But he said his wife, Mary, plays a bigger role in the business.
“She has been in the food business for many, many years,” he said. “Her experience made it logical to open the café, and she is helping out with the quiches and sandwiches and the homemade soups.”
There is no doubt Rich Sr. is his son’s biggest booster. Ask him about the business and he’s ready with a list of things that make the bakery and café unique to the area.
“First of all everything is made from scratch, everything, including the fillings for the pies and pastries,” he said. “Secondly when you walk in you can see everything. Everything is open. You can see the bakers doing their work, you can see the ovens and you can watch as they take things out of the ovens. You can watch everything being made.”
Rich Jr. is a busy man keeping two businesses running and on an even keel. He says his wife, Caroline and sons Rich III, 2, and Joseph, 1, understand that he can’t be always around the house. And he thanks his parents and in-laws for that too.
“Both parents live close by and we get help from them both at home and at work so I can focus on the business,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy. I’m gone in the morning before the family is up and get home in the evening with just a little time before they go off to bed. I work for the opportunity to spend more time with the family. I hope it pays off in the long run.”
The future promises to get busier before it gets easier. Cannici hopes to expand, but in a special way.
“I try not to look too far out, but I want to continue to build Sweet Caroline’s and grow the business but I want it to maintain that hometown feel,” he said. “That is what people have responded to and I don’t want to jeopardize that.”
“I do love this, I’m loving it. We’re in the business of making people happy, they are happy to come here they love the smell of the place. It has been a lot of fun. It is a lot different from the Marines.”
Yet he doesn’t ever want to forget his Marine experience and those months in Iraq.
On the wall in the Bakery is a citation honoring Richard Cannici for bravery in combat. It outlines the measures he took one morning when his platoon ran into an ambush. It lauds the effort he put forth to protect his platoon and turn the tide eventually managing to recover weapons and take prisoners in the battle.
Memories of that make Cannici grateful that he is home.
“I consider myself extremely lucky,” he said. “When I got home the last time with just some nicks and scratches, and made it back from those three tours in good mental shape, I feel extremely lucky.”