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Published December 21, 2011, 11:00 PM

Mother-daughter Moxie: There are two cooks in the Moxie Java kitchen, and that’s just fine by them

3:10 a.m. – The alarm beeps. Lights on. 3:55 a.m. – Nancy Swanson Nerland picks up her co-worker, Jane Swanson. 4 a.m. – They open the doors to Piece of Cake catering in downtown Fargo.

By: By Merrie Sue Holtan, INFORUM

3:10 a.m. – The alarm beeps. Lights on.

3:55 a.m. – Nancy Swanson Nerland picks up her co-worker, Jane Swanson.

4 a.m. – They open the doors to Piece of Cake catering in downtown Fargo.

4:01 a.m. – The baking officially begins. On this particular day, they face the daunting task of filling 300 to 400 holiday cheesecake orders, 25 pecan pies and the usual daily specials: muffins, cookies, breads, sandwiches, wraps and 15 pans of peanut butter krispies.

6 a.m. – The front doors open to Moxie Java, 111 Broadway.

6:01 a.m. – Like clockwork, the first customer enters the store. The hustle and bustle begins.

Swanson, 87, Nerland’s mother, continues baking while Nerland waits on customers. They have been a business team for 28 years, and Nerland said it’s all about the customers.

“I was always a curious child,” said Nerland, who grew up on a farm near Britton, S.D., with her mom, dad and four siblings. “I never wanted to sleep in because I was afraid I might miss out on something. It’s the same here. I want to be here for the first person. I want to know how my customers are doing, and I really mean that.”

Nerland said that the downtown Fargo store is like a little family, with the same people coming in every day. She will ask, “Where were you?” if the customer has been gone. She has cried with customers such as the woman who came from the hospital just after losing her mother. Nerland was the first one she told.

“I worry about people,” Nerland said, “and I fall asleep at night praying for them. My customers are important because they don’t have to come here. I’m so thankful for each person.”

Nerland keeps customers surprised by wearing a head band with a large smiling sun or working in her pajamas, just to get a smile.

The Swanson girls were always baking. The mother/daughter work ethic was honed in South Dakota where Nerland helped her dad disc the field, rake hay, mow, birth piglets and calves, and then come in to help her mom bake and cook. Her mom had a similar upbringing on a North Dakota farm with two siblings.

“We had milk cows, chickens, pigs, and I cooked for the combiners and threshing crews,” Swanson said. “I hauled dinner 30 miles to them. That’s why I hate making sandwiches to this day. It wore me out. The farm was pretty much like slavery.”

The road to Moxie

When Nerland’s father died from cancer, her mom stayed by herself on the South Dakota farm and worked evening shifts at a nursing home.

In 1981, Nancy and her husband, Brent, also a business owner, purchased Freddie’s Fudge in the West Acres mall and offered Swanson a chance to move to Fargo and run the candy store. She agreed.

In 1984, Nerlands reconfigured the store and named it The Candy Cottage.

“We noticed the trend was moving away from candy and toward coffee,” Nerland said. “We decided to switch over and began researching coffee drinks in the Minneapolis area.”

Their research eventually led them to a Boise, Idaho, company – Moxie Java – and in 1995, they became licensed for three stores in Fargo. They later opened two more stores and ended up selling three. Currently Nerland owns the downtown Fargo and Moorhead stores.

“Bigger is not always better,” Nerland said. “It’s complex to have so many employees and so much overhead. Two is about the right amount.”

About 15 years ago, Nerland began Piece of Cake catering, where mom and daughter provide all homemade baking for Moxie stores as well as wholesale baked goods for other businesses. Swanson has weathered all the changes with constant and consistent baking.

“I guess I’ll retire when I die,” she said. “What else would I do? Nancy is pretty nice to get along with. Once in awhile we have a little ‘tiff,’ but it’s usually my fault. She looks out for me, and I need somebody like that.”

Swanson, drinking her favorite Guatemalan blend coffee, takes periodic breaks to read Glamour, Martha Stewart Living or O Magazine and reclines for an afternoon snooze in Nerland’s office, under a Wizard of Oz painting in which all of the characters have a cup of Moxie Java in hand.

Nerland pops in and out, usually looking for her cup of French Roast, which she has left in one microwave or another. Tabitha Dachle, a college student and one of several Nerland children and nieces who have worked for the family business, also stops in to check on her grandma.

“I love this job,” Dachle said. “I get to talk to people all day. I was shy at first, and now I can’t shut up. Nancy is an awesome boss. She wouldn’t ask us to do anything she wouldn’t do – including scrubbing the bathrooms. She’s pretty particular.”

The family that cooks together

The Nerlands have three children who have picked up on the work ethic and the compassion gene.

Oldest son, Nick, is a financial planner in the Twin Cities. He and his wife, Tamara, have two children.

Daughter Sarah, formerly a YMCA aquatics director, is married to Tim Sparks, and they have three children and live in Shakopee.

The youngest son, Nathan, formerly a manager for Caribou Coffee, lives in St. Paul where he runs his own advertising agency.

Nathan Nerland also founded the Carson Glore School in Kenya, Africa, in memory of a childhood friend, who died as a sixth grader at Longfellow Elementary in Fargo.

In fact, Mom Nancy made a trip to Africa this month to visit the school. But before she could go, there were holiday baking orders to fulfill. She took care of those, emailed her customers, and made sure not to leave any employee with extra work.

And when the family gets together this weekend for the holidays, what will they do?

“Cook,” Nerland said. “We’ll all be together in the kitchen, music jammin’ makin’ meals.”

No doubt, Swanson will be right in the middle of the action.


Merrie Sue Holtan can be reached at msholtan@gmail.com

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