It was late March when couple “Zito” and Christin Zito were in their living room in Mt. Juliet and looked at each other with a bit more than mild panic.
“We sort of had a freak-out moment,” Zito said.
Nearly overnight, both of their lucrative music industry careers came to a screeching halt because of the pandemic. The night before, Zito was in Cleveland, Ohio as production manager for Steve Aoki. He’s produced shows for entertainers in more than 80 counties for the likes of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Josh Groban and the Backstreet Boys. He could drop names of clients until the cows come home.
“I’ve been in the entertainment touring world 21 years,” he said. “That Wednesday night, our gig was canceled. We had heard rumors about the pandemic but simply didn’t realize the enormity. The next thing you know, the whole tour was canceled. We took the bus home, and never did I realize that would be my last production tour for going on nine months.”
The same thing happened for his wife, Christin Zito. Also a freelancer, she’s a celebrity hair and makeup stylist for red carpets, photo shoots, music videos and such.
“I was booking and doing stuff and then there was the lockdown,” she said. “Nobody wanted or could have their hair and makeup done. I could not be up close to them.”
That freak-out moment ended up triggering a quasi, fight-or-flight response for the professional couple and was the catalyst for their second act dual career that keeps the bills paid and gives back to the local entertainment community during the surreal time.
“There were so many things I could do industry-wide, but that was a no go. It was a challenge,” said Zito. “The lockdown gave us a gift of time we never had. I wanted to account for the time at home. I wanted to hone my skills.”
He loves to read, garden and was into bread making before it became the it thing.
“I love making sourdough bread,” Zito said.
He took to the kitchen in their Cobblestone Landing home and started baking up a storm.
“I thought I would sell loaves of bread to pay for our groceries,” said Zito.
Christin Zito reached out to a market, and the owner wanted to buy 30 loaves a week from Zito.
“It was just way too complicated,” he said.
Easter rolled around, and Zito had a bowl of sourdough starter on the kitchen counter. They stood and contemplated what they could splurge on for the holiday.
“We came up with sourdough cinnamon rolls for breakfast,” said Zito.
It was a new foray for the home baker. However, he knew his sourdough recipe was the bomb and who doesn’t like a warm, glazed cinnamon roll for a sweet escape?
Christin Zito posted a photo of their inaugural roll and baking experiment on Instagram.
“Everyone wanted one,” said Zito.
They posted it on their neighborhood Facebook page, and the post went locally viral. Neighbors clamored to take a bite into the cinnamon roll the couple said is “special.”
The elaborate dough rises, and then is hand rolled.
“They are made with an imported, high-quality blend of cinnamons,” Zito said.
Then, they are slathered with a salted, vanilla butter cream. Pecans are optional.
During the pandemic, Christin Zito, who is a whiz with social media, started a social media company. She blasted the cyber world with news they were selling unique, handmade cinnamon rolls. The first weekend, they sold 63 rolls in their neighborhood and 83 the second weekend.
“That third week, our minds were blown, and we sold over 200,” Zito said. “And to think I never made one in my life. I’d made all things sourdough, but no a cinnamon roll.”
Of course, because Zito is so organized and logistically minded, they navigated the venture quite easily. Yes, they had fails along the way to perfect the recipe. There were trials and errors and modifications until they landed on the magic recipe, temperature and time bake. Christin Zito helped bake and stepped up her social media expertise. They merged their skills and rolled out Rock N Rollz Nashville, their pandemic-triggered cinnamon roll business.
“I knew we were onto something and needed to figure out how to scale things and develop a business to help us survive during this time,” Zito said.
Tennessee has the Tennessee Cottage Law, and if you are a baker, you are allowed to sell directly to the consumer only.
For several months, Zito and Christin Zito woke up at 2:30 a.m. on Saturdays, baked and delivered fresh cinnamon rolls to a growing following. They were up to baking 600 cinnamon rolls a weekend.
“It was 18-20-hour days,” Zito said.
Their business continued to morph through August. They added two pick-up locations. One is in their neighborhood in Mt. Juliet, and the other is in Franklin. They also added pop ups in locations like Murfreesboro and Hendersonville.
‘Rollz’ requires more space
Even while the Zitos acquired and installed commercial ovens in their kitchen, the ever-growing business demanded more space. They hooked up with Cloud Kitchen in East Nashville and currently rent Citizen’s Kitchen space five days a week. That happened in July. A weekend in October, they sold more than 1,769 cinnamon rolls. They were fully licensed in the business.
As with all entrepreneurs, the Zitos couldn’t resist flavoring up their gold cinnamon roll recipe.
“In September, we invented a caramel apple crumble roll,” said Zito. “The specialty rolls are very labor intensive. My main fulltime person had to be out one weekend, and we were up from midnight to 4 a.m. to make it happen. It was exhausting, but we did it.”
Recently, they rolled out another specialty s’mores roll with the requisite ingredients.
“It all started on our Facebook neighborhood group, and our neighbors continued to support us, ordering week after week,” Christin Zito said. “We love that Mt Juliet is still one of our most popular pickup locations because it’s where everything began.”
Helping out roadies during the pandemic
While the cottage industry saved the Zitos in such a perilous time, Zito and Christin made sure they reached outside their personal space and provided help to those in their industry.
“For years, I’ve hired the crew for the tours I go on,” Zito said. “They’ve become friends, and some have been with me almost four years. I feel responsible for these people and looked for ways to keep our team working when COVID-19 hit. They were calling me asking me if we had work. It was breaking my heart.”
They decided to donate 50 cents from every roll to MusiCares, a nonprofit that helps music industry professionals in need. They began donating to the organization early on in their business.
“Our motto is, ‘buy a roll, save a roadie,’” said Zito.
They hit a milestone at $18,000 donated to MusiCares two weeks ago.
“Another cool part about our cause is as we’ve grown, we’ve hired other roadies,” said Zito. “We’ve hired nine other industry people on a part-time basis.”
And while Zito’s desire to sell cinnamon rolls to pay for the groceries far surpassed his imagination – they aren’t making a fortune – but they can cover all the bills and aren’t’ going into debt.
Another bonus for the dog-loving couple is their outreach to Proverbs 12:10 Animal Rescue in Nashville. They make human-grade dog treats, and 50 cents of each one sold goes to the rescue. Thus, there’s a secondary motto of “buy a dog roll, save a pup.”
For Thanksgiving, they rolled out something new – a savory roll. It’s cheesy, garlic, sourdough pieces of heaven, Zito said. Fans can order these through Christmas, as well, with perhaps another secret offering.
Cinnamon rolls a lifetime passion and profession?
When the horrible pandemic that triggered this second career for the Zitos finally goes away, will their cinnamon roll business go away, too?
“No way,” said Zito. While they both will most likely go back to their successful professions, there’s no way they will let such a treasure born from necessity fade away.
“When it’s time, we will figure out if we need a storefront,” said Zito. “We are figuring things out. We will always be involved with the recipes and ambassadors of our brand.”
Christin Zito is simply in awe.
"We are so amazed at how special our community in our Wilson County neighborhood has been,” she said. “We would not have a business if it were not for their support and the way they rallied behind us during a time when we didn’t know what path we could take moving forward.”
Zito said they are “obviously blessed and humbled.”
“We are cognitive of the huge responsibility for this to continue,” he said. “If we wanted to stop, and we don’t, people seem to look to us for motivation. People want to hear, and for us to share, our story. It encourages people. It’s more than money, we are so happy to give people hope that if we could do this, they can to.”
And yes, they both still hand roll each and every cinnamon roll. They made their 22,000th cinnamon roll recently.
Most orders are preordered. Visit rocknrollznashville.com to order and for pickup locations. They sell per roll and in different bundles.