HAMILTON TWP., New Jersey (WPVI) -- A neighborhood ice cream shop that lost its previous owner to COVID-19 has a new owner who is continuing his legacy.
Denise Bongiovi took over Carvel in Hamilton Township, Mercer County on July 1.
Nelson Cheng, 67, owned the shop in Yardville since 1989 and was a big part of the community up until his death from COVID-19 in February.
"Mr. Cheng was really important to our community and to everyone who worked for him," Bongiovi said. "When we saw it sitting here and closed at night, I just couldn't imagine it not opening. Even if it did reopen, I couldn't imagine it opening with somebody in here not from the community who didn't love him or know him as we feel we all did."
Bongiovi is a familiar face at the shop. She worked at the store from 1998 to 2005 while she was in high school and college. She even stayed a couple years more when she began her teaching career.
But her connection to the store and Mr. Cheng began even earlier.
"He was my ice cream man. When I was a 6-year-old I came in and I got my chocolate cone with chocolate sprinkles," Bongiovi said. "When I got to be a high school student, he said, 'Do you want to work here?' I said, 'Absolutely, I do!'"
He even made Bongiovi's wedding cake.
After learning of his death in February, former employees and members of the community came to show their support, filling the strip mall sidewalk with flowers and mementos. Supporters also wrote messages for the family on the windows of the store.
Former employee Jennifer Thomann called Cheng a staple in the community.
"He was like a dad to me and probably to most of these girls also, so he was the best. He was a supporter of Little League. He knew everyone's name. He knew everyone's orders," said Thomann.
According to his obituary, Cheng was born in Hsinchu, Taiwan. He met his future wife, Leslie, in Taipei where they married in 1978. "They immigrated to the United States soon after with dreams of a better life for themselves and the family they would have."
"Most of all, he loved his family, he loved his work, he loved his store, he loved his customers, he loved all the employees that worked with him through the last decades, and he loved the community he served," read another portion of his obituary.
Cheng's family called him "the hardest working human being alive."
Cheng's widow, Leslie, and his adult children, Jessica and Nicholas, released a statement to Action News in February saying, "The Cheng family is overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring from the community, both on social media and from the displays in front of the store. We thank everyone who has visited our Carvel Ice Cream store over the past 32 years. Your kind and loving messages have been a great source of comfort during this difficult time."
Cheng's son told Action News he is happy Bongiovi is carrying on his father's legacy.
Bongiovi is getting used to balancing being a teacher and a new store owner.
"It's a little bit surreal. I kind of feel like I'm behind the counter on a shift for him and as opposed to the new owner of the store. I feel honored to be doing it for (Mr. Cheng) and to carry on his legacy in a way I hope makes him proud," Bongiovi said.
Bongiovi showed a picture of Cheng that is posted on the door to greet guests as they walk in.
She said her youngest child still says "he was the very best ice cream maker and scooper there ever was."