ALISON NELSON, owner and founder of CHOCOLATE BAR, sipped her first cup of coffee with her father at the age of 8 and began serving coffee at St. William's BINGO night when she was 12. By the time she hit her teenage years, she was an avid coffee consumer. Alison put herself through college on the tips of customers at top-notch New York coffee shops including 52 Irving, Zido's, Once Upon a Tart and Heaven and has always wanted to open her own little place serving the best coffees and teas available.
CZ: Alison, when did you decide to open the Chocolate Bar?
Alison Nelson: In January of 2002 I was working as an event production manager for WORKHOUSE (www.workhousepr.com). I had actually gone to school to become a writer but as everyone knows, when you pursue the arts you work in restaurants, bakeries, and cafes. Every time I got a "real" job I would find myself wanting to go back. To be in the environment where there’s interaction with customers, and to be in the kitchen. I had an idea of doing a neighborhood shop, take a coffee shop and make it into a chocolate shop. Where people would be comfortable coming in and getting to know you. So in early 2002 I found a person interested in investing, and four months later we’ve opened Chocolate Bar (www.chocolatebarnyc.com). Our other store, down on the New Jersey Shore, just opened. There, the summers are extremely busy because it’s a beach town, and New York's a little slower. So it just seemed logical business wise, and then on the emotional level it’s just great to be with my family on the Jersey Shore.
CZ: Why chocolate?
Alison Nelson: I love chocolate. One of the things about chocolate that is fascinating to me is the American perspective on it. I grew up in Queens, and my family is Irish so everything was about beer and whisky—all the good quality stuff. But when it came to chocolate all they knew was Hershey’s…you know it’s all an American mentality. The best chocolates out there when I was a kid were Whitman’s Sampler of Russel Stover. I didn’t know that there’s this whole other world because my family was not into it. So when I started working in bakeries and cafes, and I’ve seen pastry chefs working with chocolate, and tasted it, I thought "Wow, this is amazing!" And the reason why people don’t buy better chocolate it’s not that they are afraid of trying new flavors or they’re afraid they wouldn’t like it, but because it seemed inaccessible to them.
CZ: How many chocolate makers do you work with right now?
Alison Nelson: We've moved all of our production in-house to our shop in New Jersey.
CZ: Do you have your own line of products too?
Alison Nelson: We have our own recipes for all of our products including bars, truffles, beverages and baked goods. And we have our teas which we personally blend to go along with our chocolates. When I first opened my intention was to never even necessarily make our own chocolate but eventually working with Jacques Torres and other chocolatiers I’ve gradually learned more about the industry. When we started all of those years ago one of the things that they all did was make chocolates that were only accessible if you stayed in a really nice hotel, or ate in a very nice restaurant, because that’s the only place where their lines were sold. I wanted to bring that to all the New Yorkers and this was our original intention with Chocolate bar. And then a funny thing happened while working with those great chefs-- I felt like trying new things and creating our own recipes.
CZ: Are you offering any tastings here?
Alison Nelson: We do open tastings about 12 times a year. That’s when we put a sign on our stores and people call and make reservations (Telephone: +1 212.366.1541 in NYC or +1 732. 292. 4500 in NJ). We handle tastings for everything from corporate clients, bachelorette parties, wedding showers and birthday parties to name a few. We explain a little bit of the history of chocolate with wine, or champagne, or Port pairings. A Q&A session follows so you can find out about chocolate in general. Overall people are more knowledgeable about chocolate than they were four years ago, and I think that Food Network has been a great contribution to this on the national level. Opening a store in New Jersey customers mention shows about pastry chef competitions and chef shows they watch on TV so that makes a big difference.
CZ: Do people buy more chocolate now than 4 years ago?
Alison Nelson: Definitely, our sales have increased. But back then it was more of a snickers thing. People could get a snickers bar for 75 cents and we’re selling a truffle for $1.30. Now people spend more for good quality. My dad — a fireman — is a big coffee drinker. He would always shell out for a buck for a deli cup of coffee. Four years ago Dunkin Donuts was the cream of the crop and he would say to me that it was crazy to spend $4 for a cup of coffee. Now he shops at higher-end coffee shops and gets a nice, dark roast. It's a much higher quality and he gets it. He can appreciate the taste and understand the difference in price and what he's paying for. The same is true in buying quality chocolates.
CZ: What trends do you see in the industry?
Alison Nelson: From what I see, more chocolate shops will be opening, and the more upscale chocolate market will be a great place to do business. Even the little deli where I’m shopping is carrying Lindt and Scharffen Berger. Also, supermarkets across the country have started to carry more artisanal chocolates. When Hershey’s is buying a company like Scharffen Berger they really need their entire market, so I’m thinking that in two years, you’ll be able to go into a grocery store anywhere and be able to buy a 72% cocoa bar off the shelf.
CZ: What’s your favorite chocolate?
Alison Nelson: If I had to pick one I would have to say the salted caramel.