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Q & A with The Chocolate Bar's Alison Nelson

Let’s just say Alison Nelson was born to make chocolate.  She grew up addicted to Hershey’s dark chocolate bars and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, and she turned her obsession into an international business.  Her dream was to make familiar & nostalgic chocolates with high quality ingredients, elevating the everyday chocolate bar to something refined.  What started as a small shop in the West Village has expanded to New Jersey and even Dubai.  Chocolate Bar is best known for its rich hot chocolate and spicy, chewy brownies, and her Graffiti Bars with wrappers designed by local artists.  Her Jersey Shore also makes gelato, shakes, and even sno cones. 



What did you want to be when you grew up?

An Olympic long distance runner and high school English teacher

What was your first job in food?  What did you learn?

My first job was preparing and serving coffee and tea at my catholic school’s BINGO night at 12 years old. I earned tips and got to take the cans to the recycling center and keep the nickels. I pushed the coffee and treat cart through the cafeteria for 3 hours. I learned that how you make something matters and that good customer service is an asset.

When did you fall in love with chocolate?  Did you love it as a child or develop a taste for it?

I was the kid who ate the Hershey’s Special Dark bars no other kid wanted. I was in love with the book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I would blow all the money I earned on chocolates from the luncheonette down my street. But it wasn’t until high school where I discovered really good, pure chocolate. My first love’s family was from Northern Italy and Croatia. They ate wonderful Italian, Belgian and Spanish chocolates. It blew my mind how good it tasted.

When did you decide to turn it into a business?    How did you manage to differentiate your concept from the competition?

I always found myself happiest serving people in neighborhood bakeries and coffee shops. I knew my career as a world famous novelist and Olympic runner weren’t really happening. So I looked at what I loved to do and discovered that I found most high end chocolate shops intimidating. I thought that if I married high end chocolate with a neighborhood place feel, that maybe people like myself, my blue collar family, or starving artist friends would partake in better chocolate. I knew we could be different by offering familiar and nostalgic items but made with high quality ingredients and served with a good dose of irreverence.

How have you kept Chocolate Bar successful?   Why did you close the outpost in the East Village and why do you think the West Village flagship thrived so much more than the store?  Some people might throw in the towel, but you persisted and now have stores all over including New Jersey and even Dubai.  How did you pull that off and why do you think you thrived in those markets? 
The most important piece to my success are people. I have been fortunate to have talented, gracious and hard working people watching my back and keeping the ship afloat. I have also been fortunate to have an amazing customer base who are both loyal and honest. They keep me in check. Without them Chocolate Bar would be a very different company.


The East Village was a huge lesson for me. Chocolate Bar needs its regular base of daily customers. We achieved that by offering amazing coffee. Our neighborhood lacked good coffee shops. The East Village has plenty and we could not compete with them on that. So we knew the West Village, especially after building our base over 6 years, was the place for us.


There were plenty of times I wanted to throw in the towel and eat the inventory in one sitting while listening to old Morrissey tunes. But I have no idea what else I’d be doing. I love Chocolate Bar, my employees and my customers so much that I would miss it all. Even the stress.


I will say, if I had to do it all again, I would make sure I was better financed from the get-go. As much as my naïvete has helped me do things unimaginable, it also hindered me from seeing things three steps ahead. It is difficult to focus on development of recipe creation when you’re trying to keep everyone paid and functioning.

You also have a store in Long Beach Island, NJ.   Is that selfish reasons?  Do you spend your summers there?  Is that store different than the New York store? 

I was born in Rockaway, Queens. I can still remember hearing the waves hitting the sand as I fell asleep as a kid. I did not go to the beach once the first 2 years Chocolate Bar was open and I was miserable. When my family transplanted to the Jersey Shore I realized the town they were in would be great for Chocolate Bar. When it got slow in NYC it would be busy there, therefore keeping a steady sales stream. But it was also selfish. I have 2 kids and I’m a workaholic. I knew if I had the business down there I would have to work and at the same time could give them some of the experiences I had.


LBI is actually called Chocolate Bar Shake Shop. We have everything we sell in New York but also do gelato, ice cream, shakes, blended coffees, fondue, sno cones, etc.  We also bake on premises there. It is 2,000 square feet and has lots of seating, a foosball table and places for the little kids to draw and play. So it’s Chocolate Bar, but Chocolate Bar at the beach in flip-flops and suntan lotion!

How did you meet your pastry chef Gustaf Mabrouk?  Where did he work before joining you?  Do you do some of the baking and chocolate making as well?
I met Gustaf  through a fellow foodie and restaurant entrepreneur. Gustaf had been working at Restaurant 42 in the 4 Seasons White Plains and before that in some acclaimed D.C. restaurants. I loved the fact that everything was prepared in small batches with single origin chocolate.


I bake all brownies, cookies and pb krispies on a daily basis. I do some of the chocolate making and almost all of the product development. But some of the credit goes to staff and customers who ask me to try something for them. If it works and tastes good, it goes on the shelf!

Which Chocolate Bar outpost do you spend most of your time?

West Village. Although I go down to LBI once per week in the winter and am there full time July and August.

Are you a dark, milk, or white girl?   What do you sell the most of in the store? 

Dark chocolate if it’s a truffle, with fruit or solid bar. Milk chocolate with any nuts. I can’t stand white chocolate!

What inspired the brand expansion to the Middle East? You now have stores in Dubai, Qatar, and in Doha?  How has the concept held up in such a different culture?
I like the idea of having something far enough away that as I made mistakes it wouldn’t be under a microscope. I am learning how to be a business person as I go, so I knew there would be bumps in the road. But I also liked going somewhere that was just beginning. Having the opportunity to start as the city started. The concept is more upscale there, but it still looks like Chocolate Bar when you enter. And we’ve been lucky that the customers love New York so much!

Which kitchen tool can you not live without?

A whisk.

Some of your chocolate bars are packaged in wrappers designed by local artists, aka the Graffiti Bars.  Where did you get the idea?  When did your interest in art and fashion begin?  Would you see yourself in that business if not for this one?
This came from going to school with so many artists and being in NYC when you would hang in a coffee shop or bar and spend hours writing poetry, sketching, critiquing with your friends. The chocolate bars look like train cars in shape. So graffiti made sense. 
If I hadn’t ended up here I would probably be working in some creative field.

Your stores are known for its outstanding hot chocolate and brownies.  What are the secrets to yours? 

The chocolate! I use the same 65% callebaut chocolate in both our brownies and hot chocolates. It makes the difference. But it’s also the few ingredients used. You do not need a lot to make a big splash.

What is your favorite product or baked good at Chocolate Bar?
The spicy brownie.

Which flavor goes best with chocolate?
My preference is a tie between peanut butter and passionfruit.

Which flavor would you never pair with chocolate?


Who is your favorite chocolatier in the city, besides yourself of course?  Why?
Jean Francois Bonnet. His chocolates are beautiful!

Have you considered any other restaurant or food concepts for the future?
I want to do a place built entirely around the use of salt. Just to mess with this new crack down on it. Like sweets, salt isn’t bad for you if used moderately!

Any new projects on the horizon with Chocolate Bar and beyond?  Spill the beans…

A new store in Dubai is being built in Mirdiff City and another is in planning in Qatar. We’re in talk with some potential outside investors to open in other cities. But right now I’m focused on designing bars for Father’s Day!

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