- Associated Press - Monday, October 24, 2016

DETROIT (AP) - Alex Clark drove up to Acre farm, tucked behind Corktown and I-75 with her 10-year-old dog, Lou, always by her side. Sporting her signature orange headband and green jumpsuit she bounded out of the Jeep Wrangler and hugged Hannah Clark, Acre’s co-founder of no relation, like a best friend.

Standing among vegetation spread over an acre, Clark inquired about the tomatoes, squash and basil for her Bon Bon Bon Fall Collection. The 28-year-old founding chocolatier (who pooh-poohs the title CEO) imports the cocoa for her creations from South America, but finds joy in featuring local ingredients from Acre, Buffalo Street Farm and the collective Grown in Detroit in her 1.21-inch Bons handcrafted to fit perfectly in your mouth.

“I really like the juxtaposition of having a product that’s made with ingredients from Ecuador and Columbia and then driving over here and picking some up,” she said. “… I like to think that it captures the balance that everybody hopes to have in the food industry.”

Since launching in 2014, Bon Bon Bon has gained national recognition as a Martha Stewart American Made Award finalist, and Forbes named Clark on its 2016 “30 Under 30 Food & Drink” list. Touted as the first artisan chocolate shop to open in downtown Detroit in 40 years, Clark has created over 200 flavors, from S’mores and Better Butter Crunch (featuring Better Made chips), to Cider & Donuts in the collection that debuted Friday, The Detroit News (https://detne.ws/2elICqv ) reported.

But the chocolate enthusiast originally thought she’d open an ice cream shop. She fell in love with ice cream at age 14 when she worked at the Plymouth Dairy King down the street where she grew up. She then attended Michigan State University to study food science and hospitality, dreaming of one day opening her own ice cream store.

In 2007, she moved to Norway where her grandmother lived and visited dozens of European cities. Nearly broke at 19, she couldn’t afford restaurants, so she sampled cultures through chocolate instead.

“I was buying a piece of chocolate everywhere I went because I couldn’t buy the food,” she said. “It was usually under 3 euro and that was about my whole budget.”

One visit to Amsterdam, she stumbled on the chocolate shop Puccini Bomboni.

“It was so good that I just got back in line and had another,” she said. “And I had this huge emotional breakdown. I was like, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’ And that was it.”

The next eight years she worked as an agricultural economist in New Zealand, apprenticed at chocolate shops and trained to be a pastry chef at Schoolcraft College and The French Pastry School in Chicago - with the goal of opening the best artisan chocolate shop in Detroit.

As cars whizzed down the highway behind the farm, Clark said she wouldn’t want Bon Bon Bon based anywhere else.

“We’re so driven on this idea of being able to provide good jobs and create good relationships and make really high quality chocolate in the United States and that’s something that Detroiters can get behind,” she said.

So, what’s in a Bon?

Clark’s short and sweet answer: “A lot of love.”

The Fall Collection features eight pieces sold with the usual rotation of 57 in the Detroit shop on Fort Street and Hamtramck shop on Evaline Street that smells like chocolate heaven.

Inventing new flavors involves the Babes Babes Babes (the 10 employees, mostly spunky women under 35) putting their heads together. For this collection, they brainstormed what reminds them of fall.

“We’ll put things together like cider and donuts, beets and sunflower, biscuits and butter, or chestnuts and pear,” Clark said, showing her notes in block handwriting. “Then we can start recipe testing some of those combos.”

Of course, not all pan out, like Peter Piper, a purple vegetable-themed Bon, that got scraped.

One morning last week, Clark made the first batch of the new Squish Squash Bon with a squash confection and a pepita gianduja.

“I’ve been dreaming of making pepita gianduja for so long,” she said, noting that gianduja is “something mystical to people,” but it’s just a combination of nut butter and chocolate (Similar to Nutella, it can be paired with toast or fruit).

As Clark sets up her induction burner, Robot Coupe processor and plugs in cords dangling from the ceiling, production manager Margie Spakoff, 21, hops from task to task - whipping up vanilla bean custard ganache one moment and shells from a faucet-dripping dark chocolate the next.

“A chocolate shop is more like a science lab than it is like a hot foods kitchen,” Clark said. “It’s easier for us to relate to coffee roasters than it is to chefs because we have to control a lot of variables.”

The dizzying array of variables will be easier to control when Bon Bon Bon moves into a 3,000-square-foot building on Joseph Campau in January, where Bons will be made and sold. But for now, the Babes don’t mind the cramped 650-square-foot quarters.

“I don’t think of them as co-workers anymore,” said manager Neleda Estioco, 23. “We’re just like a family of friends.”

In case you’re curious, between testing recipes and baking, the average employee eats six pieces a day. “I had seven today,” said Estioco, laughing, “so I guess I’m a little over.”

Tinkering in the new Hamtramck shop’s garage, Alex’s father, Tom Clark, a retired mechanical engineer helping renovate the space, said his family is “fluent in Russell Stover.”

“We know what chocolate is which. We don’t need a map. So it’s more like a chess game. Everyone’s looking at the box like, ‘If he takes that, I’m taking this one,’ ” he said.

Called bonbons in Europe, Clark’s chocolates have no strict definition.

“‘Bon’ means ‘good’ in French and many languages. A Bon Bon Bon would be a ‘good goodie,’ ” said Clark, explaining the name she thought of at 3 a.m.

Clark pays up to $14 per pound for chocolate, whereas most pastry chefs buy the standard $6 per pound. Her shelves also contain exotic ingredients like $400 black truffle powder, which explains why the Bons are $3 - a reasonable price, in Clark’s opinion.

“You can’t have the best diamonds in the world. You can’t have the best food in the world for a price you can afford to have even once a week, but you can have the best chocolate in the world for a price that you can afford,” she said.

This spring, a customer who visited Amsterdam brought back Puccini Bomboni bonbons, after Clark told her about the shop that inspired it all. Tom Clark said his daughter opened the box for everyone to try her “favorite chocolate on Earth.”

He sampled one, and has to be honest: “Alex’s chocolate is much better.”


Information from: The Detroit News, https://detnews.com/

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