Founded several years ago in her hometown of Hamtramck, a city within the city of Detroit, Bon Bon Bon has since been lauded by Martha Stewart, Bon Appétit, Vanity Fair and more, while Clark made it onto Forbes’ 2016 “30 Under 30 Food & Drink” list.
Ever since working in an ice cream shop at the age of 14, Clark knew she wanted to follow her sweet tooth into a career in the confectionary industry. She studied food science and hospitality at Michigan State before leaving the U.S. behind to travel the world. Visiting some of the most famous cities for chocolate inspired her to open an artisanal chocolate shop in Detroit. After undertaking various apprenticeships, junior positions and programs at culinary schools, she returned to Hamtramck and started Bon Bon Bon in the back room of a Coney (also known as a diner) in 2014.
In four short years, Bon Bon Bon has grown, expanding into a 6,000-square-foot (557-square-meter) facility in Hamtramck and a storefront. Clark and her team of 16 women, lovingly nicknamed the Babes Babes Babes, have created over 200 flavors and brought high-end and homemade chocolate back to Detroit. Culture Trip spoke to Alexandra about the meteoric rise of the company, why every city needs great chocolate and what it means to her to be flying a flag for her hometown.
You spent a while away from Detroit during your training and traveling—did you miss it? Were you ever tempted to set up Bon Bon Bon anywhere else?
When I was 18, I couldn’t wait to leave! By 19, I was living in Scandinavia, broke as hell, and dead set on becoming a chocolatier. As much as it was my interest in chocolate that took me away from Detroit (I knew that I could not possibly learn everything that I needed to learn about being a chocolatier without traveling), it is also what brought me back.
As I learned more and more and began to develop a style, I realized just how much where I was from was part of who I was. It’s this Michigander no frills needed, plaid shirt and sandals approach to chocolate; it’s a love for old things, the way we all ogle at the classic buildings and monuments around here; it’s wanting to work with the variety of fresh produce that this place provides (after all, we are the second most diverse agricultural economy next to California), missing the variety of foods that came out of my neighbors houses and the grocery stores around here. No-nonsense packaging from local providers, American-made molds, American ingredients, American-made packaging, an interest in employing people to work with their hands—in employing people in general.
The things that dictated what I saw as being “right” or “wrong” in the artisanal chocolate industry were really heavily impacted by my experience growing up where I did. I still have a pretty blue-collar approach to artisanal chocolate—and maybe that sounds weird. It’s the way we do things around here, and you’d have to drag my cold dead chocolate shop out of the most diverse zip code in the USA. Creating here is like getting to travel everywhere, all the time, and be at home, all at the same time.
Were there any barriers to setting up in Detroit?
I’m pretty lucky to call the little enclave of Hamtramck home. It’s a small town within the city, and its tininess makes it a little easier to navigate, at times, than the City of Detroit (where we eventually opened a retail storefront too). It’s an eclectic place, and sometimes people are afraid of what’s different—which can keep them away. But I think our mayor said it best: if you aren’t comfortable with our town, you’re probably not ready for our chocolate. It’s been a distinguishing point that’s allowed us to cut through some of the fanfare and bull and has allowed us to invest in our community more than we would otherwise be able to.
How does it feel to have built something that has raised Detroit’s profile?
As a chocolatier, you’re somewhere on the spectrum between someone’s jeweler and bartender—that’s a pretty cool, and to me, a relatively important role to play in a community. And this community is my inspiration—people here are humble and wildly resilient. My biggest drive to improve, to learn more, to source, design, and represent better is to do this city justice. If we are Detroit/Hamtramck’s chocolate shop, we’ve got some big, sexy shoes to fill.
Has Detroit been good to you in return?
Yes! I think that there is a misconception that a blue-collar town doesn’t need a fine chocolate shop. I can’t tell you how many times I was told that before we started! We’ve been profitable every year since we’ve opened, and we didn’t start selling online/outside the city until November 2017.
We owe our livelihoods to this town. We didn’t just survive as an artisanal chocolate shop with a blue-collar customer base—we have thrived! We are 16 women from around the world, supporting ourselves, our families and our neighborhoods. Our business owns our own building now; we have two storefronts and an online store like no other—replicating our in-store experience and allowing you to build your own box of chocolates to any size. We’ve moved from 650 square feet to 6,000, and it’s all been built in collaboration with our neighbors and the community around us.
One of the coolest things about this city is the collaborative, entrepreneurial scene. It’s unlike anywhere else I’ve seen. We work together to make each other stronger. My reputation impacts the record shops, theirs impacts the restaurants, theirs impacts our parks, our city government, theirs impacts the hotels, which impacts the farmers, who impact the artists. We are deeply connected to each others’ success here.
Is Detroit a good location for your business in terms of being able to acquire local ingredients?
We are an artisanal chocolate shop in the most diverse city in the country, in the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country—working here is like drawing with the big box of crayons.
Alongside wanting to create the finest chocolate in the city, what values were important for you to bring to your business?
Quality and sincerity have always been the goal. The rest of it just kind of came with it. It’s hard to operate as a female-operated business owner without becoming impassioned about inequality. It’s hard to come from the world of agricultural economics without purchasing equitably. It’s hard to grow up in Michigan over the past 30 years and not feel strongly about employing people in good, fair jobs. In the journey towards creating sincerely good, quality chocolate, we can’t help but reflect who we are—and it’s a diverse group. But at its heart, it’s good people making good chocolate for good people, and that’s something to be proud of.
How has the business changed since you started it in 2014? Has its success exceeded your expectations?
Absolutely! In 2014, we were open one day a week, had one employee, in one “storefront,” which was really the backroom of a coney island on a one-way street that was the wrong way off of the main drag! Now we are 16 strong right on the main drag, with a shop downtown and a super flash online store that lets us hang with folks all across the country. I still bring my dog to work every day—although she does nap more. All that hard work has her exhausted. At least she has business cards now!
How often do you develop new flavors? Where do you find your inspiration?
Short answer? All the time. Long answer? We create seasonal collections five times a year and rotate through 24 of our faves the rest of the year. It’s always changing, and that’s on purpose! The goal is to get people to try something outside of their comfort zone in a little way. Two polite bites (or one impolite bite) of chocolate just isn’t as intimidating as a whole dish can be—building a box of Bons is about building an experience. There should be some safe ones, some strange and a little adventure or two.
Any flavors that have been just too “out there” to work?
You know, some races are marathons, and some are sprints. Our commitment to avoiding preservatives and additional fats and sugars leaves us with an extra-chocolatey chemistry challenge on a regular basis. But that’s what we like! We will always be perfecting the perfect avocado toast bon and playing with nasturtiums. But yeah, the Coney Spice Bon, designed to eat like a Detroit-style coney dog, was just a bit too real and won’t be making its way back to the menu anytime soon.