“Everyone thinks that we should make an R.I.P. truffle, which would be really funny,” said Alison Nelson, founder and chief operator of Manhattan’s burgeoning Chocolate Bar chain.
Ms. Nelson, 34, is opening a new location next month at 127 East Seventh Street—right next door to the Peter Jarema Funeral Home.
“We could start doing funeral favors,” quipped Ms. Nelson, whose signature sweets already include a line of chocolates marked with a skull and crossbones, a tasty tribute to the defunct downtown rock club CBGB.
The sugary memorial is quite apropos, as her devil-may-care attitude belies a certain degree of somberness surrounding her new plot in the East Village.
She needed fresh digs to replace the original. Her seminal Chocolate Bar location at 48 Eighth Avenue closes for good on April 27.
“It’s one of those bittersweet things,” said the chocolatier, whose small, 25-person outfit ranked 1,101st among Inc. magazine’s 5,000 fastest-growing companies in the country last year.
“This is where it all began,” she said of the soon-to-shutter shop, a former packaging store, which, like so many places in Manhattan, came with its own distinctive quirks.
“How hot chocolate gets on the ceiling is beyond me,” she said, pointing to some dark stains that dotted the ceiling behind the register. “Yeah, that’s hot chocolate,” she attested. “We climb up there several times a year to clean chocolate off the ceiling.
“But it’s made over there,” she added, pointing to an area in the back. “So, how it gets all the way over here …”
The original Chocolate Bar, which opened in May 2002, certainly wasn’t the first specialty chocolate shop in Manhattan.
“You had all these uptown chocolate shops that I was too intimidated to walk into because my French is terrible and $8 for hot chocolate is like, ‘Whoa!’” said Ms. Nelson, who sought to create a more neighborly hangout for area chocoholics. “One of the things I loved when I was in school was neighborhood bakeries and coffee shops. I wanted to do the same thing with chocolate.”
It would become one of the premier outposts of a looming cocoa conglomeration downtown.
Nowadays, the streets are chock-full of the shops, from Vosges Haut Chocolat to Cocoa Bar to Max Brenner, Chocolate by the Bald Man. Even Jacques Torres, who used to make truffles for Ms. Nelson, has since opened his own shop on Hudson Street and others in Dumbo and on the Upper West Side.
“There’s, like, chocolate tours now, where they’ll stop at all the chocolate shops,” said Ms. Nelson. “Chocolate is really just like what coffee was like 15 years ago, where all of sudden people were like, ‘Oh, that’s what good coffee tastes like.’”
Ms. Nelson has capitalized on the craze, hawking her confections outside her own retail shop, at places like Soho House, the Chambers Hotel and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Last spring, she opened a Chocolate Bar cafe at trendy Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue.
This summer, she’s taking the Chocolate Bar brand overseas, with the opening of new stores in Dubai and Qatar and plans for up to 30 total locations across the Middle East and South Asia over the next 10 years, under partnerships with two Dubai-based companies.
Yet even an emerging global chocolate mogul like Ms. Nelson can’t afford the rents in Greenwich Village these days.
“The most depressing part of it wasn’t so much that we were losing the space; it was realizing that, in six years, we’d been totally priced out of the neighborhood that we built our business in,” said Ms. Nelson, who was forced to look for a new location after her landlord decided to convert her ground-level retail spot into residential space.
“We saw one space that was 600 square feet for around $18,000 a month—I’d have to put drugs in my brownies,” she said, laughing. “That’s the only way. We’d have to start doing something illegal to make that kind of rent. You know, we have the classic brownie, the spicy brownie, the hash brownie—which one do you want?
“When I told my staff, ‘O.K., we signed a lease in the East Village,’ they’re like, ‘Are we cool enough to work in the East Village?’” said Ms. Nelson, who is moving into a bigger space (roughly 800 square feet) for slightly less money (about $5,200 in monthly rent) in exchange for later hours (now closing at midnight) and a younger, more, um, spirited clientele amid the densely liquor-licensed blocks on the other side of Broadway.