Chocolatier Alexandra Clark Of Bon Bon Bon in Detroit
Chocolatier Alexandra Clark has a beautiful shop, aptly named Bon Bon Bon, right in the heart of Detroit, where she creates and sells handmade goodies from creamy Dutch ganache to sea salt and caramel. Each piece a miniature work of art, all in a city that hit a difficult bottom, and is in the regenerative process of becoming itself again. To take part in the resurrection of the Motor City is a must for this business owner, and she’ll bring anyone and everyone along with her—whether they like it or not.
When did you discover that chocolate was in your blood, so to speak?
It always was, so I don’t think that the “discovery” was such a shock. Chocolate was always something that my family made a part of special occasions, my grandpa in particular. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to live abroad that I discovered the most magical thing about chocolate. It has this way of giving you access to a city’s culinary scene and something really, truly indulgent at a price point that makes it an affordable luxury. For example, you can get the best truffle, piece of chocolate, bonbon, whatever, in any city in the world for $5 or less.
What inspired you to open a shop first in 2014?
I had been working at other chocolate shops for eight years before I had the opportunity to open my own here in little old Hamtramck. I had so many ideas, and honestly I couldn’t take it anymore. I lost my patience and had to test my hypotheses. So, I moved home, drained what little savings I had and opened up shop behind a Coney Island (a Detroit-style diner).
How has the city of Detroit received your dedication to these confections?
I’m certain I would cry if I were saying this response on camera. Detroit—and especially our neighborhood, this super-diverse enclave of Hamtramck—has been overwhelmingly supportive. I can’t tell you how many wealthy men told me that what I wanted to do would never work because “Detroit isn’t ready for artisan chocolate.” But all I could think about was job creation. I am an artist, but I also, as a businesswoman, needed to employ people if I was going to open up shop, and as certain people suggested Chicago and New York and Boston, I lost interest in working with them. The downfall of Detroit’s automotive sector really had an impact on my desire to employ people in this city. I really didn’t care about employing Bostonians. Not that I don’t like them, I do, it’s just that they seemed pretty employed. I cared about Detroit. It’s like that Smokey Robinson song:
Are you proud to call it your hometown?
Yes. We have a strong collaborative vibe at Bon Bon Bon, which we feel coming right back to us from the city. It’s inclusive in a really resonant way, and we wouldn’t exist without it. When we are busy, our neighbors bring us leftovers. Restaurant friends bring us tacos and soup. No one has to care about their community chocolate shop that way, but this city is so full of love. It’s an honor to be a chocolatier around here.
What music plays in the shop? Could you describe what your stores feel like?
If I’m picking the tunes, it’s northern soul and Patsy Cline. If it’s Nellie, it’s old-school pop and Adele, and if it’s Margie or Shannon, it’s old-school rap or Fetty Wap. The preferences go on! We’ve got a pretty good collection in the shop. Sometimes the music we listen to can be a little offensive, and our customers seem to be more accepting of our musical choices when there is a record playing in front of them. I think that it’s something in them that says, “They didn’t choose to say ‘fuck’ because I walked in, it’s just the next song on the record.” It’s exactly the same on Spotify, but the customer seems to understand it more clearly when it’s vinyl—which is great, because then we really get to play whatever we want.
Is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” still inspiring to you, or does the art and work in your life subsume any romantic notions others might have about the business you’re in?
I did get to play Violet Beauregarde in a play when I was in third grade. I wonder if anyone has that on tape. I was really proud of that role. Now that I think about it, I wonder if that had anything to do with all of this. Maybe it planted a seed or something.
The thing about chocolate is that it’s an art form that is so dependent on science that the world seems to have fallen subject to what we call “The Willy Wonka Effect,” which is where they feel like they should be—sometimes they even want to be—mystified by it. It creates separation—a rift between the confectioner and the customer. This is exactly the rift that we try to build a bridge across. Making good food approachable to the good people of the world by giving jobs to the people doing it. That’s why it’s called Bon Bon Bon. We make sincerely good goodies. Our business is a safe place to try something new. That’s the magic.