‘It’s Fall! Here We Are!’ A Beloved Chocolate Shop Returns
JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Valerie Vlahakis, the owner of Lee Sims Chocolates, a mom-and-pop shop between a florist and a pharmacy on a scruffy block in Jersey City’s McGinley Square, eyed ghosts in her display window as she waited for patrons to return.
It was two days after Labor Day, but the 10-foot-wide storefront was already decorated for Halloween. After nearly six months of making do with online sales and curbside pickups during the pandemic, Ms. Vlahakis had unlocked the front door to welcome walk-ins.
No announcement was posted. It was a test. She wanted to see who noticed and rushed back for nonpareils and nougats. Inside, a skeleton staff scurried to fill empty shelves with winking pumpkin pops and hollow chocolate witches.
“Look at us!” said Ms. Vlahakis, a bespectacled septuagenarian. “It’s fall! Here we are!”
“And we’re back!”
What the shop lacks in width it makes up for in longevity: The family business goes back seven decades at the site. Each year, Ms. Vlahakis and eight employees melt, mold, box and peddle 150,000 pounds of chocolate. On Valentine’s Day, the demand is such that Lee Sims devotees line up outside, on Bergen Avenue, and a stout worker enforces a one-in, one-out policy.
One February, a customer alerted Ms. Vlahakis that Mayor Jerramiah Healy was waiting in line. “I said, ‘And?'” she said. “He was fine standing out there like everyone else.”
Now Ms. Vlahakis must quickly make the transition from reopening to ramping up for the busiest stretch of the chocolatier’s calendar. By the time it’s two weeks before Christmas, the store will be sending out 250 packages a day.
It wasn’t always clear that Lee Sims would survive this year. Typically viewed as quaint, the store’s tight quarters became a liability in March as the coronavirus coursed through New Jersey. Ms. Vlahakis felt Covid-19’s toll when she received an increase in bereavement gift orders online, and her workers, several of them single mothers who commute on public buses, were nervous. In a business built on efficiently moving chocolate bunnies into children’s baskets, they knew Easter always brought shoulder-to-shoulder shopping down the aisle.
To remind Ms. Vlahakis of her inherited responsibility, she keeps a sign that reads “DON’T SCREW IT UP” above her desk. In short order, she halted the two manufacturing lines in the off-site kitchen, laid off workers and sent a mass email directing the 3,000 customers in her database to the store’s website, which was previously an afterthought.
To help finish the Easter and Passover rush, one employee worked with Ms. Vlahakis in a back room. Online orders came all the way from California and Alaska, where grandchildren of former Jersey City residents had moved over the years. Those sales, along with a successful bid for disaster relief, steadied the enterprise. Now it’s time to build up inventory again.
“It’s crazy,” Ms. Vlahakis said. “I’m tense about how things are going to be. I’ve got a broken hydraulic pump in the kitchen that is going to set us back. Life!”
Such is the challenge for retail shops as the economy looks to rebound from the pandemic’s costly lockdowns. After filing multiple relief applications, Ms. Vlahakis was ready to give up, but her accountant filed again without her knowledge and received an $8,000 grant from the Small Business Administration. That also made her eligible for a 30-year loan of $76,000 at 3.75 percent interest, which she accepted.
Both eased her ability to pay medical insurance for employees and bring them back. With that secured, conversations with sales representatives switched from health concerns to commerce.
“It has gone from ‘Is everyone OK?’ to ‘Are you ready to buy again?'” Ms. Vlahakis said.
Her grandfather George Sousane, who immigrated from Sparta in Greece, bought the shop with a partner in the 1940s, when it was a soda fountain and candy establishment. By 1955, her parents, Catherine and Nicholas, had taken over and shifted to chocolate only.
Nicholas Vlahakis, a retired Marine, stood 6-foot-4, smoked cigars and could tell you to the penny what was coming out of every square inch of the store. Catherine wore blazers and skirts, drew customers in with her polite demeanor and wrote down their favorite confections on index cards that she kept in a Rolodex.
They had fierce debates over what went in the window. He was an aggressive marketer, who, when designing the showcase just inside the front door, said, “I want five feet of chocolate in the customer’s face.”
The husband and wife were strivers, and took pride in building the business. Catherine was the architect of their best-selling pyramids, stacking wrapped boxes filled with chocolates, cookies and nuts. And while she was likely to be found behind the scenes, Nicholas could be anywhere, including molding chocolate in an alcove beneath the stairs.
As their fortunes rose, they went from hand-dipping items to coating them with enrober machines, acquired storage space in neighboring basements and bought a three-story building a half-mile west for a bigger kitchen. Twice a year, they sent out brochures to increase their mail-order business. Each box of chocolates was emblazoned with the store’s logo — an artist’s palette with three paintbrushes — and the slogan “Candy Making as an Art.”
Ms. Vlahakis marveled at her parents’ efforts. Her father was “like a mole, all over the place,” but “my mother was something else,” she said. “People come in and reminisce about my father, and I’m like, damn, she was as important, if not more.”
Valerie was not groomed to take over the business. She and her sister, Alison, grew up in a Victorian house on Staten Island, where her extended family lived within a five-block radius. She planned to attend City College of New York and live with girlfriends in Manhattan, but her parents steered her to Bethany College, a small liberal arts school in West Virginia. The Greek Orthodox couple saw it as an opportunity for her to learn that the world was more than a collection of Jewish and Catholic enclaves.
Ms. Vlahakis studied history and political science, and later taught special education at Mark Twain Junior High in Coney Island before returning to the shop in the early 1990s after growing weary of the politics of the education world.
Alison had already taken the Lee Sims brand over the Bayonne Bridge to Staten Island, where she opened her own store, but their father was not thrilled with her sister’s return. She started by studying the business at the molecular level, tracking chocolate’s flow from the cooling tunnel to the cash register, through pumps and compressors. The family basked in the product’s freshness, and ranked it somewhere above grab-and-go bars and below Godiva.
“There’s no secret recipe,” Ms. Vlahakis said. “It’s physics and chemistry.”
Her parents retired to Florham Park, N.J. At 76, her mother died of breast cancer, and Ms. Vlahakis, then living in Manhattan, moved in with her father, who continued to visit the store just to sit and look around. He died at 83 in 2000.
Ms. Vlahakis still lives in Florham Park, and reports to the Jersey City kitchen in her smock, which is the color of milk chocolate, by 8 a.m. each workday. She has no plans to retire, and her sister continues to operate the Staten Island store with her daughter, Kerry. Workers who started under her father tell Ms. Vlahakis that they can still smell his cigar smoke in the kitchen, where two copies of his obituary are displayed.
“Like it’s haunted!” she said.
With the reopening, customers outnumber ghosts in the store again, and a chocolate carousel is spinning in the window. To protect herself and her staff at the counter, Ms. Vlahakis, who wears a mask and asks that customers do the same, installed plexiglass. Only three patrons can come in at a time, but a cross section of the diverse city parades through each day. One recent afternoon, an assistant prosecutor picked up five bags filled with boxes, a vagrant bought a bar with loose change and a St. Peter’s University student asked whether she could use Apple Pay. Ms. Vlahakis does not take Apple Pay, but joked that she could dip an apple in chocolate instead.
Susan Butler was buying for a reunion with high school friends. She informed Ms. Vlahakis that when she was pregnant with her daughter, her daily exercise was walking a few blocks to Lee Sims to pick up chocolate and then walking back.
“Oh, when was that?” Ms. Vlahakis said.
“Well, she’s 51 now!” Ms. Butler said.
During the lockdown, Ms. Butler worried that the shop would be closed forever. “It’s a landmark, a piece of home,” she said. “Most of the places we grew up with, like the bakery, are gone. It’s memories to us.”
Rob Giumarra, a 47-year-old actor who lives on a horse farm 50 miles north of Jersey City, first came three years ago with a girlfriend and, now three girlfriends removed, remains a patron. He asked for a quarter-pound of dark sea-salt caramels and a quarter-pound of truffles. As Ms. Vlahakis rang him up, Oreos dipped in dark chocolate caught his eye.
“Oh, ho, ho!” he said. “I didn’t know you had those. Next time.”
He paid and exited. Twenty-seven seconds later he returned.
“Uh, oh. What did you forget?” Ms. Vlahakis said.
“Nothing,” Mr. Giumarra said. “I need a quarter-pound of them Oreos. Too damn good.”