Detroit isn't a city historically known for its artisanal chocolate scene, but when 27-year-old chocolatier Alexandra Clark moved back home there to open up a bonbon shop in 2014, she was determined to give the good people of Motor City the high-quality chocolates she thought they deserved. Now, just a year in, Bon Bon Bon is already growing: Clark’s chocolate shop features nearly 100 flavors (highlights include Mac ‘n Cheese, with a mascarpone ganache, and Coney Spice, with Mexican-style chocolate and hot dog chile spices) and has expanded to include a pop-up shop in Ann Arbor and a “manufactory” in Hamtramck, Mich., which is primarily used as a workshop. F&W talked to the chocolatier about her childhood candy dreams, the inspiration she draws from the people of her hometown and her visions for the future of Bon Bon Bon (or “Babes, Babes, Babes,” as they’re known around the neighborhood).
Where does your passion for chocolate come from, and why did you decide to go into the confection field?
My grandpa is one of a rare breed who will skip lunch and just eat two king-sized candy bars instead. To this day, his dining room is less table and more international candy buffet. He grew up in small-town Iowa during the depression and always tells this story about his dad spending his last two pennies on chocolate Santa Clauses for his sons for Christmas. To our family, chocolate is a big deal. So, when I left my first job at the family-owned ice cream shop down the street to start learning more about sweets in a more academic setting, they couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.
Since working at the ice cream shop as a kid, I knew I wanted to open my own sweets shop, but when I discovered what great chocolate was really like, I just had to work with it! All of a sudden, I felt like I had so much to say to the world. With chocolate, I can tell stories. I can reflect my culture, the environment, beautiful things, silly stuff, childhood memories. After all, life is supposed to be like a box of chocolates, right?
The company is based in the Hamtramck neighborhood of Detroit, which is a superdiverse area. How does that influence your process and your product?
As chocolatiers, or the “Babes Babes Babes” (as our neighborhood calls us), we have lived and worked in so many different places around the world. When we're coming up with a new collection or a new flavor, our minds are reaching for culinary resources that, in most communities, would not be available. For us, not having Russian Wafer might be like a painter not having the color red. It’s not a huge deal—in fact, it might be an interesting challenge, and you can work around it. But even just knowing it is available makes it easier to get across exactly what we're trying to portray. Ultimately, we’re just looking to express ourselves, and we want the end result to be something that makes you smile, maybe giggle a little bit and sometimes ask, "you did what?'"
You have a strong network of culinary experts in Michigan who help you access the best ingredients around. Why is that so important to your business?
We strive to be masters of our craft and not every craft. So much so that we only make one size and shape of a single kind of confection... but we make it in almost one hundred different flavors! To do this, we rely on a combination of classic methods, some Detroit ingenuity and the community of food entrepreneurs around us. Whether we’re using gooseberries from Buffalo Street Farm or crust from Sister Pie in our chocolates, getting to work with other artisans, chefs and urban farmers makes what we do a lot more fun. It also makes our product that much more special.
Bon Bon Bon is showing people a little about Detroit with fun, regionally inspired flavors. Why was that something you wanted to do?
Living here, you grow pretty tired of “reclaimed this” or “ruin porn” that. What about all of the amazing things that are and always have been happening in this city? By making Vernor’s-candied ginger cream “Boston Coolers,” and “Crunch” candies out of Better Made potato chips and salt, we are celebrating some of the good things that have always defined us as a city. And to the curious outsider, Bon Bon Bon provides a way that they can experience more about the city than they could have otherwise. Just by buying a box of chocolate.
What's next for Bon Bon Bon?
We don’t know exactly what the future holds for Bon Bon Bon, but what we have learned is that we love doing business with good people and there are a lot of good people out there. So we are excited to see what opportunities present themselves next.