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Chasing Dreams, Leading with Humility, and the Art of Chocolate With Alexandra Clark

Car accidents, chocolate, and cultural touchstones: How Alexandra Clark, Founder of Bon Bon Bon, survived a near-death experience and a pandemic to create one of the nation’s most beloved boutique confectionery experiences. Alexandra Clark has dedicated her life to the art of chocolate, traveling the world and studying her craft as an economist, confectioner, and retailer. With $32,000 from a taxi accident that she was in, Alexandra opened up Bon Bon Bon in the heart of Detroit, Michigan. Bon Bon Bon creates “good goodies”, believing that good people deserve good chocolate.




Key Takeaways

1. The pandemic has magnified the opportunity in ecommerce and the need to build a sufficient system that scales. Optimizing your ordering capabilities helps your business scale by improving efficiency and reaching new customers safely.

2. Belief, culture, and trust is the foundation for any successful business. Alexandra attributes a lot of her success to leaning in to hiring people who believed in the mission and were aligned on the idea that good people deserve good chocolate. Begin building this culture by asking yourself and your staff “why do we exist?”

3. Whatever you do, just keep moving. If you decide while you’re racing to not finish, just keep walking and think about it because at least you didn’t stop and sit down, you know, you weren’t that far behind, and you might decide in 20 minutes that you actually do want to finish it. So at least while you’re thinking about it, just keep walking.

4. The easiest way to fail is to try to do everything yourself. Don’t be afraid to delegate. Get really real with yourself about what you’re really bad at or what’s taking too much time and is not really like in your zone of genius, and hire somebody to do that. Even if it’s hiring them for one hour a week, stop doing the stuff you’re bad at. 

Transcript

Alexandra Clark: I had $32,000 to start the business, which I had gotten from a taxi cab accident that I was in leaving a chocolate show in Chicago.

Matt Levin: Inspirational stories,  actionable business tips,  and real-world strategies. Join us as today’s guest shares how you can build a resilient restaurant fit for an unpredictable world. 

Hi everyone. I’m Matt Levin and you’re listening to the Resilient Restaurant Podcast.  Today, I’m joined by Alexandra Clark, chocolatier and Founder of chocolate maker, Bon Bon Bon.  We’ll discuss how shaping in culture, transparency, and vulnerability has made her business better and more resilient. 

About Bon Bon Bon

Matt Levin: Alex, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re super excited to have you. To start off, can you tell us a bit more about Bon Bon Bon? 

Alexandra Clark: Yeah, of course I’m happy to be here.  I’m Alex Clark and I am the founding chocolatier of Bon Bon Bon, which is a bon bon manufactory and business that’s in Detroit, Michigan. So we make good goodies, and the whole idea of it is that they’re all the same shape and size, but we make them in all kinds of different flavors. So, our real focus is on using chocolate as a medium to bring an experience to a customer. It’s a creative little business and a very cool manufactory where we get to create chocolates that are conversational and interesting and fun.  We do whatever we can to do the best we can with whatever we’ve got at the time to just make the goodest chocolate that we can make. 

Matt Levin: Have you always been a chocolatier? Is this something that you’ve dreamed of doing since day one? 

Alexandra Clark: Kind of. I really couldn’t wait to get a job when I was a kid. My sister got a job at the ice cream shop in town. She was going to leave her job and I went in and basically to try to get her job and I got it.  I learned something on the second day that I fell in love with and have just never really gone back on, which is with ice cream and with chocolate, maybe even more so with chocolate, people are buying something that they don’t necessarily need. It’s a luxury item. It’s a little luxury, but it’s something special.

My undergrad is in hospitality business and in food science.  I’m realizing with my food science background, I have a real opportunity to contribute to the conversation here.  So I sort of started from like the agricultural economics part of it and I was working for a research institute at Michigan State. And then I ended up in New Zealand at Massey University where I was studying agricultural economics and really getting my feet wet in terms of agriculture, but really missing kitchens.

I couldn’t stop asking questions and people didn’t have a lot of really great answers. To be totally honest of like, why, like, why do you do that? There seemed to be some really fundamental things, as I got sucked into this black hole and I just became obsessed with them. And I honestly couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Matt Levin: What was the trigger to deciding that, okay, today is the day I’m going to make this dream come true and start this business?

Alexandra Clark: I was in Boston and I was working in a chocolate shop and I had been looking for a space for a while and I had been pretty open to where that space might be, but ultimately, it made the most sense to be back home. And this place came up in Hamtramck, which is my absolute favorite part of Detroit. 

This space came up right across the street from my roommate from college’s grandpa’s house. It was $650 a month, and I knew that we could cover that off of selling wholesale orders. And it was 650 square feet. And I was feeling really beyond ready. It was actually obsession. So it needed to happen.

I had $32,000 to start the business, which I had gotten from a taxi cab accident that I was in leaving a chocolate show in Chicago.

And I had this spreadsheet that I put everything I needed in order to start Bon Bon Bon. It was way more than $32,000 worth of stuff, but I just cut it off at the point where $32,000 hit. Which was not very far down cause like once you do like custom molding, you’re like, okay, well there goes $10,000 and then meeting the minimums for custom packaging, like, okay, well there goes another $5,000. 

And when I went to go pick up the keys, I went back in this space and I like laid down on the counter and everything was just like fuchsia and yellow.

I stared at the ceiling and it was just kind of ugly, gross drop ceiling. And all I could think is like, this is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my entire life. This is it. And I’m going to do it publicly. And I just signed a lease to do it for the next three years. This is a nightmare. 

Alexandra-Clark-tipping-point-quote

For better or worse with any business, there’s a point where you cross that top tipping point of the roller coaster. And whether you like it or not, you’re going down the other side. That’s how we got to that point. And then from there forward, there’s nothing you can do is too late. 

Pandemic & Initial Thoughts

Matt Levin: Take us back to March of last year after the U.S. shut down, due to the pandemic. What were your first thoughts in regards to your business and what did you do?

Alexandra Clark: My first thought was my employees. We had to close our retail store legally. So all of them were closed, and that just meant that there were employees that were going to be out of work.

I felt very responsible for making sure they were okay. So we started a food bank in the garage and ordered a bunch of like fancy gourmet foods and excess toilet paper, and just made sure that people had access to anything that they needed to be okay with whatever resources we had.

My second thought was, what are we going to do? And, and so retail stores are closed, which we’ve always relied very heavily on retail; we haven’t ever been like a super e-commerce brand. 

Alexandra-Clark-employees-pandemic-quote

A lot of people are not comfortable coming to the manufacturer to work, which is totally fine. We have a very limited staff, opportunity for very limited income. Like, do we just shut the whole thing down or do we keep going? And we decided in that moment that we would keep going because we hand write all of our notes and the people who were ordering online were ordering online for like very important reasons.

And it felt like we would be doing a disservice to our community if we didn’t stay open. At least in the sense that the things people were sending chocolate for was like encouraging people who are first responders to do their job, like saying, thank you so much for doing your job. We know how hard it is, and we believe in you and we love you so much, love mom and dad. If that was the role we were going to play as the chocolate manufactory in the COVID situation, then we felt like we had to stay open, and in that limited capacity of e-commerce, even though it wasn’t something that we had really had developed.

We had a very limited staff that was working and we started working two shifts to keep people really separate from each other. And we just kept making chocolate and we kept filling online orders and the stores stayed closed. Suddenly we were realizing that like our e-commerce capacity was nowhere near where we needed to be. We had never done so many online orders in our lives, and we were basically whatever somebody wanted us to do in order to get product that we felt safe doing we were doing.

We just saw this as being our way of allowing people to continue to celebrate birthdays or cheer each other on or send their condolences when somebody in somebody else’s family had died and it, felt urgent to stay open and to be open for those reasons. And so we just kept doing it and we had no idea what we were doing.

That’s like a theme, I think, of any business. And I always try to really stress that when I hire somebody,  especially in a managerial spot at Bon Bon Bon, of just saying like, just so you know, nobody here knows what the right answer is, because everything that we’re working on is something that we’ve never done before.

I’m so glad that we did decide to stay open.  It ended up being, great for us. Our website sales were up like 300%. It just forced us to be a different kind of company, but also kind of to serve exactly the same purpose.

How Culture Has Shaped Bon Bon Bon

Matt Levin: If you had a heads up that the world was going to completely change in March of 2020, what do you think you would’ve done differently in your business before?

Alexandra Clark: I think this can sound brutal. So, hang with me for a minute cause I don’t mean it in a way that’s brutal. But I would have hired and fired differently.  The people who really believed in the reason that we exist and the people who really aligned with our attitude of believing that good people deserve good chocolate.  And if you weren’t totally on board, then you weren’t there. You know, then you didn’t want to be there.

And that’s okay. But what I found when people were furloughed and did not want to come back or, when people were uncomfortable coming to work for one reason or for another, was that the people who were left, all of a sudden there was this like very calm and positive presence.

We were all working on the same thing and we’d all be working in completely different areas to make it happen, but we really trusted each other. It came down to this core group of humans that were all so dedicated to making it happen, that we didn’t really need to know how it was going to happen.

It became this place where like, I couldn’t wait to go back the next day because I was so excited to see what somebody had come up with because you knew they were going to sleep on it and some crazy idea was going to come up.  I wouldn’t say it changed our culture, but it definitely really solidified our culture and made it so, so strong that rehiring as new people came in, became so easy because you either are here to provide the best chocolate you possibly can for these amazing people who really need chocolate right now or you don’t want to do that. And that’s okay, but you can’t work here. 

I think that’s something that I was a little bit more afraid to say before or to do before, but the impact that it’s had on our brand is phenomenal.  It’s been absolutely the hardest year that we’ve ever seen, like, but all of us going through and doing the hardest things that we’ve had to do in a long time and doing them together and, seeing people that you really care about do hard things and do them really well gets you really fired up and really excited.

As much as it’s been difficult, that’s been a huge lesson. So many true colors came out through it, too where people that you thought, you know, were just kind of working on the line as a job, were like, no, I’m incredibly passionate about that. You know, you just didn’t know where people stood and you didn’t want to assume. And it was the people who, chose to be there, created what is now the culture of Bon Bon Bon. And I love that culture. There’s a different level of trust and there’s a different level of care that we all have for each other that’s very, very real. People are really looking out for each other in ways that I don’t even think they’re looking out for themselves. I sincerely believe that we’re all actually better for working at Bon Bon Bon. And I don’t know that I would have said that before. There’s certainly a cultural component that it’s really bolstered. 

Matt Levin: I’m mixing metaphors here, but you’ve kind of captured lightning in a bottle a little bit with this dynamism in the culture and how people are interacting with each other. How do you going to maintain that going forward? How do you hold onto that? 

Alexandra Clark: That’s something we talk about all the time. It’s really not that we had anyone before that wasn’t a good person. It was just, people that were being good people that we liked and they liked us. And so everyone was just being nice to each other instead of being really honest about like, I really want to be here, I really don’t.  Maintaining and encouraging that honesty is really cool. And I think some of it is, something that we can sort of systematize. I mean, not that it’s like a shout out to MarketMan, but MarketMan is one of those systems that’s just like allowed us to think about other things that are more important like that, rather than worrying about, you know, recipe math and making sure people understand how to do that.

We can actually just have a conversation that’s like, how’s it going? Which is ultimately more valuable to us as a company if something else can worry about the recipe math and we can actually worry about –the people can worry about people. 

Just Keep Moving

Matt Levin: What advice would you give to other operators of the hospitality industry who may not be in such a good place culturally? How should they try to capture that cultural lightning in a bottle to get to a better place?

Alexandra Clark: No matter, like what’s happened outside, there’s been so much change that it’s inevitable for this year to be really, really hard. It seems so random how it’s– the way it’s impacted people, but the depth of the impact is the part that –I often times worry because I think people aren’t even ready to talk about it. 

The best advice I’ve ever gotten is from this guy, Billy Downs, who’s a restaurant guy. He owned a whole bunch of Mongolian barbecues. We were training for an Ironman triathlon together and he was like, ” Whatever you do, just keep moving. If you decide while you’re racing to not finish, just keep walking and think about it because at least you didn’t stop and sit down, you know, you weren’t that far behind, and you might decide in 20 minutes that you actually do want to finish it. So at least while you’re thinking about it, just keep walking.” 

I know it was about triathlon, but it’s actually been the best business advice that I’ve ever received. Make a plan and follow it and then just keep following it until you are absolutely sure that you don’t want to follow it or that you want to make another plan. I think the thing that we’ve really learned from our challenges this year, and that I really believe in, in terms of a brand is to be most clearly yourself and not be afraid of that.

Alexandra-Clark-honesty-quote

So often I think that brands or companies are trying to say they’re one thing and they’re actually another. There is always value in being honest about who you are and what you do.  I think oftentimes that carries you through with your customers because they know what they’re getting into. They know what to expect. 

You’re telling them you’re going to do the best you can do and then you do the best you can do through any situation. And I think that goes with anything, no matter what the brand or product is. No matter what the restaurant is, being really open about what you are all about and how you’re going to get through it.

I think doing that is allowing a lot of restaurants that I’m following and that I’m a huge fan of to be able to maintain their brand, and oftentimes a very high-end brand through a type of service that is inconsistent with their brand. So like, let’s say pick up from a five-star restaurant feels really weird or could feel really weird if you weren’t really comfortable about who you are and what you do.

But, if you are really comfortable about who you are and what you do, all of a sudden pick up can be this really wild experience. You can make it into something that makes a lot of sense.  If people can trust you and if people can trust your brand and they know what you will and will not do, it’s not really about what the product is. The product can shift and they know how you’re going to do it and what you need to do. If there is no trust there, then it’s really hard to shift in ways that, in this past year, I’ve been very necessary.

Asking the Right Questions

Matt Levin: Not every operator’s going to have a perfect sense of their authentic brand identity, especially given all the massive changes over the last year. What’s the one thing you think an operator can do and should do to take a step towards developing more authenticity? 

Alexandra Clark: I think oftentimes, operators don’t even know the value of what they have. Ask your employees, why your company exists. Why does your restaurant exist? What you might hear might feel totally different than why you think it exists. I think that’s the number one thing that you could do if you haven’t done it, is ask your employees ask every single one of them. Why do we do this? Why are we here? And you might find out that you actually have a really strong brand and have absolutely no idea.

It’s also important and it’s data and it’s information, and it can be really valuable in terms of serving your employees and ultimately serving your customers. 

Matt Levin: That’s really interesting because it can be a really difficult thing for a founder or owner to do that. Is there a certain shift in mindset that takes place or that needs to take place to get better at this?

Alexandra Clark: If you’re a manager, I usually am hiring you to do something that I have no idea how to do. I’m a chocolatier. I know a lot about chocolate. But it doesn’t mean that I understand how to train you as, let’s say, a bookkeeper. So there will be no bookkeeping training here today, you know, and it’s just taught me to be really upfront with people and really honest about my weaknesses and our weaknesses as a management team to just say, hey, there’s a certain level of trust here that we need to have because I have no clue what I’m doing and nor does anyone else here and that’s why we need the help.

When I hired my business manager, it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life because I was hiring somebody to do something that a job that I was previously doing, that I knew I wasn’t doing a very good job at, and I needed him to fix what I did wrong and make it better, and then make it better forever, and turn it into a system. It just involved me in an interview process where like, usually you feel like you have a lot of control. It involves me being extraordinarily open and honest about the fact that I actually needed somebody else to come in and control that. I would probably go running in the hills if somebody was interviewing me for that position, but ultimately the right fit for that position would be somebody who was excited to hear that and wanted to contribute in a positive way and that’s absolutely what we got out of that position. 

Um, Jason, who filled that role is so different than anyone else that works at Bon Bon Bon. I can’t even tell you, but is so perfectly suited for a business manager position, that every day somebody is telling him, like, thank you so much for working here and for working with all of us.

He fills a really valuable role. It’s funny to even hear you present that positively because it is the result of so many negative and very embarrassing experiences.  

Alexandra-Clark-Delegation-Quote

The Power of Vulnerability

Matt Levin: If you had to give operators a piece of advice and tell them the one thing that people should probably stop doing that they’re doing, what would it be? 

Alexandra Clark: I think that one thing that I’ve stopped doing is expecting myself to do everything. Being a founder of a company that’s grown really, really fast and, you know, going from having half of an employee to 40 employees in just a couple of years, in the beginning, I wanted to be friendly. I wanted people to feel welcome and I wanted to be of service to whoever was serving our customers and making delicious chocolate and like making everything happen. I think in the beginning I thought that I would do that through like personal relationships or like, just general support.

And then what I really realized over time is that the best thing that I can do, like the thing that I could stop doing is trying to be so friendly to people and actually just serving them by acting the most in my zone of genius, like by doing what it is that I do best and doing a lot of that.  I really wasn’t doing right by my company by like working in the business and working on the business at the same time. It just didn’t make a ton of sense.

It really took a few employees that I really trust to be like, we actually need you to get out of here and go be like creative in a box and we’ll, we’ll send you fires and then you go fight them and then you can come hang out when we invite you.

Being able to be in a role where I can actually hire out, like I’ve actually had to admit where I’m really bad and hire for those places. It’s put me in a position where I can actually serve people in a much better way, serve the whole company in a much better way. I am much more of a valuable employee now than I was two years ago.

Alexandra-Clark-hire-quote

I think that the best thing that you could just stop doing is try to do all the things. Get really real with yourself about what you’re really bad at or just what’s taking too much time and is not really like in your zone of genius, and then hire somebody to do that. Even if it’s hiring them for one hour a week. Stop doing the stuff you’re bad at. Maybe even doing some of the stuff you like to do just because you like to do it, and start thinking of how you can contribute value to your organization.

Outro

Matt Levin: That’s fantastic advice. Alex, thank you so much for chatting with us today. This has been super inspiring and insightful.  You have an incredible story and I think that the lessons that you can teach people about culture and leadership are enormous. So, I really appreciate you spending so much time with me today. 

Alexandra Clark: Thanks for having me on the podcast.  

Thanks for listening to the Resilient Restaurant. Sign up for our podcast newsletter at marketman.com/podcast to receive bonus content and exclusive podcast announcements. You can also find articles on marketman.com/blog for more content related to the restaurant industry and restaurant management.

This podcast was produced and edited by MarketMan. Music by Joseph McDade.