I’ve been going to the Choc•O•Pain downtown since the day it opened a few years ago. It is the most authentic French bakery I’ve ever been to in the NY/NJ area. When you walk into Choc•O•Pain, the scents of fresh baked goods overcome you. The coffee is always on point, and the baristas are extremely friendly and knowledgeable. It truly is Paris in Jersey City.
I first heard about Bloomsbury Sq., an all natural skin care brand, when they opened a few years ago in the Heights. ChicpeaJC contributor Jess Mauro actually interviewed girl boss Niambi for a post. Since then, I’ve tried a lot of her products and I absolutely love them.
So what do a French cafe and a skin care line have in common?
They now share a beautiful space on Summit Ave in the Jersey City Heights.
I came to check it out for the first time a few months ago and, to be really honest, I didn’t want to leave. The ambiance is extremely cozy and welcoming. Having both businesses share the space together makes so much sense. When you walk into this magical spot, you will instantly relax, I promise you. I really did feel like I was in a quaint little neighborhood in Paris.
Clémence and Niambi invited me back to chat with them over coffee and delicious bites. I even got to practice my French! They are both such inspiring mommy bosses and it was so great hearing their story. I am amazed at the amount of talented female business owners in Jersey City that really do it all. They inspire me to keep going.
What are your names?
My name is Clémence, and I’m the owner of Choc•O•Pain.
My name is Niambi and I’m the owner of Bloomsbury Sq.
I’m going to start with Clémence. How did Choc•O•Pain start?
Clémence: Choc•O•Pain as a project started eight years ago when I arrived in the US. My husband was relocated for his job and he started to challenge me on the idea of opening my own business. He knew I wanted a change in my career and orientation.
What were you doing?
Clémence: I was in the pharmaceutical industry, as well, like he does still. That’s how we met, in Switzerland. He told me, “You want some change, why don’t you open your own business?” Everything started with the bread. Long fermentation bread, like back to the original way of doing it to give a lot of taste, texture, flavors. It has a lot of quality, even for the digestive system. That’s how it started.
When I arrived here, I looked for a school to do my business plan. I went to one of the culinary schools in the city, the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). That was six months, extremely useful, and that’s where I put together my business plan step-by-step without even noticing it. I was taking it very seriously compared to maybe some other students there because I had such a concrete objective. I was working at Le Pain Quotidien, this Belgium chain, to get a hands-on experience behind the counter.
I had no idea what that was a Cafe au lait or a latte. I learned everything in those six months, and then I went to another culinary school where I did the bread program. It was called the French Culinary Institute at that time, now it’s called the International Culinary Center (ICC) in SoHo. There, I learned everything about bread.
You had no background in baking?
Clémence: None at all. I was just a bread-eater, as I am French. After that, I started looking for some locations. I don’t even know if I would have done it if I had known it would take me so long, but it took me three years between the day I arrived in the US and the day I opened Choc•O•Pain. I had my first child during that time, my son, and then I opened Choc•O•Pain in January of 2012. This is where we met!
Niambi: Yeah, I was a loyal customer!
So you started the first one in Hoboken. How did you get to the one in Jersey City?
Clémence: The one in Jersey City came to me. I get a lot of chances and opportunities, and I know which ones to take. I had not even one year of business behind me, so I wasn’t thinking of expanding or anything, just waiting to be done with one year and then look at how we did and how we could improve. Celeste, the owner of Made With Love, contacted me and she wanted to retire and wanted to get something out of it. She thought that it would be a good opportunity for me. It was just so new and out of nowhere, since I didn’t know Jersey City very well. I live in Hoboken, my business is in Hoboken. I had to figure it out, analyze the demographics and everything. I don’t know if you remember, but at that time, that block was not sexy at all. Not cute. It was closed business after closed business.
But it was a beautiful opportunity. It was a lot of work to put together for my team to realize how we could organize the production differently. Doing everything in Hoboken, we had to split it between the two locations and figure out how to bring the product from one place to the other. We still do the bread in Hoboken because we have a bread oven, but in Jersey City, we do all the pastries, the quiches, and the tarts. There’s like a ballet in the morning between the 2 locations.
That’s amazing. You went from being in the pharmaceutical industry to learning how to bake bread to owning three beautiful coffee shops in five years.
Clémence: Thank you! I think I know how to take an approach and go on with it, but I don’t have as much credit as people usually give me. I’m just moving. We’re troubleshooters. We don’t stop, we just go and move on.
Niambi: You created enough of a system. When opportunities were presented to you, you were able to take a step back and say, “Is this going to work for me? Can we do this? Should we do this? How?”
Clémence: And all this, I did with my team. I did this bread class, but I knew already – it was confirmed during the class – that I was not going to be the baker.
Before we go to how you guys fused together, what is Bloomsbury Sq? How did it start?
Niambi: Bloomsbury Sq has been around for four years. Bloomsbury Sq is the name of the garden near my campus when I was in graduate school in London. It really encapsulates my journey on how to be an urbanite, since I’m originally from Kentucky. Green is my norm. I grew up in an average black family with a huge backyard, fruit trees, wild mint, rose bushes. If we wanted pears, we’d go outside and get pears from the tree and whatnot.
I really thought, growing up, that everybody lived like that and everybody had wide open green spaces. I went to school in St. Louis, and then I hopped over to London and that was my first major city experience. It just took my breath away. I love the hubbub of urban life, I love all the creatives and what it brings out in my own personality. At the same time, when I’m in large cities, I feel very detached and disconnected from my source, which is plant life. I didn’t even think that was part of my personality just because it was everywhere around me, but when I felt off-balance, I would always seek out green spaces. London is great for that – they have sprawling gardens. I was doing my masters and doctorate in Near Eastern Studies and then I did a lot of cultural programming, cultural organizing, working with governmental organizations and partner programming. Just very heavy stuff. To find my balance, I dove into the apothecary culture in London, and it was really cool because I found so many reconnections with my own African-American culture.
Growing up like I did, a lot of skin care products made for African-Americans in the 70s and 80s weren’t really healthy for anybody’s skin, but the ethnic niche products were so diluted and had so many chemicals. We tend to have very sensitive skin, so we make a lot of our own products. It’s just a continued part of our culture. When I was in London, what was awesome was that there’s an apothecary culture. You can go to an apothecary and get all of your ingredients. When I was out of the library or was stressed, the first thing I would do is go to my local apothecary, grab a basket, and get a small sachet of dried rosebuds, lavender oil. Mint was my favorite because my grandmother loved mint. I just started mixing for myself.
After 12 years abroad, I moved back from Paris in 2008, and I had spent 12 years abroad. With the idea of coming back to the States, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get the job I thought I had always wanted. I was five months pregnant, just moved back to the US, moved to this area because I grew up in the South, and I started a teaching post at Rutgers. I found myself in a new place wanting to connect, both with the women I was around and with myself. I taught at Rutgers for two years, continued making things on the side for myself, but just the stresses of motherhood and also wanting to discover what New Jersey/New York is and giving myself the freedom to do that…
One day, I was teaching a History of Iran class and one of my students came up to me and said, “I want to go into fashion and my parents want me to go into engineering. I don’t know what to tell them because they poured all of their hard work into me and I really want to follow my dreams, but I feel like I owe them.” I said, “You have to go to design school and be the most authentic designer. That’s what it’s going to take. Out of your success and hard work, your parents will eventually understand.” I wasn’t really talking to the student, I was talking to myself. I took a proper year off to figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to connect to my new home. In that year, I found that when I reached out to women, they were so busy. The women in this area are go-getters. It’s really hard for us to take time for ourselves. I was living in Hoboken at the time, which is how I was customer of Choc•O•Pain. I found that when women, especially moms, did take time off, they would do a ladies’ night with a lot of alcohol. I wanted to do something different. I started doing DIY socials out of a local makeup boutique called Luxe Face & Body, which was right across the street from Choc•O•Pain.
Initially, I wanted to show people how to make products. We would set up the ingredients, style it, and there’d be tea catered by Do You Tea. We’d get 10 to 15 women every couple of weeks and there were these really fascinating connections between the women. I thought, “Okay, this is what I do best. I love creating haven spaces for women to take care of themselves, to connect with them, and to give them a pretext to slow down in this really busy urban environment.” So that’s what Bloomsbury Sq is – it’s a haven. It’s as much a haven for myself and for my staff as it is for our customers.
I love it! So how did you finally merge?
Niambi: I mean, I don’t know how it comes from her perspective. From mine, I started this co-op in 2014 with Kelly (the owner of Do You Tea) and we worked alongside each other a lot in Hoboken. Her business started to grow, and my business started to grow. We initially needed a place to make our products, a place that was dry and with enough space for us to store our ingredients. Neither one of us use preservatives in our products and this area is a flood zone, so we needed a place that was dry and there’s no better place than the Heights. So we started looking in the Heights mainly because it’s dry storage. We found this place and partnered with the landlord to renovate it so we could also function as a social hub. Kelly was here until the end of last year, and we also had another business that was gluten-free (“Who’s Gluten Free?”). When Kelly moved back to her home state of Florida, we were left with the opportunity to decide: does Bloomsbury Sq want to take over the entire space, or do we want to share it? For me, Clémence was already a business mentor and a friend. I would check in with her every six months if I was running into my own business issue, and she just gave me very clear, savvy advice on my direction. She was the first person that I wanted to share a space with.
Clémence, what’s your perspective?
Clémence: As always, it’s an opportunity that’s totally not expected. We had lunch and she brought it up. I had just signed a lease for store number 4 on Palisade Ave, which will be a production facility, a small retail shop, and also our offices.
You have 4 now?
Clémence: Yeah. We’re not stopping! We are a machine!.
That’s amazing! Good for you. And you have kids?
Clémence: Two kids. When I just decided to take over Made With Love on Jersey Ave, it was a week after I discovered I was pregnant so I thought, “Wow! It’s going to be an interesting year.” And it was! Now my daughter is 3 years old and my son is 6 in December. As you can imagine, they eat and think Choc•O•Pain.
I love that! Women rock.
Niambi: I think as women business owners that have done well, we need to talk more about what it’s like being a mom, not just the hard parts. Partnering with a mother has been a game changer for me. We understand each other. Here, one of our goals was to create a cohesive experience for our customers so that when they come in, they can order food, sit down, spritz, relax. It’s really a blended experience for them. In real-time, that means the staff is being cross-trained. As mothers, that’s great because we can share our resources for this location. When we were first starting up, our meetings on the phone were at 11PM or 10PM because we had to meet after we put our kids to bed. We understand each other’s schedules. You’re 100% mom, you’re 100% business owner. I think pairing with her for this location has been an eye-opener for me.
Clémence: On so many levels, I felt like I had to prove myself. I was a foreigner. I’m not a baker, and people would say, “You’re opening a bakery but you have no idea about what you’re doing? You’re not from that field?” I could feel from many interactions I had with professionals from that field that they didn’t take me seriously. It’s funny, I received so much advice but I did not follow some of it. I followed some advice, of course, because that’s how I grow – listening to people. I learn, I make mistakes, then I adjust and I move on. But some of the advice that I remember not following were good ideas as well, coming from professionals. I’m pretty sure part of my drive is to prove people wrong.
How do you balance it all? How do you make it all work?
Clémence: If you ask my kids, they would like to see me more, especially without my phone. I try to keep my nights and weekends for my family.
Niambi: I’m a social historian, so I have a long view of women and family structures. I’m very passionate about this because I think our culture now expects women to take care of children by themselves. We’re supposed to allocate time toward our children without having that family structure because most of us live away from the grandparents. I don’t do anything by myself, I really don’t.
I don’t do Bloomsbury Sq by myself. Some of the “Bloomistas” are also babysitters. I have really clear communication with my husband about the kind of family that we want to create. He’s a super hands-on father, so it also allows him to be more of a father because I’m not always there. It’s really about having a healthy schedule for myself. Clémence does something that I started doing – she doesn’t work on weekends as much as possible. That really forces you to do as much as you can during the week so your weekends can be for your family and for yourself. I have help, and I depend on everyone throughout my day. On the other hand, having a staff also gives me the freedom to pull back. I spend more time with my family now because I have a team here. When hiring and training people, they really have to be on board with the mission because they’re representing me and they’re interacting with my customers.
Every time I come in here, it’s really busy.
Niambi: Part of that is because we pull people in and we keep a lot going on. The food is delivered fresh every day, people know they can get freshly made food.
Do people work from here every day?
Niambi: Yeah, people work from here every day. The aromatics create a sense of cool and calm.
Initially, we thought we’d open in February, but it really took us a while to introduce the concept to this staff. The staff is very loyal to Bloomsbury Sq and the Choc•O•Pain baristas are so well-trained, and we have to really share that visual of collaboration with them. At the end of the day, Clémence and I have to grow our businesses. The staff are the ambassadors for both of our businesses and our mission as a whole. I love this corner and I’ve been here for two years, and people love that we’ve been able to provide such a wholesome, friendly, come-as-you-are but quality environment on this very corner where everybody told us, “You guys are taking a huge risk.” I think we’ve made it a success because we have each other’s backs, and the staff has each other’s backs, which is amazing.
I honestly don’t feel like I’m in Jersey City. feels like a coffee shop in Paris. It’s very relaxed and you can take your time. I feel like our culture is very rushed. We’ll get coffee, rush on our way to work. Here, I could come in on a weekend with a newspaper and have a coffee, pick at my croissant, really enjoy it, taste it, and savor it.
Niambi: Well, we do make that important here – taking time for your food, even down to the way that she selects her flours.
Other than Choc•O•Pain, do you guys have a favorite Jersey City hangout spot?
Clémence: I love going out in Jersey City. I love discovering all the new restaurants. There’s always so much to discover. Hoboken, although I love living here and it’s great for walking everywhere in the city, and from store-to-store, doesn’t have as many interesting and innovative places food wise as Jersey City It became my place to go for food.
Do you guys have any future plans?
Clémence: We have the Palisade Ave. location, a big project for us, opening soon.
Niambi: I’ll have a section in Love, Liesel. We’re figuring out the installation now. They’re so supportive, so that’s exciting. Now I can send my Downtown clients there and could occasionally do events, pop-ups, or workshops there. I’m also super excited about a collaboration with andco, a new co-working space. I worked off and on for about a year with Briana from Silverman on the concept of a wellness room, and her staff of designers brought it to life. I saw the first iteration of it last week.
Great! So amazing. Anything else you’d like people to know about the new location?
Niambi: We’ll be rolling out an event menu hopefully by the holidays. The best way to connect with what we’re doing, since we do have events and pop-ups coming through here, is to go onto our Facebook page, 942 Co-op.
Keep up with Choc•O•Pain:
Keep up with Bloomsbury Sq.: