In Store: Bon Bon's chocolate voodoo | Calendar | Chicago Reader

In Store: Bon Bon's chocolate voodoo 

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Elizabeth, who doesn't like last names, is a Santeria priestess. But while neither that--nor paranormal investigation, Russian Gypsy card reading, or "candle magic"--really pays the bills, her last stab at a straight job, in the sales department of her father's electrical parts distribution company, didn't quite work out either. "I constantly got into trouble because I could never keep my big mouth shut," she says. "My father would call me into the office and say, 'I don't want to hear about ghosts and ghost hunting. I don't want to hear about spells.' That'd last for about an hour, and I'd get into trouble again."

He died in 1995, after which the business was sold and Elizabeth, who's now 36, enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and the French Pastry School, where she took two weeklong intensive chocolate classes. "A resume of dealing in the occult world couldn't get you too far," she says. "I had to do something--get some skills." But she didn't want to work for anyone else, and she hated baking: "It was tedious." Inspired by the success of Vosges Haut Chocolat, a local company that specializes in exotically spiced truffles, she decided to open a chocolate shop.

An Andersonville resident, Elizabeth wanted to stay in the neighborhood, and waited two years for the perfect storefront to become available. "Everything was too big or too small or not zoned for food." When the right space--formerly a fortune-teller's parlor--opened up in 2001, she spent six months remodeling it and decorating the small retail area with candelabras, a phrenology head, a 120-year-old chandelier, framed photos of New Orleans cemeteries, and a Ouija board. Bon Bon (or as Elizabeth styles it, bon bon--she hates capital Bs because "they're ugly") finally opened last spring, just before Mother's Day. But Clark Street was under construction, and business wasn't stellar. "There were no sidewalks, no parking, and a torrential downpour," says Elizabeth. "But I had seven to nine regular customers and they were very generous to their mothers."

To drum up more, Elizabeth handed out samples to "everybody up and down the block." Still, business was slow. To make ends meet, she pawned some jewelry her father had had custom made for her, as well as the engagement ring from her late husband, who died in an accident when her daughter, Madison--now 17--was a baby. "My mom was like, it's about surviving today and not worrying about sentimental stuff," says Elizabeth. "She even brought me stuff she had to pawn."

Eventually, despite the Dumpsters, traffic picked up. "It was total word of mouth," says Elizabeth, who rarely advertises. "Most people came into my place because somebody gave a box to somebody else." These days a steady stream of customers passes through the store Wednesday through Sunday to choose sweets from a glass case filled with glossy pink hearts, white Buddhas, metallic stars, purple jewels, and golden King Tut heads--but no truffles. "I don't like to copy," says Elizabeth.

She and Madison take turns staffing the counter on weekends, explaining the difference between the ancho chili and cinnamon-nutmeg Cleopatras and the arbol chili and Ceylon cinnamon pyramids. Elizabeth makes all of the chocolate in back, in a kitchen separated from the store by an elaborate beaded curtain. She uses only couverture chocolate from France and Belgium--it's got a high cocoa butter content, which gives it a fuller mouth feel--and delicately spices it with rose petals, lavender, vanilla beans, and chilies. Her colorful glazes are made of natural minerals--a technique she learned making gum-paste flowers for wedding cakes. Oddly, Elizabeth doesn't actually like chocolate; when she's cooking, she usually tastes it and spits it out. "I have a handful of regulars who are chocolate connoisseurs and willing to check everything out for me," she says.

Madison, a junior at Lane Tech, likes chocolate--her favorite is the silver green tea fans--but not working in retail. She wants to study genetics, preferably at the University of Chicago. "I want to get away from dealing with people directly and work in a lab," she says. Elizabeth, however, plans to stick around. "It was a real sucko year, but I'm going to survive because I took so much time cleaning up the mess of a store I had," she says. "I'm not going anywhere. I don't care if there's a war or recession or I run out of stuff to pawn. I'll haunt the place."

Bon Bon, 5410 N. Clark is closed Monday and Tuesday; hours the rest of the week are 12 to 8. Call 773-784-9882.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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