Behind the Scenes with Clémence Danko of Choc-O-Pain

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In the span of a few short years, Clémence Danko has switched careers, raised two children, and opened three French bakeries in Hoboken and Jersey City. Now with a fourth Choc-O-Pain bakery in the works, Clémence shares how she managed to create a successful business from scratch.

In 2009 you moved from France to New Jersey. What inspired you to move and start a new business in New Jersey?

Clémence: We moved to the U.S. because my husband was offered a job here. He arrived in 2008, but I had to finish a job, so I stayed another six months in France. During that time he challenged me to start thinking about opening my own business, since I wanted change in my professional life. I always spoke about having my own business and I knew it would be in the food industry!

How did you make the leap from the pharmaceutical industry to culinary?

CM: I went to two different culinary schools: first the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), where I put together my business plan while working at Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan, then the International Culinary Center (ICC) where I studied bread and “viennoiseries” aka croissant products.

Both schools were great and gave me a serious background for my projects, not to mention access to skilled alumni which allowed me to recruit so many bakers!

I also became a mom for the first time before finding the location where we are now, on First Street [Hoboken], owned by a great and very supportive landlord! It took almost three years between the day I arrived in the U.S. and the day my first bakery opened.

 

Palisade Avenue is going through a lot of development. I’m sure there will be more stores and restaurants in the next 36 months. We’re super happy to be there for that change!

 

You recently opened a third Choc-O-Pain in Jersey City Heights and will soon open a fourth spot on Palisade Avenue. What’s different about each location?

CM: The atmosphere of each store is very different since we try to make them as unique as possible. We take into consideration the original details and features, and we try to create a space with soul and personality.

Our second location in Jersey City on Jersey Avenue — as well as our third location on Summit Avenue in Jersey City Heights — were huge opportunities presented to us that we couldn’t turn down.

Our fourth location, on Palisade Avenue, is a different story. We’ve spent more than two years looking for the right place to host our production facility and finally found this great space on Palisade, where we could have our production facility, our offices, and have a small retail shop. Palisade Avenue is changing a lot, going through a lot of development. I’m sure there will be more stores and restaurants in the next 36 months. We’re super happy to be there for that change!

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The first two Choc-O-Pain bakeries were accompanied by the birth of your two children. What’s been your secret to balancing work and family life?

CM: I’ve built a team and I’ve learned to delegate to my amazing team to allow us to grow. There’s a limit to what one person can do. I also know my strengths and weaknesses, so when building my team I’m trying to find the right people to do the right job, especially the ones that I can’t do. I’m lucky to be with my family almost every night and every weekend, this is priceless!

Bread is at the center of every Choc-O-Pain bakery and you’ve strived to keep the ingredients simple, local, and sustainable. How hard has that process been?

CM: Yes, bread, good bread, simple bread. I eat bread every day, every meal. For the ingredients, it takes a lot of time, to research and find the right products. This is something that I now share with my team, but it does take a lot of effort. We also try to minimize the impact on the environment by using mugs in-store and minimizing the use of paper take-out cups. We use eco-friendly cornstarch cutlery instead of plastic. We use recycled paper products, etc.

 

It’s really impressive to see how much Jersey City is changing . . . I’m really happy to see that it’s becoming the go-to place for artisanal stores.

 

Jersey City has changed a lot since the opening of the first Choc-O-Pain. What’s your take on the rapid changes occurring in the downtown area?

CM: It’s really impressive to see how much Jersey City is changing and downtown in particular. So many interesting restaurants have opened on Newark Avenue in 24 months! Jersey Avenue has also seen a drastic change; the lumber place next to us has basically been a construction site for the past two years and is finally over.

Many commercial spaces were closed when we moved in and now it’s totally different. Choc-O-Pain, Koro Koro, Pasta Dal Cuore, Van Hook Cheese, Würstbar, Jersey City Fish Stand, The Kitchen Step . . . and institutions like Subia’s and Wonder Bagels. Not to mention wines from Jersey Wines and Spirits. I’m really happy to see that it’s becoming the go-to place for artisanal stores.

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What are your favorite places for quality French ingredients or a good French dinner?

CM: I really enjoy Brasserie de Paris in Hoboken. They propose a simple fare truly authentic to French Cuisine. And Madame Claude Bis, of course. I love their new location and I’m super happy for their success! In New York, I highly recommend Madison Bistro.

Choc-O-Pain | 157 First Street | Hoboken
530 Jersey Avenue | Jersey City
942 Summit Avenue | Jersey City Heights
330-332 Palisade Avenue | Jersey City Heights

 

(Images: Choc-O-Pain)