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General News

Greek-American Owned Lee Sims Chocolates Featured in NY Times

JERSEY CITY, NJ – Greek-American Valerie Vlahakis is the owner of Lee Sims Chocolates, a “mom-and-pop” store in Jersey City’s McGinley Square, and was featured in the New York Times on October 16.

The family-owned business “goes back seven decades at the site,” and “each year, Ms. Vlahakis and eight employees melt, mold, box and peddle 150,000 pounds of chocolate,” the Times reported, noting that “on Valentine’s Day, the demand is such that Lee Sims devotees line up outside, on Bergen Avenue, and a stout worker enforces a one-in, one-out policy.”

Just two days after Labor Day, “the 10-foot-wide storefront was already decorated for Halloween,” the Times reported, adding that “after nearly six months of making do with online sales and curbside pickups during the pandemic, Ms. Vlahakis had unlocked the front door to welcome walk-ins.”

“Look at us!” Vlahakis told the Times, “It’s fall! Here we are!”Vlahakis recounted how one year during busy February, a customer let her know that Mayor Jerramiah Healy was among those waiting in line, she responded, “I said, ʻAnd?’ He was fine standing out there like everyone else.”

Vlahakis had to adapt during the pandemic and now the business is gearing up for “the busiest stretch of the chocolatier’s calendar,” the Times reported, adding that “by the time it’s two weeks before Christmas, the store will be sending out 250 packages a day.”

From early on in the pandemic, “Vlahakis felt COVID-19’s toll when she received an increase in bereavement gift orders online, and her workers, several of them single mothers who commute on public buses, were nervous,” the Times reported, noting that “in a business built on efficiently moving chocolate bunnies into children’s baskets, they knew Easter always brought shoulder-to-shoulder shopping down the aisle.”

In response to the pandemic, Vlahakis “halted the two manufacturing lines in the off-site kitchen, laid off workers and sent a mass email directing the 3,000 customers in her database to the store’s website, which was previously an afterthought,” the Times reported, noting that “to help finish the Easter and Passover rush, one employee worked with Ms. Vlahakis in a back room” as “online orders came all the way from California and Alaska, where grandchildren of former Jersey City residents had moved over the years.”

The online sales “along with a successful bid for disaster relief, steadied the enterprise,” the Times reported, adding that “now, it’s time to build up inventory again.”

In the struggle to deal with the lockdown, Vlahakis “was ready to give up, but her accountant filed again without her knowledge and received an $8,000 grant from the Small Business Administration,” the Times reported, adding that “that also made her eligible for a 30-year loan of $76,000 at 3.75 percent interest, which she accepted,” and “both eased her ability to pay medical insurance for employees and bring them back.” Vlahakis told the Times about speaking with sales representatives, “It has gone from ʻIs everyone OK?’ to ʻAre you ready to buy again?’”

Vlahakis’ grandfather, George Sousane, immigrated from Sparta in Greece to the United States and “bought the shop with a partner in the 1940s, when it was a soda fountain and candy establishment,” the Times reported, noting that “by 1955, her parents, Catherine and Nicholas, had taken over and shifted to chocolate only.” Nicholas Vlahakis, “a retired Marine, stood 6-foot-4, smoked cigars and could tell you to the penny what was coming out of every square inch of the store,” the Times reported, adding that “Catherine wore blazers and skirts, drew customers in with her polite demeanor and wrote down their favorite confections on index cards that she kept in a Rolodex.”

The couple “had fierce debates over what went in the window,” the Times reported, noting that “he was an aggressive marketer, who, when designing the showcase just inside the front door, said, ‘I want five feet of chocolate in the customer’s face,’” and as “strivers” they “took pride in building the business.”

Catherine was “the architect of their best-selling pyramids, stacking wrapped boxes filled with chocolates, cookies and nuts,” the Times reported, pointing out that “while she was likely to be found behind the scenes, Nicholas could be anywhere, including molding chocolate in an alcove beneath the stairs.”

As the business progressed, “they went from hand-dipping items to coating them with enrober machines, acquired storage space in neighboring basements and bought a three-story building a half-mile west for a bigger kitchen,” the Times reported, adding that “twice a year, they sent out brochures to increase their mail-order business” and “each box of chocolates was emblazoned with the store’s logo — an artist’s palette with three paintbrushes — and the slogan ‘Candy Making as an Art.’”

Vlahakis “marveled at her parents’ efforts,” the Times reported, noting that “her father was ‘like a mole, all over the place,’ but ‘my mother was something else,’ she said.” “People come in and reminisce about my father, and I’m like, damn, she was as important, if not more,” Vlahakis told the Times.

The Greek Orthodox couple raised their two daughters, Valerie and Alison, “in a Victorian house on Staten Island,” and the “extended family lived within a five-block radius,” the Times reported, noting that Valerie was not “groomed to take over the business.” She attended Bethany College in West Virginia, “studied history and political science, and later taught special education at Mark Twain Junior High in Coney Island before returning to the shop in the early 1990s after growing weary of the politics of the education world,” the Times reported.

Alison “had already taken the Lee Sims brand over the Bayonne Bridge to Staten Island, where she opened her own store, but their father was not thrilled with her sister’s return,” the Times reported, adding that “she started by studying the business at the molecular level, tracking chocolate’s flow from the cooling tunnel to the cash register, through pumps and compressors.”

The family “basked in the product’s freshness, and ranked it somewhere above grab-and-go bars and below Godiva,” the Times reported.

Vlahakis told the Times, “There’s no secret recipe. It’s physics and chemistry.”

“Her parents retired to Florham Park, NJ,” the Times reported, adding that following her mother’s death at 76 from breast cancer, Vlahakis “moved in with her father, who continued to visit the store just to sit and look around” until his death at age 83 in 2000.

Vlahakis continues working every day and has no plans to retire, while “her sister continues to operate the Staten Island store with her daughter, Kerry,” the Times reported.

“Workers who started under her father tell Ms. Vlahakis that they can still smell his cigar smoke in the kitchen, where two copies of his obituary are displayed,” the Times reported.

“Like it’s haunted!” Vlahakis told the Times.

Only three customers “can come in at a time,” the Times reported, noting that “to protect herself and her staff at the counter, Ms. Vlahakis, who wears a mask and asks that customers do the same, installed plexiglass.”

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