How one woman went from being unemployed to owning a thriving chocolate factory in Harlem

Abu Mubarik November 28, 2022
Photo: harlemchocolatefactory.com

Growing up in an anti-sugar home, chocolate became the exception for Jessica Spaulding. She attended chocolate shows with her mother and even learned about chocolate from around the world but did not find any that reflected her culture. 

At the age of 10, she tried making her own chocolate, and following that, the dream to own a chocolate factory became a part of her. However, her job became an impediment until she became unemployed.

She recalled seeing notices for the New York StartUP! Business Plan Competition and decided to take advantage of it. In 2015, she launched her Harlem Chocolate Factory after winning a $15,000 grant from the NYC public library; a $3,000 loan from Accion Opportunity Fund, a Community Development Financial Institute (CDFI) and free legal and accounting services from Start Small Think Big. She also took a free course in business service.

By 2018, Spaulding’s company had become a “game changer” in the chocolate industry, according to Forbes. With support from her sister, she spent weekends wrapping chocolate bars in their living room when she started her business, preparing for local markets and quickly selling out. She later got the attention of elite corporate clients by providing gifting for Chase, Kate Spade, and Sam Adams.

However, achieving success did not come easy for the Black entrepreneur. One of her major challenges was positioning her premium chocolate brand when locals were used to paying for mass-produced chocolate at convenience stores, according to Forbes.

She also got banks refusing to support her with the excuse that chocolates celebrating Black culture would have a limited appeal. “Pre-pandemic, the idea of having a business supported because it’s Black-owned was unheard of, especially one steeped in African-American culture,” Spaulding told Forbes. “The beauty of Harlem is its bittersweetness: projects and brownstones; caviar and quarter juices; opportunity and poverty.”

The business was booming for Spaulding prior to the pandemic. Her brand was popular in the store and from corporate gifting and retailers. However, 70 percent of the revenue she made from corporate gifting and events dropped as a result of lockdown measures to contain the spread of the virus. “All of them canceled. Foot traffic to the store dropped dramatically, too. It was a nightmare,” she said.

Following the disturbances in America occasioned by the death of George Floyd, there was more focus on ways to support black businesses. Celebrities including Oprah Winfrey highlighted the Harlem Chocolate Factory. Spaulding saw a sudden surge in demand for her brand but the pandemic disrupted their supply chain and shipping. Nonetheless, she has found a way to pivot using QuickBooks to ensure they remain a destination for chocolate lovers in Harlem and beyond.

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