"I'm Not a Baker": Clemence Danko of Choc O Pain

February 13, 2018



I can't help it, I judge people that choose to not eat gluten.


While I try not to roll around in loaves of bread every meal, there is something about a hearty loaf of bread, hand-churned butter paired with a meat and cheese plate accompanied with a great bottle of wine and good company that I just couldn't live without. Who better to talk to about a great loaf of bread than the owner of the French bakery in Hoboken and Jersey City, Clemence Danko. 


We learn about the secret to her tasty croissants, the keys to being a successful french bakery owner, and why she has the next avocado toast.  





I have to confess something to you Clemence. I went to culinary arts school in the early 1990s. Back in the day it was very basic like this is the sharp end of the knife and this is how you cube something. There was a two week class on baking and I failed so badly. Baking is chemistry and I'm not good at chemistry. So that was one of my biggest takeaways is that I'm never going to be a baker. So what got you into baking?



Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


I can't blame you-I'm not a baker either. This is something that needs to be clarified because I think people like to imagine that I’m a baker. I was never baking bread at home before, but I did enjoy eating good bread. I went to two great schools. I did both the management class at ICE and then the bread class at FCI because it sounded to me very serious. I did not regret my choice because I had access to two great schools and an open network of alumni. I have fantastic people I can talk to and ask questions to; a great support network is essential.


So when I arrived in 2009 in the U.S, I knew I wanted to open a bakery. That was already clear in my mind but I had no clue how to do that and I wanted to learn how. It was a change of career, as you know so I went first to ICE to take the management class. Over the course of six months it allowed me to put together my business plan, piece by piece without even noticing it. I did work at Le Pain Quotidien in the meantime to a have hands-on experience learning about what is a coffee shop/bakery in New York. What do people want and what are they asking for?  As a French person, a bakery is where you go to get your croissant in the morning and your bread every day. You don't get coffee in a bakery and you don't sit down in a bakery. When you want to sit down and have a café, very important thing for French people, you go to a brasserie.


So opening a bakery here did not mean opening a French bakery as in France. I had to find the right concept that suited this market and this is what we came up with in the management class. I realized I could do it in Hudson County in Hoboken at that point rather than going to Manhattan. Initially it was Manhattan of course.  You come from France and you think you're going to open your business in Manhattan but then I realized there was a lot of potential here. There are a lot of people who have traveled, who know good food, and are ready to pay the price because it comes with a price when you do this type of quality. 





It seems like the internet has helped explode different food trends like the avocado toast or the cronut. Do you think you have the next cronut?


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


The next cronut no, but the next avocado toast definitely.  I was doing avocado toast without even naming it that. I would do that regularly at my house so the recipe is my own and I'm very proud. It's very simple. I think the next food trend can be simple good things with great ingredients. I think this is something people will start to realize.


Everybody's conscious about what they are eating. Sometimes it goes very far with the vegan and gluten free. Sometimes you have to provide both vegan and gluten free and you wonder why. Some people need to live like that and some people choose to live like that, so it's different things. But I believe that you don't need to invent a cronut. My thing is more to do good things constantly and provide enough choices for people to come for the coffee or for the tea, for breakfast, for lunch every day, why not?





Before you came into Hoboken there really were no French bakeries. How did you integrate Choc O Pain into the community with the locations in Hoboken as well as additional locations you've opened?


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


It’s a very interesting question because when people ask you about your concept and you explain I'm going to open a French bakery, they respond “Okay, great but what makes you different from the other bakeries?” There was none in Hoboken, you’re right but there is a ton in Manhattan and other local cities. Our true concept was a great quality product. Not cutting corners is one of my favorite sentences but it is true and it's very important. So we do things by hand. We have a long fermentation process for the sourdough bread-almost two days from the beginning. All of these steps cost a lot of money and take time but this is how you get a good product.


The community found us once we were established. There was construction going on for more than six months so they had time to wonder what is this? We had put a sign “Choc O Pain French Bakery and Café Coming Up”. We had a blog where we were trying to talk a little bit about it and on Facebook as well. So people were curious and interested. Then they found us and I guess it matched what they were expecting which is the most difficult thing. Like you said being in the right place at the right time.


People were ready for our kind of product. We have a very different kind of clientele. We have people who come every day for coffee. When people choose you for coffee, they just stick to you. Maybe they won't buy a croissant every day but the day they want to buy a dozen croissants for their office then they know where to go. So we have the people who come for the destination of the French baked goods. We have people who come for lunch because they live or work in the area.  We have people who buy bread at the end of the day it to bring home.


American people don't really eat bread every day like we French people do but they will have a dinner party. They are always curious about what kind of bread to buy to go with soup or stew or what have you. The real answer is any kind but they like to ask for advice as well. So I think that's how we found our place in the communities we serve. We proposed a product true to our roots; authentic French baked goods and breads and people adopted us.





Your croissants are very buttery, flaky and extra yummy. Can you talk about your process for sourcing ingredients? How do you find new vendors and establish those relationships along with any roadblocks you hit?


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


A lot of French people ask us if we import flour or butter from France. The truth is we are very proud that we managed to find the right ingredients here in the US. So it's a matter of time, defining what you're looking for, and the quality of the product.  The flour is one thing, the butter is another thing. One of the reasons why our costs aren’t so good is because of the butter. We use 86% butter which is a lot of fat and it's very expensive because of the fat content. We tried blind testing with some lower grade butter, 82% and 83%, which is already a lot more than anybody has at home. Every time I can find the difference so we stick to 86% which is why it tastes so good.


There was shortage of butter lately. In France a lot of people talked about that but even in the US we had some difficulty with droughts in California. The price of butter is a commodity and keeps going up and down. So that's one of the biggest difficulties we have is all of a sudden your product is 30 % more expensive from one week to the other. You are building some stock if you can but you have to manage the cash flow. All these issues are very business, very reality but very true.





Can you talk about your process for recipe development?


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


It depends. Sometimes I will see something online or on Facebook. I follow a lot of schools and a lot of groups talking about recipes. We just did a brie and apple babka. It has the shape of a babka but it has croissant dough. I wanted to develop more savory croissants because we have a ham and cheese which is a great success but not everybody eats ham and cheese. So we had to have something else. We started with spinach feta and then soon after we had the brie and apple.  It's a great combination with the honey and it works very well together. It was also a way to use extra brie that we had from a previous sandwich. We hate wasting and we always try to use what we have. That's why our soups can vary a little bit because we may have some vegetable we want to use up. We donate our leftover at the end of each day to charities and shelters. This is something that is part of the core of the business.




The funny part is while on my way here I got a text message from a friend of mine who asked me if you still have the apple brie babka or if it’s only a weekend thing. So it's made a big impact.


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


That’s fantastic. It's delicious and so smooth. I was also blown away by it too. This came from a friend of mine who is a great cook. She cooks at home and she likes to publish her recipes. I saw that recipe on her page and I was like hey let's try that. I tried to give her a little bit of credit when we did and I'm sure she was very touched.


She said to me that's the thing, in food there's no trademark. The best thing that can happen is that everyone starts making great food and great recipes. If we get inspiration from one another, it’s just a homage. The way you actually execute it makes a difference. You will have your little touch; you will have your own personality in a recipe. I have a great team to do that because as I said I'm not the one doing it.






You had a different set of goals for opening up your new location in Jersey City Heights including increasing production, expansion into new markets, and expanding your staff while reducing labor costs. Can you go into more detail on that?


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


So the way it happened was when we opened in January 2012 in Hoboken, a year later we had the opportunity to open the downtown Jersey City location. It was something we could not refuse. It forced us into reorganizing our production because we could not produce everything from Hoboken. So we split it between the two locations. The bread and the sandwiches were made in Hoboken while the croissants, the tarts and the quiche were made in Jersey City. Products would go from one location to the other throughout the day.


Very quickly we found that we were limited in our locations and the size of the freezer. We wanted to expand through wholesale but we couldn’t really do it ourselves. They would ask us and we wouldn’t say no but we were not developing it the way we wanted. We were in too small of a location and being in two locations was also a problem.  So very quickly in 2013 the idea came that we needed to find another location with a bigger space. We didn’t know if we would have a store because the idea was really a production facility.


It took us a while to find a space. We visited many different places but we had to define our needs first and then see what was out there. It came, as everything in life, as a great opportunity when we visited this space for the second time.  The first time we didn't see any potential and for some reason a few months later we sold. It’s so funny how things can progress.


The space was on Palisade Avenue and would allow us to have a café which was a great asset because you can help support the cost of the operation with the sales. That's why we chose this space. We have enough space in the back for proper organization, better sizing of operation, and also some room for offices which is important for the staff. So that's how everything came together.

It took three years to come to life because of different ups and downs in terms of planning, getting permits and the construction process. But we finally opened at the end of July 2017.  





I noticed that your location here in the Heights is bigger space so you can bring in pallets of flour which helps with your production. You also have direct access to the street and you can actually fit a truck. So this space has given you a vehicle to get into a catering or mass production.  


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


That's correct. That's one of the developments we are starting to go into and we want to go further. One of the pre-requirements that we had when we visited this space was do you think we could have a loading zone in front of the store to allow the truck to park for a few minutes to unload. This was very important for us because we knew it was part of the operation. To deliver in Hoboken or in downtown Jersey City; it's impossible. You have to block the street. Actually there are some loading zones and people use them;it's a necessity. We are very happy to share it with the neighborhood because obviously it's not ours. Our customers are happy sometimes to be able to pull up and buy something quickly. But it was a necessity which is why we chose a space with this large corridor to be able to roll in a pallet of flour. We knew that we were sizing the business in that sense which was all part of the question we had right from day one. You cannot invest so much money as we did in this space if it's not for more growth.




How do you maintain your brand and your core vision for Choc O Pain while continuing to expand?


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


It's a great question. It's very important. I mean the fact that it was my baby initially makes it very personal. So if you look closely the decor has changed. With one location to the other I'm not doing a copy paste, I am adapting to each location’s architectural features. It's very personal choices when it comes to the decorations for a new space. The core value is that it needs to be very inviting, very authentic and you need to feel welcome and not in a cold place. A lot of franchises I feel have this very cold feeling. They pretend to be warm and inviting but really it's very cold. So this is something that is very important for me.




I call it hip sterile. Like its hip but it's kind of sterile too.


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


Absolutely. It's also very personal because I make the choices and I listen to a lot of advice. I work with a friend who is a design consultant. She helps me  with things like finding the right lighting; I'm very bad at these kind of things. Sometimes I know exactly what I want but sometimes I have no idea. So it's important to listen to the right people. In the same way that I'm not a baker, I'm the owner so I manage the company but I choose the right people. I choose my team when it comes to design the same way.


The same thing is true with social media and PR. At first we didn't want to invest too much money into public relations. We wanted to grow organically through word of mouth and create a reputation. Also we were not sure how much growth we could handle at first. We were learning as we were growing it so it was important to take it slowly. After a few years we realized that we needed to become more professional and to have the advice of people in that field to build a stronger brand. They help you make the right choices to stay focused to your brand and your core values and expand the message to make sure that more people hear about it.





What advice would you give to someone trying to change careers or become a food entrepreneur?


Clemence Danko (Choc O Pain)


You have to give your dream a chance and evaluate the possibility. Not everybody can take the risk to change their life. It's difficult to go away from a steady schedule and a steady income so you have to have the right support of your partner and your family for that. But it's important to study it well and understand what it takes. I think a lot of people especially in the food business they think they are great baker and they are going to open a bakeshop. It's not the same. You might be a great baker but you might not be a great bake shop owner and operator. It’s a different job. So this is something to keep in mind. The management part is not always fun; the hiring, firing, and having people not show up for interview. Three quarters of the time this is a reality.


Some of my friends who are in this business hire two people for one job because they know that one is not going to show up. As a business owner you have to be very conscious about the risk you take and the impact that you have on the community. There's so many things that you have to consider, try to control and limit the risks.


This is the reality of what it is to own a business. Of course the fun part is the interaction with the customers and the staff. I find it fascinating and very rewarding but it's not easy. So that is what I would give as advice. Don't underestimate what the job of a business owner is. It's very different from being a great baker.



Choc O Pain


      Hoboken: 157 First Street

      Jersey Ave: 533 Jersey Ave

      Jersey City Heights: 330-332 Palisades Ave

      Hoboken Uptown (Opening Soon): 1500 Hudson Street



      Mon-Fri 7am-7pm, Sat-Sun 8am-7pm


Want to learn more about local businesses like Choc O Pain in Jersey City Heights? Check out our previous article where we sit down with Lorenzo DeMarchi of Pizza Masters. 






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