This week’s interview is with Ben Johnson, the chocolatier behind Blue Table Chocolates, made right here in Buffalo. If you haven’t seen his work yet, then you are not only missing out on some great tasting treats, but these things are art. Ben isn’t originally from Buffalo, like most of the people that we interview on Yeah! Buffalo. Rather, he’s originally from New York City, and spent a lot of years in Boston. We welcome people to Buffalo, that’s what we do here. Ben is a good example of that. It’s great to have talented people move here, start a business here, and more importantly… be happy here. Now enough of that, meet Ben. Oh, and thank you Luke for the nomination!
How did you come to live in Buffalo?
“My wife and I were living in Boston for about 11 years. We had two kids there, and had a nice network going. We figured that’s where we were going to stay. My wife was getting her doctorate. We decided that we were only going to only look for jobs in Boston, but there weren’t any for what she was looking to do. So we started looking in places like Louisville, Washington State, Connecticut and other places. From day to day, we didn’t know where we were going. She got offered a spot and UB and we didn’t know a thing about Buffalo, other than Jim Kelly, Andre Reed and that horrible Vincent Gallo movie. We were a little reluctant at first, and had low expectations. I’m from New York City, and I realize that New York isn’t like the rest of the country. This has been a constant shock. These weird connections just keep happening here. That doesn’t happen in New York City. You can just introduce yourself to people here. I’m still trying to get used to that here. It’s fantastic.”
“There are so many little connections here in Buffalo. We met Anne Wadsworth at Girls Education Collaborative because she knows my wife through UB, and completely independently ran into Bobby from Tommyrotter, and it turns out that they’re friends, he was good friends with her son, they played together growing up. We are trying to do a partnership with Tommyrotter to do a mixing of chocolate that would go next to a cocktail, not to go into a drink. We shared a kitchen space with Colleen from Butter Block, before we knew about Butter Block. She’s going somewhere with that!”
How did you get into chocolate making?
“When I got to Buffalo, I wasn’t finding work in what I was looking to do, which was in affordable housing. I ended up getting a job at a chocolatier downtown at Choco-Logo. I had a lot of fun working there. I then had the same job that Amber Small has now at the Parkside Community Association, and got to know a number of people in town because of that. But, I’d get stressed out at work and couldn’t sleep, and I have a long history with insomnia. So it’s either sit there and watch Netflix, or make chocolate. I spent about 3 years of making chocolate at night just to relax. People started wanting some for Christmas and gifts here and there. Prish Moran from Sweetness 7 told my wife that he thought that I always looked pissed off. I thought to myself, “I think I am”. I didn’t really realize it. You’re responsible for everything that happens in that job. From a lost cat, to crime sprees, etc. Anybody that works for you is a volunteer. You have to respect that. You put in an 8 hour day, and a volunteer still wants to meet at night. It just gets to be a lot. One of our neighbors in Parkside told us that she knew the person that used to own Quaker Bonnet. Quaker Bonnet used to do a lot more of these Buffalo Chips – coconut macaroons dipped in chocolate. They backed away from it, so they had this back room in their kitchen that was dedicated to chocolate work, that nobody was using. It was a strange situation to just fall in your lap. I paid to use it by the day for a few days a week, and then couldn’t keep up with what people wanted and started renting it month to month. Then this nonprofit showed up and was looking for a new tenant. They knocked some walls down and put in a sink for me without any written commitment. Now I have NCCC students calling me to ask me if they can come work for me to fulfill their internship requirements… for free. Why not?! So, that’s been going ok. I have local chefs that want to come in and do some chocolate work. None of this was planned. This is just Buffalo, showing up at your doorstep, offering help, space, labor, anything. None of this would happen in New York or Boston. None of it.”
Tell us about the name, Blue Table Chocolates
“We had our first child, our daughter in Boston, in our tiny little condo. . In that fuzzy sleepless haze, we were pushing our stroller around the neighborhood and looked over this white picket fence at this sprawling manicured green lawn. They had this cobalt blue farm table in the middle of the lawn, set up for a dinner party. It was a huge table, maybe fit 10 people, comfortably. It was straight out of some magazine. We both looked at each other, with vomit stains on our shirts, unshaven. We said, “Why can’t we have a blue table? Can we someday get a blue table?” We were moving out of our condo a couple years later and were looking at houses. We’d ask ourselves, with these houses, could we fit a blue table in the yard? No? Ok, next house. When we moved to Buffalo, we thought, OK, houses are cheap, we can get a blue table! We knew that it was going to be a pay decrease to start this business, so we downsized to a smaller house in the Elmwood Village. This is how you get to a blue table. You build your way up. That’s where the name came from. At some point, you’re going to end up… with the blue table. The kids will be old enough to play by themselves, and put themselves to sleep, and we’ll sit outside and have a glass of wine at our blue table.”
Can you tell us about any challenges you are having or have faced?
“In the first year or two of doing this, after the kids get home from school, we’d have dinner, put the kids to bed, I’d have a few moments with my wife and then go into work. It always went the same way. I thought that it would be nice to just kick back and read a book and fall asleep at 10 o-clock like a normal person would. But, as soon as I hit the kitchen, I’d feel like a 17 year old again. I’d crank up the music and just crank out chocolate until I would look up at the clock and it would be 3 in the morning. I would do that regularly. It got to the point where I am not physically able to make enough by myself. I have an intern coming in at 9am, so I need to have something that resembles normal hours, and still come in late at night. It’s not healthy, but I would so much rather do this than sit at a desk for 8 hours and not stand up. The challenge now is that it might be fun to do it like this, but that’s not sustainable. It’s got to be more regular, more predictable. Instead of driving myself nuts. My family knows that come November, things are going to get a little weird. I tell them, “don’t get scared if I stop making sense, or start laughing in the middle of dinner.” I get about two hours of sleep a night for three weeks straight around Christmas every year. That has to change somehow, but there’s something maniacally fun about it! But it can’t be like that in 10 years. ”
“In the summertime, things are supposed to slow down. For chocolatiers, you usually make your bones between Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day, and take the summer off. Or you sell ice cream. But this town is flush with ice cream. So, we are actually doing wedding favors. We kinda have a nice little niche there. So we have some weddings coming up, we’re doing wedding favor chocolates.”
“A lot of people call and ask where we are. And we aren’t really anywhere right now. It would be great to have a physical space, with a kitchen in the back. The products aren’t designed to last on a shelf for months. We’ve had instances where we put these boxes on shelves and someone bought them months later, bit into it and it wasn’t good anymore. We’d like a shop with a decent sized kitchen in the back, and a retail space in the front.”
Teaming up with the Girls Education Collaborative
“Well, I get kinda bored making the same flavors every day. I wanted to do something a little outside my comfort zone. Over the summer, I met with 3 refugee families. Really nice people. We shared some meals and talked things through. I presented some chocolate flavors to them. They were interpretations of what they cook at home. It was a bridge between what people in Buffalo might recognize, and what people from Burma might recognize. This was around the same time as the International Institute of Buffalo’s Buffalo Without Borders fundraiser. It was just fun. No recipes. Just playing. It went really well. All of the proceeds of the sale of those went to the IIB. We’ve done that two years running. Then we met Anne from Girls Education Collaborative and learned about the school that they are helping to build in Kitenga. So, I asked Anne if I could do some Tanzanian flavors. I would get to play around, and she could market it to her donors. I met with some of her friends from Tanzania that are professors at UB, and we talked about what they would eat back home, and if this had any fidelity to something that they would recognize. We got their blessing for these two pieces. One is a kind of peanut brittle with coconut and cardamom. The other is a roasted banana with cinnamon on top of a brown sugar cashew caramel. These are available through Mother’s Day.” – you can order them here.
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“First, don’t worry so much. I’ve wasted far too much time trying to figure out what’s going to happen if this doesn’t work out. Some things don’t work out, and that’s ok. You go on to the next thing. There’s a lot of stress if you quit a day job to do this sort of thing. You don’t really just go back. You don’t run a business on your own for 3 years, decide it’s not working out and then re-apply back to the nonprofit world at the same level. You then have to explain that 3 year gap in your resume. So the thought was that if you do that, it has huge implications for the rest of your career. It just doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore. Just pursue it. See what comes of it. And this is a totally Buffalo thing: you meet one person and it leads to something else. You do one thing and it leads to something else. I never could have mapped out all of the things that have happened. Now it’s kind of fun to go kind of without a map.”
- Colleen from Butter Block
- Donnie Burtless from Buffalo Eats
- Christa Glennie Seychew