Owned and operated by the city, the Essex Street Market provides a diverse array of fresh, high-quality, and affordable food options to local residents, as well as opportunities for new food entrepreneurs to set up shop with more reasonable rents than are usually found in New York City. In this week’s post, we profile two women who grew their businesses grew out of stalls measuring just 100 square feet – Anne Saxelby of Saxelby Cheesemongers and Rhonda Kave of Roni-Sue’s Chocolates.
Anne Saxelby was a pioneering cheesemonger when she opened her stall in 2006. As the first business in New York City to focus solely on regionally-sourced farmstead cheeses, she wasn’t sure if this approach – sans European cheeses – would have much appeal. Starting as a one-woman operation, she described her feelings on day one.
“It felt like what it’s like to host a garage sale. Will anyone come?”
And people did come. With her cheeses from nearby farms in upstate New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania prominently on display, within a few months, Anne had cultivated a loyal retail customer base. She also began picking up wholesale orders from chefs at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, which is now one of her longest-standing wholesale accounts.
For that first year and several years to follow, the business processed wholesale orders and deliveries through their market stall, which had a small walk-in refrigerator built into the adjacent stall. When heading out to make deliveries, Anne would step into the walk-in, pack up an assortment of cheeses in her backpack, and then jump on her bicycle. Today, the image of Anne on her bicycle still arrives with each delivery of Saxelby’s cheeses, but as the logo on the side of the company’s refrigerated truck.
But the road from bicycle to delivery truck was not a short one for Saxelby and involved strategic decisions that allowed the business to increase its wholesale capacity beyond what the market stall could handle. Just one year after opening, Anne was at a Slow Food USA cheese and wine event where she met Benoit Breal and his wife. Armed with an MBA and years of working in the fashion industry, Benoit was looking to do something new.
As Anne describes it, being from France, Benoit “had cheese in his blood.” Anne had proved the viability of her concept in her first year in business – that her passion for cheese and for engagement with customers was growing the business. But she understood that Benoit had complementary skills that would support further growth of the business. Within a few months of meeting, the two were business partners and have continued to run Saxelby Cheesemongers to this day.
A major decision they made together was to rent and built out their “cheese cave” – not an actual cave, but a warehouse specially designed for storing cheese – on Imlay Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn in 2011. Then, just as they were ramping up operations, Superstorm Sandy hit. Anne was nine months pregnant at the time and remembers talking to Benoit about what to do. Since Hurricane Irene had blown through the year before with little impact, Anne reasoned that Sandy would likely do the same. Benoit, on the other hand, felt strongly that the inventory had to be moved immediately. They had a friend in Long Island City with a cold storage warehouse, and on the day of the storm, they moved the cheese.
It turned out to be a smart move, as the warehouse was completely flooded, requiring expensive repairs not covered by insurance. Anne guesses that the business probably would not have survived had they lost the warehouse and all of the inventory simultaneously, and she is grateful that she had a partner to help her make the right decision.
Weather the storm they did, and today Saxelby Cheesemongers continues to grow, distributing to over 100 restaurants, bars, and shops, and employing five staff members. They still operate their original stall in the Essex Street Market, offering a curated line of cheeses that support small farms, all within a few hundred miles of New York City. Cheese enthusiasts from all over can now enjoy a range of offerings from Saxelby’s by going to their website and joining their Cheese of the Month Club for regular deliveries, placing individual orders for cheese and charcuterie, or buying gift certificates.
Rhonda Kave, founder and owner of Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, described herself as a “serious hobbyist” before opening her first shop at the Essex Street Market back in 2007. It all started about 25 years prior when she and a neighbor, both young mothers at home with the kids at the time, decided to take cooking classes together at the local high school in their town on Long Island.
One November while taking a candy workshop, the two friends learned how to make buttercrunch toffee and thought, “Wow, this is pretty good!” That year was the first of what would become an annual tradition for 20 years of making buttercrunch toffee and chocolates to give to friends and family during the holidays. It became so popular, that eventually they were producing 400 pounds of the stuff every year.
“No one ever wanted to go off the list,” Rhonda recalls.
In 2007, Rhonda stepped inside the Essex Street Market for the first time, and just a few months later, would start her chocolate business there. She described her first impression of the market,
“I had been hearing about it for years,” Rhonda says of that first visit, “and I finally had the chance to come down – it’s just the kind of place I look for when I travel. It’s the small, local market where the real people shop, where if you pick up a fruit or something you’re not familiar with, the grandma standing next to you is going to chime in and tell you how to cook it. That’s just the kind of place I love. “
At the back of the market, Rhonda noticed an unoccupied stall that was papered over. It looked to her like the perfect space for starting a small chocolate shop. The timing turned out perfectly – she was graduating that same year from New York University, where she had spent two years on a research project about public markets and was ready to turn her hobby into a business.
She had her stall, but she still need a name and identity for the new venture – ultimately, she drew inspiration from a business her mother had operated when Rhonda was a little girl, a women’s clothing store in their town. When Rhonda was born, her mother added a little girl’s clothing section, which she named after her daughter, Roni-Sue Shop. For years, Rhonda had held onto her mother’s original sign at home, a memento from her childhood that she treasured. When it came time to open the business, “it was literally one of those lightbulb moments, and we went with that. It’s a little homage to my mom.”
Within two months of opening, Roni-Sue’s lollipops were featured as a TimeOut New York critic’s pick. All of a sudden, she found herself with a rush of orders, including one from a café in California for 1,000 lollipops. This was great for business, but it also meant she was hand-pouring and packaging each one herself in that tiny stall at the back of the market. The lollipop was Roni-Sue’s first shelf-stable product, and today the company offers a wide range of packaged items that are sold in coffee shops and stores, such as their BaCorn caramel popcorn with bacon, and, of course, her signature buttercrunch toffee.
As the trajectory of success continued for Roni-Sue’s, Rhonda upgraded to a 200-square-foot stall to better support both the retail and wholesale sides of the business. Even still, by 2013 the company was bursting at the seams, and she needed a larger space. Rhonda looked all over the city but wasn’t finding the right fit.
One day, as she was waiting on line for a coffee at Porto Rico Importing at the market, she was talking to the barista about her search. The customer behind her in line overhead and said that they lived on Forsyth Street, just a few blocks away, and the ground-floor space had been vacant for eight months – would she like the landlord’s phone number? As Rhonda recounts the story, she said, “Oh, hell yes, I do!” A couple weeks later, she had a deal on her new storefront just a five-minute walk from the market.
Today you can stop into Roni Sue’s stall at the Essex Street Market or her shop at 148 Forsyth Street. At both locations, you can find her signature buttercrunch toffee, as well as a wide array of truffles, chocolate-covered bacon, caramel popcorn, hand-poured lollipops, and so much more. Roni-Sue’s Chocolates has also recently partnered up with Farm2Me at her stall at Essex Street, which has begun selling drinking chocolates this fall. You can also now take your own candy and chocolate-making classes at Roni-Sue’s storefront. Now an expert at chocolate-making, she enjoys passing on her recipes and techniques and instilling a love of chocolate and candy-making in a new generation of hobbyists.
Editor’s Note: Roni-Sue’s Chocolates is no longer in the Essex Street Market, but you can still enjoy their chocolates and candies in the Lower East Side at the store at 148 Forsyth St.