Rhonda "Roni-Sue" Kave is proof that you can turn a hobby into a career—and succeed. Over the course of her life, she has been many things: stay-at-home mom, beauty shop owner, advocate at the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. On the side, she took cooking courses, learning how to make Chinese food and then buttercrunch toffee.
Today, that buttercrunch is one of the signature products at Roni-Sue's Chocolates, which now refers both to her original (and tiny) Essex Street Market location and her new standalone shop on nearby Forsyth Street.
On a recent Sunday a few weeks after the shop opened, Kave looked right at home behind the counter. In a small, window-walled room to the side, customers watched one of her three full-time employees preparing what would become a batch of seasonal Pumpkin Spice truffles. "We became too stifled at the market for production, with three people in a 300-square-foot space making small batches over and over," she says. "Here, we have more than triple the space, and what used to take four days to make now takes just one."
There's also more room to display her chocolates, including the "Dude-approved" Lebowski a.k.a White Russian (part of the cocktail collection) truffle, the Fresh Coconut (Kave's personal favorite), and the seasonal Caramel Apple. And it's here where Kave's approach to creating innovative sweets becomes clear. "It's all about the process for me," she says. "I like to take the best ingredients and manipulate them, bending them to my will."
She talks at length about creating what she calls "vertical flavor profiles." The rose truffle (available for Valentine's Day and Mother's Day) is the perfect example: it's made with powdered rose petal tea, dry rosebuds that get infused into elderflower rose jam, and rose water. Another is the Portly Fig, which incorporates burnt fig jam, dried figs, and fig vinegar.
As for her approach to ingredients: "I'm pretty crazy when it comes to that," she says, after fielding a phone call from an intern she had sent out to find dried pomegranate seeds (no luck). And she supports local business whenever she can: Brooklyn Brewery's black chocolate stout and IPA join Martin's sourdough pretzels in her beer-and-pretzel caramel nuggets, while Porto Rico Importing Co. is the coffee of choice at the new shop.
While truffles are enrobed in Valrhona chocolate, the ganache is made from Belizean chocolate, which Kave has been using since her hobby became her business. "I learned more about the child labor and trafficking on the Ivory Coast, and there's nothing sweet about that," she says. Two years ago, she took her commitment a step further, partnering with Jeff Pzena on MOHO Chocolates, creating bars out of Belizean beans (and named for the river valley where the beans are harvested). More recently, they opened a space in Belize City, which sells directly to visitors, mostly travelers fresh off cruise ships.
Beyond chocolate, the shop has a selection of baked goods, plus her famous Pig Candy (crispy fried bacon dipped in milk or dark chocolate) and lollipops (special winter flavors include cacao nib and mint, and gingerbread). And who knows what else will appear now that she has more space to experiment. As she puts it, "I have envelopes full of ideas."
Click through the slideshow above for a closer look at buttercrunch, pig candy, truffles, and more.