If food is art, then chocolate is magic. A mystical creation concocted through love, art, and science, enjoyed with all the pleasure derivable from decadent indulgence. Obviously, I’m not talking about the grocery store stuff, the wax-packed, chocolate-like substances wrapped in colorful foils. I’m not even talking about the middle price point drug store chocolates in their paper boxes with bows glued on. I’m talking about chocolate. Hand-crafted, meticulously tempered, gorgeously prepared chocolates that are gathered by gloved hands from behind glass. I’m talking about chocolates like LibbyBeans Chocolates.
Nestled in an adorable storefront on Bridge Street in Frenchtown, LibbyBeans exudes all the class and timeless charm of exactly what one would expect of a high-end chocolatier, while simultaneously capturing the soft, playful nature of childhood. Owner-operator Libby Ballentine walks us through the door and down memory lane with retro to vintage candies displayed before a backdrop that fell from the pages of Dahl’s famous candymaker tale. In her beautifully decorated wonderland, Libby tugs at our senses – the sights, smells, and flavors, and she wraps us up in her delicious appeals for our smiles.
“I found this business brings me a lot of joy,” Libby smiles, her perfectly smooth cheeks pinking with sincere happiness. “Nobody can be grumpy in a candy store. It smells good. It’s got things from your childhood that bring up really nice memories. It’s bright, and we have really great employees who just make everyone laugh. It’s just… It’s incredible.”
There is a currency of joy in this place. It is traded for the sweetest things one can eat, things that create more joy, joy Libby wants you to take into the street and give generously to friends and neighbors. It is a cyclic process that brings people together in the happiest of ways. This is what Libby is doing every day from her lovely, little corner of the world. She is creating joy and community by touching on the best parts of who we are and by coming from the best parts of who she is.
With a long history of caring for others, Libby started her journey with nursing school in her native Portsmouth, New Hampshire. During these years, she was married and eventually opened a health food café and bakery just over the state line in Kittery, Maine. Raising her children during her café years, Libby balanced motherhood and marriage with her successful turnkey business. Her kids grew up in the café, packing lunches in the mornings and being a part of the community around the business. Libby used healthy foods and goodies to bring people together and share her love for them.
The need for caregiving next took her to Ocala, Florida. The parents of Libby’s former husband were aging, and she put her nursing education to work in filling the role of caregiver. While there, she started making soaps and lotions, which she sold at local markets. As demand grew, Libby created a new platform from which to care for others, opening her own spa where she used and sold her products. When her time in Florida drew to a close and with her children grown, Libby made the difficult decision to end her marriage.
Reeling and needing some sibling time, Libby came to Frenchtown to visit her brother, who owns the Gourmand Epicerie, a gourmet grocery on Race Street. Town grabbed Libby. “When I drove over the bridge, I felt peace. I felt like, oh my gosh, like I just drove into the middle of a Hallmark movie!”
During her stay, her brother familiarized her with town and its residents, and Libby was falling in love. After literally tripping in joyful laughter and injuring herself, her brother just shook his head, saying, “You’re a nut, and you belong here.”
That resonated with her.
“A lot of highly intelligent, really creative people live here, and that’s what I wanted to surround myself with,” she recollects. She did belong in Frenchtown, and she knew just where in town she wanted to be.
So, one fateful day, Libby walked into a mother-daughter run candy store and asked if they’d entertain an offer on their business. A 14-year-old fixture in the community, it was a traditional penny candy style store. It didn’t have any homemade goods – much less handcrafted, fine chocolates. That was ok, though, because Libby didn’t know anything about making chocolates. “I knew I could do it,” Libby reflects, “and I needed a change. The store was not for sale. I walked in and told her I wanted to buy it. She said we could talk.”
Feeling optimistic, Libby went home and made a plan. “In order to be successful in business, you always have to be thinking ahead. You need a plan.”
She may not have had any experience making chocolate, but she knew that she is capable of making business plans and executing them successfully. She had already proven that to herself. Why would making chocolate be any different from making tasty vegan baked goods or all natural body products? This endeavor was just a new manifestation of Libby’s inherent need to communicate love and caring for others, and a new way for her to stretch her creativity in business.
Libby’s creativity shines in her exquisite attention to detail all around the shop, where displays are rotated to keep the store fresh and new all the time. Photos by Kristina Gibb Photography.
Without being closed for a single day, the candy store went from being owned by her current landlords, whom Libby describes as “the best ever,” to being Libby’s. Met at first with a sense of overwhelm, Libby bucked up and began executing the plan. She started with changing the physical environment to make way for more natural light and to embrace an almost Victorian ambiance. Once she was comfortable in the space, Libby turned up the lights on the chocolate making aspect of the business.
Self-taught through online classes and resources, Libby began sourcing the world’s finest quality chocolate to work in the brand new, high-end equipment she had invested in. Slowly, she explored and learned, mastered, then explored some more. “Working with chocolate is so hard,” she says. “The pressure, the environment, and the humidity affect it. You have to know how to temper it. A lot of people think that all I do is throw the chocolate in the melter, but the tempering process is building the blocks, putting them back together properly. If you don’t temper the chocolate, it’s not going to do what chocolate needs to do.”
And what chocolate needs to do isn’t just taste amazing. It should also be part of a larger experience.
Ella Fitzgerald sang, “Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”
Slide left or right to get a look at LibbyBeans‘ decadent creations. From nonpareils to truffles, there is something for everyone. Photos by Kristina Gibb Photography.
The way we approach our lives, our businesses, our art, our interactions isn’t so much about the doing as much as it is about the art of doing. Libby hasn’t just mastered her chocolate, her storefront, her expansions, and her business model. Her aim was always a little bit higher. She didn’t want to just run a successful business, which she does… She has won Hunterdon County’s Best Candy Store every year since she started… Libby also wanted to be a part of the community, to give her neighbors and fellow business owners something to enjoy and someone they could count on.
“It’s just a great community,” she smiles, as she recounts sending employees running up the block with coffee lids for another business when they ran out, or being rescued by a neighbor when she was short on napkins. She talks about community members who come in every day of the week, sometimes more than once a day. She mentions certain people who come in just to sit and partake in the laughter and conversation that finds its way in once the door is unlocked. She talks about expanding her events calendar and bringing in live acoustic music and local artists this summer.
Libby feels very strongly that it is the job of small businesses to support the community both economically and socially. “We send people to other businesses. We have to support our neighbors. That’s what it is being part of a small community, and that’s what makes successful small businesses in a brick and mortar community. It’s about communication and support.”
It’s an ideology that carried Libby through the expansion of her business. As she grew, she added gelato, coffees, and macarons, as well as an outdoor patio for small events. “Every time I think of adding something, I try to think of my neighbors. What’s the best way for me to be a little different, so I don’t take away from them?”
The last thing Libby wants to see happen would be for one of her fellow business owners to lose money because of a choice she made to her benefit. Her community is of the utmost importance.
It is at this point that the bell on the door rings and a man enters. The first customer of the day.
“Good morning, Jerry,” Libby waves from where we are seated. Jerry is cheerful in his reply. He gets his morning coffee from the young lady behind the counter and leaves with a wave. He is the first of many to pass through that morning. Libby knows every single one by name. She is going to miss that, among other things.
You see, Libby is selling. It’s an emotional piece. The causes and feelings around the choice are written all over her face. She is hopeful, tired, ready, sad, and excited all at the same time. Since day one, Libby has worked hard to make LibbyBeans Chocolates the very best it can be. From her recipes to her merchandising, adding a computerized sale system and top-of-the-line equipment, from sourcing exquisite Belgian chocolate to choosing the best purchased inventory and organizing their seasonal rotations, Libby has poured every bit of her love, energy, and savvy into the store.
“I love hitting it out of the park,” she smiles, looking around with a sense of pride and satisfaction. “I’ve accomplished everything (there is to do here). I feel like this part is done. It’s time for me to go be creative somewhere else. I want someone to take it to the next level.”
When asked what that might look like, she shrugs. She has plenty of ideas but understands the way this works. “This is a ‘Ma and Pa,’ and I want it to stay that way. I know that people will change it to be their own over time, and I’m find with that, but I need somebody to negotiate this. I want to pass the torch. It’s a great business for the right person, and the town loves having us here.”
The feeling is certainly mutual. Libby loves being there, but she needs a rest. She says this many times over the course of our conversation. The amount of effort she put into the place has come out of her in a very real way. The plan for the moment is to rest… as much as a lady like Libby can. She is already launching Frenchtown Fudge, which she will be premiering in the store in the weeks ahead.
“Frenchtown Fudge will be for fun,” Libby says, but for someone who doesn’t seem to do anything halfway, I wonder how long she will be able to keep the lid on that kettle before her love of “hitting it out of the park” takes over. Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, anyone who has tasted LibbyBean’s Chocolates is clamoring for a bite of Frenchtown Fudge. Me included. More than that, though, I am excited for the future of both Libby and her stunning chocolate shop. Both are full of promise, brimming with love, and exuding the type of kindness that makes small towns what we appreciate most about them.
“It’s the sweetest place in town,” I say.
Libby looks out the window and waves at a little girl and her dad who will stop in after their daily walk – as they always do. “We got a sweet spot here,” she beams. “We sure do.”
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