“There’s no secret recipe,” Ms. Vlahakis said. “It’s physics and chemistry.”
Her parents retired to Florham Park, N.J. At 76, her mother died of breast cancer, and Ms. Vlahakis, then living in Manhattan, moved in with her father, who continued to visit the store just to sit and look around. He died at 83 in 2000.
Ms. Vlahakis still lives in Florham Park, and reports to the Jersey City kitchen in her smock, which is the color of milk chocolate, by 8 a.m. each workday. She has no plans to retire, and her sister continues to operate the Staten Island store with her daughter, Kerry. Workers who started under her father tell Ms. Vlahakis that they can still smell his cigar smoke in the kitchen, where two copies of his obituary are displayed.
“Like it’s haunted!” she said.
With the reopening, customers outnumber ghosts in the store again, and a chocolate carousel is spinning in the window. To protect herself and her staff at the counter, Ms. Vlahakis, who wears a mask and asks that customers do the same, installed plexiglass. Only three patrons can come in at a time, but a cross section of the diverse city parades through each day. One recent afternoon, an assistant prosecutor picked up five bags filled with boxes, a vagrant bought a bar with loose change and a St. Peter’s University student asked whether she could use Apple Pay. Ms. Vlahakis does not take Apple Pay, but joked that she could dip an apple in chocolate instead.
Susan Butler was buying for a reunion with high school friends. She informed Ms. Vlahakis that when she was pregnant with her daughter, her daily exercise was walking a few blocks to Lee Sims to pick up chocolate and then walking back.
“Oh, when was that?” Ms. Vlahakis said.
“Well, she’s 51 now!” Ms. Butler said.
During the lockdown, Ms. Butler worried that the shop would be closed forever. “It’s a landmark, a piece of home,” she said. “Most of the places we grew up with, like the bakery, are gone. It’s memories to us.”