Meet Jersey Artisans at the Forefront of the Craft-Chocolate Movement

These are the passionate makers behind Vesta Chocolate in Montclair and Josh Chocolates in Orange.

Owners Julia Choi Rodriguez and husband Roger Rodriguez sit on the stoop outside Vesta Chocolate in Montclair.

Julia Choi Rodriguez and husband Roger Rodriguez started Vesta Chocolate during the pandemic and have seen their business grow. Photo by Bryan Anselm

Of the many ways to gift your valentine, chocolate always hits the mark, especially by artisans of the caliber of Vesta and Josh.

VESTA CHOCOLATE

Walking into Vesta Chocolate in Montclair when cacao beans are being ground is like entering an olfactory hurricane. The aroma is almost strong enough to knock you off your feet—in a good way.

Vesta is a relative newcomer in the bean-to-bar craft-chocolate movement, which is beginning to do for candy bars and hot cocoa what small breweries have done for beer and local roasters for coffee. Vesta, run by a husband-and-wife team, is a wholesaler, an online market, a retail store, and a place to enjoy fresh coffee and hot chocolate.

Cofounder Julia Choi Rodriguez doesn’t have a minute to lose as she folds pink boxes for cheesecakes glazed with chocolate ganache. Her husband, cofounder Roger Rodriguez, looks hipsterish in a beanie as he scurries around the back of the shop, making more chocolate.

You could say Roger was born to be a chocolatier; his grandfather owned a cacao plantation in the Dominican Republic. Roger began to experiment with chocolate making when he was a sous pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern and, later, Del Posto in Manhattan. “He had a knack for it,” says Julia. Roger moved on to work at Cacao Prieto, an Atlas Obscura–listed chocolate and rum maker in Brooklyn, and became its head chocolatier.

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Julia handles everything but chocolate production. Officially the CEO, she worked as a food stylist before starting the business with Roger. “My job is to take food and make it look good,” she says. Julia extends that concept to the look of the shop. Set in a former bank building, it includes the enormous, old-fashioned vault, itself a picturesque centerpiece.

It was Julia who organized Vesta’s big pivot just weeks after opening in January 2020. “Nobody told us to put a pandemic in the business plan,” she says jokingly. Originally conceived as a small café where chocolate lovers would linger, Vesta became a boutique, but with the website quickly redesigned for ordering, local delivery and shipping. Luckily, as Julia notes, “chocolate’s actually a depression good,” able to lift spirits.

“When we roast the cacao beans, you can smell them down the block,” she adds. “We have clients who come in and say, ‘I don’t know what you do, but I followed the smell.’” At bistro tables on the sidewalk, customers enjoy brownie sundaes in warm weather and hot chocolate when there’s a chill.

Valentine’s Day, surprisingly, isn’t that big a hullabaloo. The big rush is confined to the three days before the holiday, when “desperate husbands” line up. Chocolate, Vesta wants people to know, shouldn’t be calendar driven. “Our overarching concept,” Julia says, “is craft chocolate every day.”

598 Valley Road, Unit 2; 973-860-7136.

JOSH CHOCOLATES

An overhead shot of dozens of chocolate treats.

An assortment of Josh Chocolates makes for the perfect Valentine’s Day gift. Courtesy of Jennifer Horne

Growing up in Texas the oldest son of a single mother, Josh McCain did most of the cooking for his family. He spent summers in California with his great-aunt Carol, who not only cooked for him, but also kept a small bowl perpetually stocked with See’s chocolates. During his 15 years on active duty in the Army, McCain passed through many airports and always bought a box of See’s when he saw its kiosk.

A portrait of Josh McCain, founder of Josh Chocolates.

The discipline of Josh McCain’s military career eased the transition to the rigors of crafting fine chocolate. Courtesy of Jennifer Horne

See’s may be McCain’s Rosebud. After his active service, he went to culinary school and, later, pastry school. There, he encountered French Valrhona chocolate, and “my mind was blown.” In February 2020, after visiting Vesta in Montclair, McCain bought equipment and started making chocolate at home. When the pandemic hit, he sent some of his bars to work with his fiancée, a neonatologist, to thank front-line health workers for their service.

Pretty soon, they started asking for more “Josh chocolates,” which suggested the name for the business he now runs from his home in Palisades Park. He crafts his bars and exotic bonbons in a commercial kitchen in Orange and sells them at farmers markets and fairs—a calling he juggles with his job as a warrant officer advising senior military officials on artillery and strategic planning.

Wearing a white Josh Chocolates hat and a sherpa jacket, McCain comes across a bit like a square-jawed teddy bear. He loves explaining how fine chocolate is made and that a bar should be shiny and snap, not crumble. McCain’s military career serves his story. “I’ve seen some really terrible things,” he says. “Being able to make a chocolate bar and watch somebody smile gives me a lot of pleasure.”

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