Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
When young entrepreneurs John Naylor and Terry Friedkin decided to open a store devoted to chocolate many years ago, the idea was appealing to them for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because “everyone loves chocolate,” said Friedkin.
It’s hard to argue with that.
Naylor was the self-described chocoholic of the two. The couple already owned a chain of poster stores in shopping centers around the country, including one at Pier 39, so in 1980 they opened Chocolate Heaven at the San Francisco tourist destination. Last month marked the shop’s 40th anniversary.
Though the two divorced years ago, the business partnership has remained intact. In fact, Chocolate Heaven is just one of their many ventures. “It’s worked beautifully,” Friedkin said. “Perhaps a bigger achievement than the businesses is still being business partners.”
If Friedkin’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she has held numerous lay positions in the East Bay Jewish community over the years, including as president of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay.
In earlier years, Friedkin said, serving on Jewish communal boards helped grow her business acumen, especially when it came to management. Somewhere along the line, that shifted.
“First, I was the one that was learning things from my fellow board members, and then it flipped, and I was able to offer my experience,” she said. “That’s how they always roped me in, by saying, ‘We just want your business sense,’” she added with a laugh.
Chocolate Heaven works with over 100 vendors, selling well-known European brands such as Lindt and supporting local chocolate businesses. All of the confections they make in-house, for example, use chocolate from Bay Area-based Guittard. And when Joseph Schmidt’s truffles were a staple of the local chocolate scene, Chocolate Heaven was one of his largest customers.
Keeping all tastes in mind, Friedkin and Naylor try to satisfy different varieties of sweet tooth. House-made fudge and confections like caramel turtles are big sellers. Many of the products they sell are kosher and labeled as such.
They’ve always been remote operators, following the business philosophy of “get the right people and let them do their jobs,” said Friedkin.
The store was an early adopter of e-commerce, but it had not yet caught on and they weren’t selling very much that way. After several years, they stopped online sales. That was, until Covid hit.
Now, Chocolate Heaven At Home is in the hands of Jennifer Blumenfeld, Naylor and Friedkin’s daughter, who is running the store’s online business arm. “Initially, I was trying to add a fresh perspective and fill in the holes of what they didn’t have,” she said.
Blumenfeld began her career in fashion and didn’t see herself taking over the family business until much later in life. But the opportunity presented itself sooner than she thought it would. She is a mother of three daughters, all under age 5.
“After I had my oldest daughter, I was looking to reposition my work situation and it seemed like a good idea to start learning about the family business,” said Blumenfeld, who says she had an excellent role model in her mother. Friedkin worked while Blumenfeld was at school but was flexible and at home for the kids if necessary. (Her mother often babysits now so Blumenfeld can work.)
“Jen has that rare combination of quantitative perceptions and artistic talents,” said Naylor. “She’s also a mensch, and retail is all about people. In a way, she’s been in training for this for a long time and has this wonderful balance.”
In redesigning the online store, Blumenfeld had to consider the impact of Covid and the drop in tourism, especially challenging for retail businesses located at a tourist hub. While certainly international and out-of-state visitors aren’t coming to the store now, there are plenty of Californians — many Bay Areans, even — who are enjoying being tourists in their own backyards.
Blumenfeld decided to offer a subset of the store’s inventory, mostly the best-selling items, with a focus on what local and other American customers might want as opposed to international tourists, and began shipping throughout the country.
While Blumenfeld is now a full partner in the online aspect of the business, and Friedkin and Naylor are thinking about an exit strategy, they aren’t quite sure when it will happen.
“I was vacillating about my timeline before the pandemic and still am,” said Friedkin. Naylor said that whenever he decides he’s ready, he knows he will be leaving what they’ve built in the best possible hands.
“There’s a saying that one of the worst things you can do is hold on too long and not let the next generation come into their powers,” he said. “I want to support Jen’s growth and strengths, and part of that process is stepping back, maybe stepping forward only when needed.”