Lee Sims Chocolates
743 Bergen Ave.
Admit it. We’ve all done it. It’s Valentine’s Day, and that special someone gives you a beautiful box of assorted chocolates. And you bite into each one, just to see what gooey surprise is hidden beneath that dark, shiny veneer.
Valerie Vlahakis, a member of one of Jersey City’s most legendary chocolate families, has not lost that sense of awe. In fact, she says, “I sometimes go home sick” from sampling her delectable wares.
Along with her sister, Alison, Vlahakis is co-owner of Lee Sims Chocolates. Their grandfather was the original owner. He bought the shop in the 1940s from two women who operated it as a soda fountain. He learned the chocolate trade from a German confectioner.
Vlahakis makes the creations on site. “I do all the confections here,” she says “and enrobe them in chocolate.” Enrobe them? That’s the professional lingo, and it would be hard to come up with a better word for this extreme comfort food.
At this point, Vlahakis references Lucille Ball. Folks of a certain age or young people obsessed with old reruns will recall Lucy’s most momentous screw-up—trying to enrobe chocolates on an assembly line.
Vlahakis talks about “making candy.” She never uses the word manufacture. That calls to mind smokestacks, she says. “It’s the quality of ingredients that matter,” she says. “And we make small batches, so that we can keep the price and value at a good level.”
Though Jersey City is not her home, Vlahakis has worked here so long that she says, “I identify with Jersey City as my community, and McGinley Square has a strong sense of place.”
Vlahakis says her parents were “not thrilled” that both she and her sister wanted to work in the family business. “They expected my sister and me to have professions,” Vlahakis says.
But she’s never looked back. “It’s a great thing to see what you’ve done at the end of the day when you have 250 pounds of what you made on the shelf,” she says.
When she was a kid, she says, “I’d come home from school and there’d be chocolate in the air, like a big hug.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It makes you want to take to your bed with a box of bon bons.
183 Newark Ave.
Steve Kalcanides owns and runs this family business, which has been around since 1968. “Pizza has changed a lot over the years,” Kalcanides says. “It’s more exotic. When we first opened, there was just cheese pizza, and the first topping to come around was pepperoni.”
Now, they have 20 different toppings in myriad combinations. For lunch and dinner, they feature two combinations, which are put on display.
In the old days, he says they offered fountain drinks, orangeade, and grapeade. “Now you have so many types of drinks available, bottles of Snapple, white and green teas, as well as canned and bottled soft drinks.”
Helen’s is not noted for either thin or thick-crust pizzas. “It’s medium, leaning toward thin,” Kalcanides says.
Making good pizza is all about quality and coordination. You’ve seen pizza chefs heaving the dough in the air. “You have to stretch it evenly with no thin spots,” Kalcanides says. “You have to lay down the sauce evenly and use just the right amount of cheese.”
The family has a secret recipe for its tomato sauce, and they get their cheese from all around the country, but Kalcanides says he is partial to Wisconsin cheese.
Kalcanides, who is Greek, claims that pizza was invented in Greece around 300 BC.
Licensed clinical social worker
Jill Pedersen has cornered the local market on a certain kind of therapy—outdoor therapy. That’s right, don’t think couch, think park.
“I’m trying to do work without office space,” she says. “Walk and talk therapy. There’s something about walking that the defenses are not as high. When you’re physically engaged, you don’t have your defenses up, and information and work flow more fluidly.”
Though a few therapists around the country do it, it is not a traditional therapy. “Most therapists feel more comfortable in their own familiar environment,” Pedersen says. “It’s a hierarchical relationship, with the clients in the therapists’ domain.”
Fresh-air therapy can be less stressful for new patients. “So many people simply haven’t been in therapy before,” Pedersen says. “It’s daunting finding one you click with, sitting in their office face to face and talking about the most vulnerable parts” of your life.
“Walking is an easy way to try out new therapy,” Pedersen says. “It’s not so intimidating, and it’s a great method for anybody active or who has difficulty sitting for an hour. Motion and walking are therapeutic.”
Pedersen, who is a licensed clinical social worker, says that her unique therapy methods “help people too busy to fit traditional therapy into their schedules.” She usually walks in the Exchange Place area, where folks working in the high-rise office buildings can easily get away for a stroll. Even in winter, the walk/talk therapy can be bracing but effective.
Pedersen is married with a small child. A Massachusetts native, she has lived in downtown Jersey City for seven years.
“It’s the first place that felt like home since Massachusetts,” she says. “It’s very friendly, very neighborly, and very warm.”—JCM
Enchanting for Fine Women’s Fashions
34 Exchange Place
This go-to place for women’s clothes has been in business for 15 years, and manager Margie Torres has honed her knack for helping women find just the right outfit for work, parties, weddings, or when they just want to feel sharp and stylish.
“We have young women, older women, corporate working women—funky, evening, dressy, all different kinds of clothes,” Torres says. “You come in here, and you go out with something, whether it’s for work or a wedding.”
Women who shop here are not likely to run into other women wearing the same thing. Every occasion is different, and every woman is different. “You won’t see my clothes at Macy’s or the Short Hills mall,” Torres says.
Torres, who was born and raised in downtown Jersey City, says she is “overwhelmed by the changes. I’m still in shock. I can’t believe it’s downtown Jersey City. I walk around, and I’m amazed. It’s so beautiful down here near the water with new buildings and restaurants.”
Torres likes to put together the whole package, not just the dress or suit. “Earrings, pocketbook, scarves, hats, jewelry, the whole thing,” she says. “If they try an item and ask my opinion, I will say it is not for you. It’s not just about making money. I want them to come in here and go out happy.”
Interviews by Kate Rounds