At 6:30 pm on a Saturday night, Rhonda Kave, owner of Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, is doing the dishes in her shop. She’s the only one working – and there’s a lot to clean up after yesterday’s busy chocolate fair.
With increases in labor costs, fines, regulations and soaring rents, Kave had no other choice but to cut down her staff last year and take on the majority of responsibilities herself.
“I’m poor as a church mouse,” said Kave. “I don’t have any money in the bank and I burned through my 401K operating the shop.”
But the business lives on. Roni-Sue’s Chocolates will celebrate its tenth birthday this month.
Hailing from South Jersey, Kave has been making confectionary sweets for over 30 years. She first learned how to make butter-crunch, now a specialty of hers, in a cooking class she attended with a friend decades ago.
The shop got its start five blocks away in Essex Street Market in 2007, well before the New York City artisanal food boom.
Kave says she was very lucky to find this venue at the time given the affordable price and guaranteed foot traffic. The other options were incomprehensibly expensive. She still wonders how anyone can afford to pay $12,000 a month for a space the size of a large bathroom selling products for $1 to $5 a pop.
Since her debut at the market, Kave has opened a shop of her own on Forsyth Street in the Lower East Side. The shop sells her specialty butter crunch, toffees, truffles, lollipops, pretzel treats, caramel popcorn and an old favorite, chocolate covered bacon.
This shop is where the truffles live. They’re the very thing Kave takes the most pleasure in making, but also pose a problem for the business. Fresh truffles have to be carried in special cases and need to be kept at 60 degrees exactly with 40 percent humidity or less. This means they can’t be sold wholesale or in restaurants unless they have the proper equipment to store them.
Most recently, the largest hurdle for Roni Sue’s Chocolates has been the minimum wage hike. Last year, Kave had to reduce her staff by two thirds to survive.
“Once you do the numbers, it’s cut and dry. I can give it a try eliminating them or close my doors,” said Kave.
Because she reduced her staff to only two people, that meant hours had to be cut as well.
Dr. Dene Hurley, Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Lehman College, thinks that embracing change is the only way for businesses, especially small ones like Roni-Sue’s, will be able to survive.
“They’ll have to find some way of adapting,” said Dr. Hurley.
At Jo Mart Chocolate, which has been in business since 1946, owner Michael Rogak sees cutting his own salary as the only way to move forward after the next wage hike. He explains that because he’s been doing this for so many years and can afford it, he’d prefer that over cutting staff.
“Eliminating part time workers was an option when we looked at the numbers,” he said. “But it went against what I want to do.”
For Rhonda Kave, downsizing is just one of the ways she’s adapting. She is also moving part of her business to a different market and started teaching chocolate making classes. Kave explained that five years ago she never would have seen herself teaching, but that these days she needs the income and actually enjoys it.
At the end of last year, the minimum wage in New York City rose to $11 from $9 for businesses with more than 10 employees and to $10.50 from $9 for businesses with less than 10. In three months, wages will jump again. Large business wages will rise to $13 and small business wages to $12.