UPTOWN — Ramona Thomas is the kind of person who checks the dessert menu before checking the dinner menu.
At work, she was the one stacking the lunch room with baked goods from her kitchen. Simply put: She loves sweets and always has.
"I remember very fondly as a child going to the candy store with my cousin and we would buy paper bags full of candy and we would share it. It was the highlight of the day," she said.
As a kid in the Bronx, New York, she would buy everything from Sixlets to Charleston Chews and has yet to find a candy bar she didn't like, except Almond Joys. Though she spends her entire life in lust with goodies, she never thought it would be her career until she took a French Pastry class at the French Pastry School in 2010.
"It just opened up this whole new world for me. I’d never been in a commercial kitchen, so I didn’t even know how to work all the equipment. The best way to describe it was my spirit felt at home. I felt like this is where I need to be," she said.
After the class, she immediately began working on her business plan for her very own bakery. Now the 46-year-old Bucktown resident is just weeks away from opening her chocolate and sweets shop My Chocolate Soul, 4442 N. Broadway, in Uptown.
"That summer I started taking cake decorating classes, started to think about what the bakery would be like and [received] all my food safety certifications," she said.
[Courtesy of Kimberly Postma]
An Education in Chocolate
After college, Thomas spent about 18 years in education, mostly involved with administration, philanthropy and working with nonprofits. The career took her to Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, San Francisco and back to Chicago.
By 2006, she was looking for a career change, she said.
"I wanted to leave, but I wasn’t sure what I would do. I didn’t want to go back to the corporate sector ... so I stayed and did different work in education," she said.
After taking the pastry class and finding her new route, "it felt like the right thing. I haven’t looked back at all. I was ready to do something different with this chapter of my life. ... I didn’t know what the journey would look like, but I knew this would be what I’m supposed to do at this point in my life."
Though she loved chocolate candies as a child, looking at the ingredients now she would never eat them. So she wasn't sure about adding chocolates to her business until she took a course on creating chocolates "and that was it."
She started My Chocolate Soul in a shared kitchen in Logan Square, selling the products, which range from truffles to layered candy bars, to Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits and small businesses, according to its website.
Her all-natural chocolates now make up 80 percent of her business, she said.
For two years, she looked all over the city — Bucktown, Lincoln Park, Lakeview — before finding the perfect space along The 606, she said.
After she signed the lease, the landlord "panicked" and raised the rent citing a raise in property taxes in Cook County, she said.
"I said to my broker that day, 'The place that's for me is out there, we just haven’t found it yet or it hasn’t found me yet," she said adding within 24 hours "Uptown found me. ... We didn’t know about it, we didn’t know about the space, we didn’t know a lot about Uptown, but we looked at the space and looked at a lot of things happening in Uptown and it was perfect."
The store will carry things that can't be sold online and can't be shipped, offer daily specials and will have a dessert and pastry case. And will allow her to sell more cakes and cupcakes like "our carrot cakes, which are off the chain," she said.
The retail shop will be small, but will offer an open kitchen allowing customers to see the chocolates and sweets being made. All of the products sold will be made in the kitchen, she said.
Thomas plans to move into the space by mid-July and the renovations should take about four weeks. The bakery will open in early August, hopefully, she said.
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