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‘It’s Fall! Here We Are!’ A Beloved Chocolate Shop Returns

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JERSEY CITY — Valerie Vlahakis, the owner of Lee Sims Chocolates, a mom-and-pop shop between a florist and a pharmacy on a scruffy block in Jersey City’s McGinley Square, eyed ghosts in her display window as she waited for patrons to return.

It was two days after Labor Day, but the 10-foot-wide storefront was already decorated for Halloween. After nearly six months of making do with online sales and curbside pickups during the pandemic, Ms. Vlahakis had unlocked the front door to welcome walk-ins.

No announcement was posted. It was a test. She wanted to see who noticed and rushed back for nonpareils and nougats. Inside, a skeleton staff scurried to fill empty shelves with winking pumpkin pops and hollow chocolate witches.

“Look at us!” said Ms. Vlahakis, a bespectacled septuagenarian. “It’s fall! Here we are!”

She paused.

“And we’re back!”

ImageThe family of Valerie Vlahakis has operated Lee Sims, on Bergen Avenue, since the 1940s.
Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

What the shop lacks in width it makes up for in longevity: The family business goes back seven decades at the site. Each year, Ms. Vlahakis and eight employees melt, mold, box and peddle 150,000 pounds of chocolate. On Valentine’s Day, the demand is such that Lee Sims devotees line up outside, on Bergen Avenue, and a stout worker enforces a one-in, one-out policy.

One February, a customer alerted Ms. Vlahakis that Mayor Jerramiah Healy was waiting in line. “I said, ‘And?’” she said. “He was fine standing out there like everyone else.”

Now Ms. Vlahakis must quickly make the transition from reopening to ramping up for the busiest stretch of the chocolatier’s calendar. By the time it’s two weeks before Christmas, the store will be sending out 250 packages a day.

It wasn’t always clear that Lee Sims would survive this year. Typically viewed as quaint, the store’s tight quarters became a liability in March as the coronavirus coursed through New Jersey. Ms. Vlahakis felt Covid-19’s toll when she received an increase in bereavement gift orders online, and her workers, several of them single mothers who commute on public buses, were nervous. In a business built on efficiently moving chocolate bunnies into children’s baskets, they knew Easter always brought shoulder-to-shoulder shopping down the aisle.

Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

To remind Ms. Vlahakis of her inherited responsibility, she keeps a sign that reads “DON’T SCREW IT UP” above her desk. In short order, she halted the two manufacturing lines in the off-site kitchen, laid off workers and sent a mass email directing the 3,000 customers in her database to the store’s website, which was previously an afterthought.

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To help finish the Easter and Passover rush, one employee worked with Ms. Vlahakis in a back room. Online orders came all the way from California and Alaska, where grandchildren of former Jersey City residents had moved over the years. Those sales, along with a successful bid for disaster relief, steadied the enterprise. Now it’s time to build up inventory again.

“It’s crazy,” Ms. Vlahakis said. “I’m tense about how things are going to be. I’ve got a broken hydraulic pump in the kitchen that is going to set us back. Life!”

Such is the challenge for retail shops as the economy looks to rebound from the pandemic’s costly lockdowns. After filing multiple relief applications, Ms. Vlahakis was ready to give up, but her accountant filed again without her knowledge and received an $8,000 grant from the Small Business Administration. That also made her eligible for a 30-year loan of $76,000 at 3.75 percent interest, which she accepted.

Both eased her ability to pay medical insurance for employees and bring them back. With that secured, conversations with sales representatives switched from health concerns to commerce.

“It has gone from ‘Is everyone OK?’ to ‘Are you ready to buy again?’” Ms. Vlahakis said.

Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times
Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

Her grandfather George Sousane, who immigrated from Sparta in Greece, bought the shop with a partner in the 1940s, when it was a soda fountain and candy establishment. By 1955, her parents, Catherine and Nicholas, had taken over and shifted to chocolate only.

Nicholas Vlahakis, a retired Marine, stood 6-foot-4, smoked cigars and could tell you to the penny what was coming out of every square inch of the store. Catherine wore blazers and skirts, drew customers in with her polite demeanor and wrote down their favorite confections on index cards that she kept in a Rolodex.

They had fierce debates over what went in the window. He was an aggressive marketer, who, when designing the showcase just inside the front door, said, “I want five feet of chocolate in the customer’s face.”

The husband and wife were strivers, and took pride in building the business. Catherine was the architect of their best-selling pyramids, stacking wrapped boxes filled with chocolates, cookies and nuts. And while she was likely to be found behind the scenes, Nicholas could be anywhere, including molding chocolate in an alcove beneath the stairs.

As their fortunes rose, they went from hand-dipping items to coating them with enrober machines, acquired storage space in neighboring basements and bought a three-story building a half-mile west for a bigger kitchen. Twice a year, they sent out brochures to increase their mail-order business. Each box of chocolates was emblazoned with the store’s logo — an artist’s palette with three paintbrushes — and the slogan “Candy Making as an Art.”

Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

Ms. Vlahakis marveled at her parents’ efforts. Her father was “like a mole, all over the place,” but “my mother was something else,” she said. “People come in and reminisce about my father, and I’m like, damn, she was as important, if not more.”

Valerie was not groomed to take over the business. She and her sister, Alison, grew up in a Victorian house on Staten Island, where her extended family lived within a five-block radius. She planned to attend City College of New York and live with girlfriends in Manhattan, but her parents steered her to Bethany College, a small liberal arts school in West Virginia. The Greek Orthodox couple saw it as an opportunity for her to learn that the world was more than a collection of Jewish and Catholic enclaves.

Ms. Vlahakis studied history and political science, and later taught special education at Mark Twain Junior High in Coney Island before returning to the shop in the early 1990s after growing weary of the politics of the education world.

Alison had already taken the Lee Sims brand over the Bayonne Bridge to Staten Island, where she opened her own store, but their father was not thrilled with her sister’s return. She started by studying the business at the molecular level, tracking chocolate’s flow from the cooling tunnel to the cash register, through pumps and compressors. The family basked in the product’s freshness, and ranked it somewhere above grab-and-go bars and below Godiva.

Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times
Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times
Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times
Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times
Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

“There’s no secret recipe,” Ms. Vlahakis said. “It’s physics and chemistry.”

Her parents retired to Florham Park, N.J. At 76, her mother died of breast cancer, and Ms. Vlahakis, then living in Manhattan, moved in with her father, who continued to visit the store just to sit and look around. He died at 83 in 2000.

Ms. Vlahakis still lives in Florham Park, and reports to the Jersey City kitchen in her smock, which is the color of milk chocolate, by 8 a.m. each workday. She has no plans to retire, and her sister continues to operate the Staten Island store with her daughter, Kerry. Workers who started under her father tell Ms. Vlahakis that they can still smell his cigar smoke in the kitchen, where two copies of his obituary are displayed.

“Like it’s haunted!” she said.

With the reopening, customers outnumber ghosts in the store again, and a chocolate carousel is spinning in the window. To protect herself and her staff at the counter, Ms. Vlahakis, who wears a mask and asks that customers do the same, installed plexiglass. Only three patrons can come in at a time, but a cross section of the diverse city parades through each day. One recent afternoon, an assistant prosecutor picked up five bags filled with boxes, a vagrant bought a bar with loose change and a St. Peter’s University student asked whether she could use Apple Pay. Ms. Vlahakis does not take Apple Pay, but joked that she could dip an apple in chocolate instead.

Susan Butler was buying for a reunion with high school friends. She informed Ms. Vlahakis that when she was pregnant with her daughter, her daily exercise was walking a few blocks to Lee Sims to pick up chocolate and then walking back.

“Oh, when was that?” Ms. Vlahakis said.

“Well, she’s 51 now!” Ms. Butler said.

During the lockdown, Ms. Butler worried that the shop would be closed forever. “It’s a landmark, a piece of home,” she said. “Most of the places we grew up with, like the bakery, are gone. It’s memories to us.”

Credit…Victor Llorente for The New York Times

Rob Giumarra, a 47-year-old actor who lives on a horse farm 50 miles north of Jersey City, first came three years ago with a girlfriend and, now three girlfriends removed, remains a patron. He asked for a quarter-pound of dark sea-salt caramels and a quarter-pound of truffles. As Ms. Vlahakis rang him up, Oreos dipped in dark chocolate caught his eye.

“Oh, ho, ho!” he said. “I didn’t know you had those. Next time.”

He paid and exited. Twenty-seven seconds later he returned.

“Uh, oh. What did you forget?” Ms. Vlahakis said.

“Nothing,” Mr. Giumarra said. “I need a quarter-pound of them Oreos. Too damn good.”

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Digital transformation: 4 common mistakes to avoid as a female entrepreneur

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It is not only a cool way of referring to being present on the internet, digital transformation is essential for all businesses that aim for success.

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October 20, 2020 5 min read

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

  • Do it at the mere hour .
  • Act with little agility.
  • Apply old-school leadership.
  • Forget human resources.

Digital transformation is the new strategic opportunity for women entrepreneurs who are willing to make the most of technologies.

Following the global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies faced significant challenges. From modifying their production lines, to a rethinking of their sales channels. Many of them had resisted digitization for different reasons and suddenly had no choice but to evolve and avoid losing more.

1. Do it at the mere hour

Most businesses make the mistake of transforming when problems have already started, rather than taking the initiative before they do.

Image: Djim Loic via Unsplash

This is understandable to some extent because the process can be complex, risky, and intimidating. The idea of adapt or die remains latent when studying the data of Standard & Poor’s, one of the main stock indexes in the world. While in 1958 the average time spent by companies in the index was 61 years, in 2011 it was only 18.

Since Victoria147, we have observed that the panorama in our country has a secret for the survival of these companies, which lies in the correct digital transformation, however, the difficulty of this is also latent, since a high percentage of women entrepreneurs have not managed to achieve all its digital goals. That is why it is important that organizations see this transformation as a priority objective.

2. Act with little agility

Business agility is defined as the ability of an organization to react and respond in an innovative and creative way to changes. The goal is to generate profits by quickly adapting your system to the environment.

To implement it, it is necessary to analyze it through three dimensions: Strategic Agility , Tactical Agility and Cultural Agility . The first focuses on what the company must do to respond to the market with the correct product and quickly, seeking the perfect balance between strategy and execution. The second lies in the agility of multidisciplinary teams for the creation of a product or solution and the third refers to the internalization by the members of the organization of the values and principles that mark the ability of the company to adapt to the environment, allowing you to gain a competitive advantage.

Without a corporate culture based on agility, it is very difficult for the other two dimensions to generate the expected value.

3. Apply old school leadership

Leadership models have not been alien to transformation and innovation. In the last century, there were very hierarchical models and the structures in organizations were very rigid. Each change within the organizations had to face long procedures within the company, boards of directors, bureaucracies and another long list of approvals that in the end ended up affecting innovation in companies.

One of the main problems for companies today is how to sustain the growth of innovation over time and the answer is innovative leadership. This goes against the bureaucratic processes and to generate it it is totally necessary that the organizational culture promotes that the people within the companies become empowered and feel free to propose changes, new improvements; also, that communication with senior managers is two-way, and the most important thing is that these managers listen and take these initiatives seriously.

4. Forget human resources

According to data from the company PROSCI, The Global Leader in Change Management Solutions , companies that effectively manage changes that affect the workforce are up to six times more likely to succeed in their objectives than those that do not.

At Victoria 147, we understand that people are the most important part of the digitization process because it has more to do with people than with technology, since the potential of technology is only useful in the way people use it .

Image: CoWomen via Unsplash

At the same time, the speed of change is remarkable, neither companies nor consumers can fail to ignore the business strategies of the future.

Definitely, they all make a great example where digitization opens the doors to new models of behavior. In this time of great change, training in digital transformation is one of the opportunities of the moment.

“We believe in the power of women to transform the world.”

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With a dose of experience, intuition and resilience, Peruvian winemakers resist the pandemic and self-generate their income

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October 20, 2020 9 min read

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The new reality that we have entered globally for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic can be likened to a scenario where humans and organizations, like titans and unicorns , not only coexist in a different environment but also They struggle to excel and ensure their survival in the midst of an unstoppable digital transformation and an accelerating fourth industrial revolution.

However, in this context it also does the same to survive an apparently simple business model where a dose of experience, intuition and resilience predominates, which serve to learn from mistakes and to ensure business continuity, in the middle of closing or the transformation of countless establishments.

We are talking about the inevitable shopkeepers or winemakers, who have immense potential to explore so that they can empower themselves and professionalize themselves, since at the moment a large part of them work without major techniques and state-of-the-art tools that can allow them to become professional and more productive. section of the value chain in which they operate.

Despite the fact that the health emergency paralyzed almost all the economic and productive sectors of the country, the traditional wineries or neighborhood stores did not stop for an instant despite the limitations and social restrictions imposed since the beginning of the pandemic to prevent the spread of the virus.

The resilience of shopkeepers and winemakers have left us inspiring lessons to rethink the relationship between survival, thought and action in the midst of a pandemic, since these true “own account” have not only secured a means to self-generate income, but have also formed a great economic force in their respective countries.

The importance of this business model is reflected in various statistics from South American markets, which indicate that the sales of stores or warehouses may have declined significantly in the current situation, but together they make up a great economic force.

According to a study by the consulting firm Fundes , wineries or neighborhood stores represent 40% of grocery sales in Latin America, which makes them a great economic force.

The resilience of shopkeepers and winemakers have left us inspiring lessons to rethink the relationship between survival, thought and action in the midst of a pandemic / Image: Depositphotos.com

To “get up earlier”

The common denominator behind the stories of each winery is the need to self-generate its own economy, in addition to being part of a family inheritance or an opportunity to raise a family, as well as the strength to overcome obstacles and crises with limited resources and minimal support of traditional channels.

In the midst of the social restrictions imposed by the quarantine in Peru , mainly in phase 1, I had the opportunity to talk with several shopkeeper friends -from different geographical locations in Lima-, about their expectations regarding the continuation of their businesses and the adjustments to the supply chain that allow them to continue serving their customers.

Most of the interviewees indicated that they had not stopped since the beginning of the pandemic and their sales continued to maintain almost the same levels, with the difference that now it was necessary to “get up earlier” to go to look for merchandise, given that many production centers of consumer goods were operating at 30% of their capacity, which caused some delays in receiving their orders.

They were also forced to work fewer hours due to the limitations imposed by the health emergency and the “curfew” at night.

In addition, they refer that they feel “privileged and grateful” because despite the sanitary restrictions imposed, they could continue working supplying the population with basic necessities, while other economic activities were paralyzed or are slowly being reactivated, not to mention that in many cases they were forced to close.

The common denominator behind the stories of each winery is the need to self-generate its own economy / Image: Depositphotos.com

Search for “best prices”

Although it is true that all of them are clients of large suppliers of mass consumption brands, those who deliver merchandise in their stores, continue to consider that it is better to go to the wholesale centers to find better prices and have a significant stock of part of their products. In this search, the maxim that they always keep in mind is “you have to know how to buy”, and also “know how to sell”.

One of the resources used to mitigate the impact of declines in sales was selling stationery, bazaar, and cleaning supplies. In addition, a great strength in these times is having a repowering and trained “delivery” that complies with the required health protocols.

The pandemic and quarantine do not seem to have left Peruvian winemakers in panic or anxiety. It was and is the opportunity to demonstrate resilience and put into practice the lessons learned from personal, family or national crises, since Peru lived through years of violence and economic crisis. Likewise, they should and must demonstrate that they are not conformists, that they have quick adaptability, that there is no time for regrets and that, based on reality, achievable goals should be set.

In recent years many of them went through great challenges and abrupt falls, which made them stagger and test the direction of the ship that they had underway.

It has also been difficult for many of them to go from manual to electronic billing systems and stock control with QR code, contactless payment methods, electronic wallets and apps to use their wholesale orders that are very helpful, but they are working in the process of adaptation while others have migrated to changes that are imposed as necessary to remain in force.

Goals achieved

A good part of the Peruvian winemakers have gone from being a small shop to a “minimarket” with success stories that have demanded between 10 and 30 years. This has allowed them to build their own home or buy an apartment and live better, as well as provide their children with a better education, access to private health, not having over-indebtedness, among other achievements that show their personal improvement, as a result of their entrepreneurship.

The strategy that they have implemented for this transformation is to offer a sale for convenience and value-added service, where the client can pay more, having as compensation the immediacy, proximity and solutions.

Thus, they remain the option for people of all generations who want to satisfy an immediate need by resorting to the closest winery to their home, or in other cases ordering through social networks or a phone call.

Added to this is also offering specialized or highly segmented products that are chosen based on the consumer knowledge of their customers. Something that may be easier to know, as the phrase “A good cuber eye” says, and without having an integrated CRM program.

As a corollary, it is appropriate to point out that if shopkeepers had more impulse to progress, access to training with educational quality programs on Marketing, Trade Marketing, Visual Mershandising, Canvas, Design Thinking , Lean Startup , Accounting, Administration, among others, we could talk about a whole power to be developed so that it contributes to economic growth and development according to current times.

This development would have to be agile, dynamic, interactive and be put into practice with traceability .

These traditional businesses have always faced the risk of disappearing as a result of innovation and investments by powerful economic groups. Perhaps today is the opportunity for them to envision and strengthen strategic alliances and businesses that consolidate them as lasting business models, as well as traditional and familiar ones.

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Intel Casts Off More Memory Chip Business in $9 Billion Deal

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ImageThe deal announced on Monday with SK Hynix, a South Korean company, involves NAND flash memory chips, which store data in a variety of devices.
Credit…Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Intel moved to further distance itself from its original business, reaching a deal to sell a remaining memory chip unit to SK Hynix of South Korea for $9 billion.

The transaction, announced on Monday, includes Intel’s most important factory in China. But it excludes a proprietary memory technology that the company has been promoting as an important tool for accelerating speeds in cloud data centers.

Intel for decades has been known for supplying the microprocessors that serve as calculating engines in most computers. But Intel was founded in 1968 mainly to make memory chips, which store data in all kinds of electronic devices.

Those components are largely interchangeable and come from multiple suppliers, which compete fiercely on price and subject the market to boom and bust periods. So Intel, starting in the 1980s, began retreating from segments of the memory business to focus efforts on more profitable microprocessor sales.

The deal with SK Hynix focuses on chips known as NAND flash memory, which store data in smartphones, computers and many other products. Intel’s flash memory business has been doing well lately, with revenue up 76 percent in the second quarter owing to factors like pandemic-related spending on personal computers.

Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

But Intel, which has recently suffered from manufacturing problems, has at other times been hurt by drops in flash memory pricing. Robert Swan, Intel’s chief executive, previously signaled that it might seek a partner or acquirer for the unit.

“Memory is never a great business,” said Jim Handy, a market researcher with Objective Analysis. The deal with SK Hynix is “a very natural step” for Intel, he added.

Intel primarily makes flash memory chips at a factory in Dalian, China, though the company also conducts related development work in New Mexico.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier Monday that the companies were close to a deal. A news release issued in the evening by SK Hynix said it would make an initial $7 billion payment to acquire both the Dalian factory and NAND flash business as well as a related business selling storage drives that use the chips.

Until a final closing of the deal, not expected until March 2025, Intel will continue to make chips at the Dalian factory, the companies said. After the close, SK Hynix will make a final $2 billion payment and receive other assets, including intellectual property needed to make the chips.

The deal does not include rights to a memory technology called 3D XPoint, developed in a joint venture with Micron Technology, which offers higher data transfer speeds than conventional NAND flash. That technology, which Intel markets under the brand name Optane, “is Intel’s crown jewel in the memory sphere,” said Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

Intel has spent billions of dollars perfecting the technology, Mr. Handy said, but the latest quarterly results suggest it may no longer be selling the chips at a loss.

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