Best chocolate shop in the state?

USA Today taps Al Richards

USA Today's decision was based on customer reviews. Richard (left) and Fred believe in customer service.
USA Today's decision was based on customer reviews. Richard (left) and Fred believe in customer service.

Al Richards, a sweets institution in Bayonne, has been singled out by USA Today as the best chocolate shop in New Jersey.

Named for its founders Alfred (known as Fred) and Richard Stancampiano, the store isn’t just about chocolate but about service, says Richard.

“We’re flattered and humbled by this,” he said. “This is a nice acclamation.”

Although well-known for a quality product, Richard says, “The idea is to provide a complete gift-giving facility, so that your cousin in Pennsylvania can get a gift hand-signed by you and made by us.”

Al Richard’s is composed of two different but wonderful worlds. One is the retail store with its wine-colored awning, and aisles stocked with glittering packages. The other is the behind-the-scenes factory that churns out thousands of pieces of premium chocolate. Tables and boxes fill every niche of this world, where the unmistakable aroma of its iconic product entices visitors. The rich brown liquid ribbons into small mixing vats waiting for the moment when molds will give the fluid shape.

We’re flattered and humbled by this. This is a nice acclamation.” — Richard Stancampiano

The origin story

The story behind the store is as legendary as its chocolate. Fred and Richard started the company in 1981.

“I was a musician, my brother was just out of school,” Fred recalled. “We owned a luncheonette on West Side Avenue in Jersey City. We had a small candy section that measured about eight feet long. The candy section during the holidays made as much money as the entire store did during the rest of the year.”

So the brothers decided to go into the candy-making business.

But the move from store owners to chocolate makers required significant funds the brothers didn’t have.

“We knew we needed money, so we took what we had and went to Atlantic City, where we got lucky on the roulette wheel,” Fred said. “We took $1,000 and rolled that into $4,000 on a roulette table, and we bought a machine that is called an enrober.”

They sometimes call this the “I Love Lucy Machine,” a candy-wrapping conveyor belt made famous by a classic episode of the I Love Lucy TV show where Lucy and her best friend Ethel struggle to keep up with production and wind up eating more chocolate than they wrap.

“Unfortunately we didn’t know how to use it,” Fred said with a laugh. “We couldn’t even figure out how to turn it on.”

The sweet spot

They eventually acquired recipes from a candy maker they knew in upstate New York; these recipes became a staple over the next few decades.

Though they launched their candy business in Jersey City, Fred said they wanted to find an untapped market and soon discovered Bayonne. They opened their first store on Avenue C, then moved to their current location at 851 Broadway in 1993, where they’ve become something of an institution.

“We spend a lot of time looking for unique packaging,” Fred said. “We go to a lot of closeout sales looking for things we can package our chocolate in. This includes everything from baskets to ceramic containers, anything that we can fill with chocolate we’ll buy and sell.”

Customers come to the Broadway store from Bayonne, nearby Staten Island and Jersey City, and as far away as North Bergen. Shipments from the factory go all over the county and the country.

A shocking decision

In 2005, the brothers did something none of their customers expected: they sold the business, going into finance, thinking they could work a normal 9-to-5 job five days a week, rather than the long hours and six-day weeks the store required.

But the new owner couldn’t make a go of it, partly because he abandoned some of the basic cost-cutting measures the brothers had implemented. While the store might have done well in plush times, the economic crisis that started in 2008 allowed the brothers to buy back the business in 2009.

And the rest is history

They said they missed the lifestyle and that the financial business had not proven as lucrative as they had thought. Above all, they missed the interaction with customers.

While Christmas and Easter are the busiest times of year, Fred said there is an increasing demand for chocolate for special events such as weddings graduations, and ethnic events such as Irish or Italian festivals.

“Once people taste our product, we know they’ll come back,” Fred said.

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