Chester and the Chocolate Factory

22 Mar

It’s nearing the end of the day at Tumbador Chocolates, and most of the workers have gone home. Only a couple employees remain to wash up the chocolate covered pots and pans; the scent of chocolate wafts through the air as you walk up the four steep flights of stairs of 34, 34th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Inside, rows and rows of little chocolate bunnies and chickens solidify in the cooling room, ready for Easter.

“I was a 100 pounds lighter when I started here,” laughs Chester Almonor, a sales associate at Tumbador Chocolate, as he gives a tour of the factory.

The 26-employee company makes those fancy handcrafted chocolates you find on pillows at the Pierre, Setai, Mark, Mandarin Oriental and Trump International hotels, to name but a few.

But this isn’t just a typical chocolate factory. Since Michael Altman and Jean-Francois Bonnet, a former pastry chef at the three Michelin-star restaurant, Daniel, opened Tumbador in 2005, they have hired about 60 employees through programs that rehabilitate ex-convicts into society.

And Bonnet admits, although the two partners are committed to giving back something to society, sometimes the process has not been easy.

“You would send someone on delivery, and because they have the freedom of having a car, they would slip up and go hang out with friends,” said Bonnet, “We had one guy who was threatening the other one he was working with, saying, ‘I want to see my friends in the Bronx and if you say anything, I’ll kick your butt.’”

However, Bonnet and his partner stuck with the idea. “Just because you were 14, you killed someone, it doesn’t mean you are a rotten apple,” Bonnet said. “You were bad at that time and now you’ve learned.”

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That’s the philosophy of both men: giving people like Chester Almonor a second chance.

And Almonor is grateful for this opportunity, after spending 16-and-a-half years in prison. Asked what he was incarcerated for, he says, matter of factly, “Murder.”

Almonor started working for Tumbador as a driver making $8 an hour, earning less than $20,000 for the year. He was quickly promoted to maintenance manager and then as the assistant to the vice-president of marketing.

He’s now a sales associate, a position that requires he reaches out to new clients and confirms existing ones. He makes above $60,000 a year.

“Not bad for someone who was in jail five – six years ago,” said Bonnet.

Brooklyn-born Almonor was released from jail in 2008. Upon his release, Almonor approached the Fortune Society, an organization that helps people integrate with society, who told him about a driver position at Tumbador Chocolate.

“The next day [that] I was released, I went to get a license back,” said Almonor. “Lots of people try to get rich quick, and it puts them into a cycle, and they keep going back [to jail]. They don’t know that it’s better to get a job.”

Not that it was easy for him however.

“It was a little difficult, re-adjusting to a 9-5, but for me, prior to being incarcerated, I was working, and paying taxes, and voting, so I had a structure,” he said.

“It was just [about] re-adjusting to how times have changed and not trying to play catch-up with what I missed. It was just taking it from that day forward,” added Almonor.

Source: The Brooklyn Ink

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