The Artisans of Chester
A country town relishes its distinct reputation
“Friends don’t let friends shop at chains.”
The sentence is scrawled on a sign perched at the entrance to one of historic Chester’s winsome shops, but it might as well function as an unofficial motto. Walk along Main Street and you’ll find a number of shops peddling everything from handmade jewelry and crafts to homemade doggie treats.
Nestled in Morris County, Chester is a unique country destination just an hour’s drive from NYC, says Kathy Barbieri, president of the Historic Chester Business Association. “A visit here is an experience.”
Chester may be a small town, but three artisan food shops have received national acclaim. Black River Candy Shoppe was named by Food Network Magazine as the #1 candy store in New Jersey. Take one step inside this garage-cum-country barn a few steps behind Main Street and you’ll see why. The shop has more than 900 types of candy, with some sold by the pound, as well as 200 types of candy bars. You’ll find current trends, but the real treat is discovering an old favorite you haven’t seen in decades. Think old-fashioned gummy fruit slices, candy cigarettes, rock candy swizzle sticks and hard-to-find Pez, for instance.
“There is nothing quite like this store around,” says the owner, Steve Jones. “We’ve been here 18 years and sadly have seen five or six candy stores come and go.” One reason for the shop’s sustainability is its loyal customers. “We have customers from all over, regulars that make the trip just to see us,” says Jones. Black River Candy Shoppe doesn’t have an online shop but will ship candy throughout the United States.
If you are a fan of “Cupcake Wars,” don’t miss The Sweet Spot Bake Shoppe. This shop took home top prize on an episode of the show in 2012; the cupcakes and cookies are worth the splurge.
Chocolate lovers will want to head over to J. Emanuel Chocolatier. Here, they’ve been crafting delicately delicious truffles, barks, caramels and toffee crunch for 20 years. Owner Michael Canzano, the third owner of the store, makes all of the items in-house. A former IT professional, Canzano wanted a change of pace and took over J. Emanuel almost six years ago. After the shop’s wine truffles won the highly coveted Sofi award at the Fancy Food Show a decade ago, everyone from the Wall Street Journal and CNN to Wine Enthusiast came knocking. The wine truffles remain one of the shop’s top sellers.
“Chocolate is a great conduit for flavors to come through,” says Canzano. After a family vacation to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios, he returned to make a butter beer truffle. From banana split to Italian coffee, his truffles are infused with a variety of flavors. Sold by the piece or in ¼, ½ and full pound boxes, the hardest part is often deciding which ones to taste.
Two of Chester’s restaurants encourage tourists to linger. The historic Publick House Tavern & Inn is a Main Street icon. Built in 1810, the brick building, once a stagecoach, is listed on the National Historic Registry. The menu splits its influence among Italian-American dishes, wood-fired pizzas, and pub-style food. Upstairs, 10 suites welcome guests to spend the night and enjoy the town just a little bit longer.
If a spot of tea is calling your name, you can sip on Darjeeling and nibble a scone at Sally Lunn’s Tea Shoppe & Restaurant. This very English tea room has been in Chester for 18 years and invites guests to enjoy more than just delicate baked goods. Entrées include Tiddly Oggie (a proper pastry), Cornish pastie and cottage and cockney pies, among other items. Of course, cucumber sandwiches are also on the menu.
from top to bottom: The Cider Mill at Hacklebarney Farms; Sweet Spot
Bake Shoppe’s Red Velvet, Strawberry Limeade and Rocky Road cupcakes;
The iconic Publick House Tavern & Inn
Chester is well known for its year-round events, including a car show and holiday festivities, but fall is a perfect time to visit. “We have two award-winning craft shows: our Fall Craft Show (September 9 & 10) and a Harvest Celebration (October 14 & 15),” says Barbieri. Harvest is an appropriate word, as Chester is home to a number of farms with different activities. Stony Hill Farms is just a short drive from Main Street with two locations—a greenhouse and flower shop and a farm market with pick-your-own apples and pumpkins.
“Our farm is known for our awesome corn maze,” says Dale Davis, who along with his wife owns Stony Hill Farm. “People come from all over—even out from New York City—to do our maze every year.” This year, Stony Hill Farm has partnered with Turtle-back Zoo’s sea turtle recovery program to raise money and awareness for the program. Not only will a portion of the admission fee support the program, but this year’s maze will be shaped like a giant sea turtle. The maze runs from Labor Day to mid-November.
Alstede Farms features pony rides and a petting zoo for the kids, as well as pick-your-own fruits and vegetables. Stop in the Farm Store to pick up produce, fresh baked goods or shelf-stable products from NJ artisans such as First Field. Alstede Farms is also known for its seasonal homemade ice cream, so don’t leave without a scoop of pumpkin pie. On the weekends, Historic Chester Courtesy Coach shuttles visitors between Main Street and Alstede Farms.
Fifth-generation farmer Karen Collins runs Hacklebarney Farm, a cider mill and bakery known for its scrumptious cider-flavored treats. The light-as-air cider donuts are a big hit. “We’re famous for our harvest pies, a blend of apples, plums, pears and blueberries,” Collins says. Hacklebarney opens its bakery for the season on Labor Day and runs through Thanksgiving. “We’ll do 700 pies for Thanksgiving,” adds Collins. Families come for the fall-themed activities, which include a corn maze, but the food encourages them to stay. “We are only a half-mile from Hacklebarney State Park’s hiking trails, so we get a lot of people who stop in for a snack,” she explains. With fresh cider straight from the press, sweet corn picking well into October, and breads, cookies and pies, there are plenty of choices. Also popular are the farm’s hot dogs. “We cook our hot dogs in apple cider, and we make homemade sauerkraut with apples and cider,” says Collins.
While online shopping certainly offers convenience, nothing replaces the art of browsing in person. “People like the old-fashioned downtown shopping district, something that is sadly disappearing in New Jersey,” says Susan Nagel-Rees, owner of Winky’s Pet Boutique. “I think they come here to shop because nine times out of 10, you’re dealing with the owner who selected and knows the products,” she adds. Customers visit Winky’s for its collection of dog and cat accessories, coats and sweaters and all-natural treats.
As a town resident, Monica Naselli isn’t new to Chester, but her store is only two years old. “I always wanted a store right here on Main Street, and I finally found the right space,” she says. Naselli is a designer/artist who sees beauty in old furnishings, transforming them from dusty to dazzling with some paint and a keen eye. Her store, Dainty Dandelion, spotlights her reworked furniture finds, as well as architectural and industrial details, but Naselli is more proud of the collection of American-made products she carries. She has everything from bottle openers made from spent bullets (“Those are made by a veteran who I found on Shark Tank.”) to a jewelry line created to help fund college scholarships for deserving students.
Next door to Dainty Dandelion is The Olive & The Stone, owned by John and Lori Tumminello. While vacationing in Lake George, the couple wandered into a shop selling olive oil and vinegar and were quickly hooked. They left their corporate jobs behind and opened The Olive & The Stone, where they sell more than 50 products with a focus on high quality olive oil and vinegar. “We import and source all our oils and vinegars from all over the world, but we bottle everything here in the store,” explains John. “We only bottle about a week’s worth of product at a time, so you know our oils and vinegars haven’t been sitting on a shelf forever.” Don’t let the encyclopedic array of infusions overwhelm you, as the shop encourages sampling. “We want you to try everything.” The products are all natural with no preservatives or additives. “Once you taste our oils and vinegars and you taste the difference, you won’t go back.”
The Ant and The Grasshopper features items from more than 70 artists and tinkerers. From handcrafted wooden Garden State cutting boards (crafted by a local 18-year-old) to baby gifts, the store features a well-curated collection of gifts. “It’s like Etsy, only in a store,” says owner Katherine Hermes, who opened the shop in late spring of this year.
Chester Crafts & Collectibles, owned by HCBA President Kathy Barbieri, has been open for 25 years and has 50 booths showcasing everything from hand-knit baby clothes and jewelry to handmade holiday decorations. “We offer an extraordinary collection of fine quality items by over 50 national artists and also have a wide selection of antiques from different styles and periods. We also offer personalized one-of-a-kind gifts,” she adds.
1 Alstede Farms Ln.
104 State Park Rd.
Stony Hill Farms
15 North Rd.
The Ant and The Grasshopper
87 Main St.
Chester Crafts & Collectibles
26 Main St.
58 Main St.
The Olive & The Stone
58 Main St.
Winky’s Pet Boutique
92 Main St.
Dean’s Natural Food Market
Black River Candy Shoppe
44 Main St.
J. Emanuel Chocolatier
461B Main St.
The Sweet Spot Bake Shoppe
57 Main St.
Taylor’s Ice Cream Parlor
18 Main St.
137 Main St #2
The Publick House Tavern & Inn
111 Main St.
459 Main St
Sally Lunn’s Tea Shoppe & Restaurant
15 Perry St.