Just last week, Jessica Holten-Casper was “up to her ears” in chocolate bunnies, chocolate Easter eggs, peanut butter eggs and chocolate lollipops. And not just any chocolate, but Sjaaks — organic, vegan, gluten-free chocolates made from USDA certified organic sugar, nuts and cocoa butter.
While the rest of us are planning clever hiding places for eggs, or are pondering whether to eat our chocolate bunny’s ears or tail first, Jessica has long-ago shipped the last of her family’s Easter-themed products from Sjaak’s Commerce Street wholesale distribution center. By Easter morning, she’s already hard at work preapring for the next holiday.
“Next up,” Jessica tells us, “is Mother’s Day and Graduation. Easter, Halloween and Christmas are huge — but we keep rolling through holiday after holiday.”
You could say that chocolate is in Jessica’s genes.
“My father, Jacques Holten, comes from Holland, where he started culinary school at the age of 12,” she says. “Within a year, he was learning to be a chocolatier — a specialist who crafts pieces of edible art from chocolate. Gathering experience at chocolate houses around Europe, Dad studied in Germany, Holland, Turkey and Spain. While in Spain, he met my mother, Pam, the American exchange student who eventually became his wife and business partner in their Eureka, California bakery and chocolate shop.”
Jessica continues, “Americans had trouble pronouncing Jacques, so he spelled it Sjaaks on his sign. In a decision based on conscience rather than niche-marketing, Dad became a lacto-vegetarian in 1970, and began his quest to create gourmet vegan chocolates.”
Jessica has been a lacto-vegetarian her entire life, and several years ago, she and her father and husband all became vegans.
“Today, organic vegan is the only type of chocolate we make,” she says, “and to expand our product line beyond dark chocolates, Dad created a popular delight made with almond-milk we call “melk” chocolate.”
Sjaaks opened its distribution and mail-order business in Petaluma 13 years ago.
“I originally moved here because of the rolling hills, small town feel, and proximity to the S.F. Bay Area,” Jessica explains, “but I quickly met good people who shared my progressive values and supported my vegan and organic choices. When the family decided to establish Sjaaks retail website and distribution hub in the Bay Area, I already lived in a town that is centrally located.
“So, here we are.”
Jessica adds that as a small business owner and mother, she’s found lots of encouragement and support from the Petaluma community.
“I wear many hats,” she says. “I’m also the mother of Cylus and Eli, first and fifth graders in the astounding River Montessori Charter School.”
The school is another of the major reasons she and her chemist husband Bryan feel so at home in Petaluma.
Says Jessica, “(Our school) offers free, public education, from kindergarten through sixth grade, based on the self-paced, love-of-learning concepts pioneered a hundred years ago by the Italian educator, Maria Montessori. I’m proud that my children, and their friends, learn in a harmonious community which respects one another and engenders the all-encompassing goal of peace.”
(Email Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org)