Sweet story: After cancer, turning a love for chocolate into a new downtown venture

Jennifer Mowad’s shop, Cocoa & Spice, opens in York Place on the Downtown Mall in October. Photo: Eze Amos Jennifer Mowad’s shop, Cocoa & Spice, opens in York Place on the Downtown Mall in October. Photo: Eze Amos

Jennifer Mowad’s nickname, Cocoa, suits her well. After all, the owner and chocolatier behind Charlottesville chocolate shop Cocoa & Spice has always had a sweet tooth. There’s even a family video to prove it: Mowad, at age 3, so excited to find her candy-filled Easter basket that she literally falls over with joy, hitting her head on the basket on her way down.

In high school, she got the idea that she might someday run her own business, but she wasn’t thinking it would involve her love for sweets. Her passion reemerged when she started making peanut butter cups for friends and family while in graduate school for instructional technology—but in the ensuing years chocolate remained just a hobby.

In 2010, just after she turned 27, Mowad’s view of the world—and her place in it—changed drastically. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the body’s immune system, she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment for six months, which was followed by a time of “figuring herself out” again.

As a part of that process, Mowad went out on a Colorado-based adventure program for young adult cancer survivors called First Descents, where she has served as a volunteer and participant several times since. “The whole point of the program is life after cancer, pushing yourself to do things you didn’t think were possible,” Mowad says. “The trip inspired me to pursue what my dream had been, to say, ‘Now is the time—I think I should I do it.’”

After that, she focused intently on sharing her love of chocolate with others. After completing an apprenticeship at East Van Roasters in Vancouver and online studies via the Ecole Chocolate Professional School of Chocolate Arts, she launched Cocoa & Spice out of her home kitchen in 2015, selling from a food cart on the Downtown Mall. Two years later, she moved production to a commercial kitchen on Stewart Street.

In late August, Mowad—who has shown no sign of her cancer recurring—brought Cocoa & Spice back to where it all began, relocating to York Place on the mall. She did it with a little help—nearly $4,000—from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. The new space will allow for classes, private events, and custom favors in a more customer-facing environment, with treats including peanut butter cups, drinking chocolate, and bark available for purchase.

Brand new for the York Place location of Cocoa & Spice is a chocolate library, which will highlight bean-to-bar makers from across the U.S. and show off the many different flavor profiles of chocolate. Mowad was inspired to start the library after seeing one during a visit to another chocolate shop in her travels.

“That’s what I really like about this field,” Mowad says. “People are really willing to share, whether it’s ideas or recipes. It’s very collaborative and giving.”

For Mowad, the best is yet to come: Following a soft opening on September 15, the new Cocoa & Spice will officially open its doors the first weekend in October.

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