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Arbutus chocolate shop to open thanks to change in county law

Move over Willy Wonka, Jama Cocoa has arrived in Arbutus.

Jamasen Rodriguez, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, and three of his classmates have started a chocolate-making business that will open in Arbutus in the spring.

No exact date has been decided for the business, which will move into the storefront at 5403 East Drive formerly occupied by Rita's Italian Ice.

Rodriguez has been interested in the chocolate business since he was 10 years old. After emerging as a finalist in last year's Hopkins Business Plan Competition — a competition in which students are given the opportunity to pitch their business plans to venture capitalists and business professionals — he decided it was time to start his own business.

"All the judges really loved it, so it really helped me hit the ground running with a plan to actually make this work," Rodriguez said.

"I just really didn't want to wait," he said.

"I started making chocolates out of my dorm room, selling to fellow students on campus. They immediately liked it," Rodriguez said.

Jama Coca currently offers a few chocolate truffles online and with the help of his world-renowned mentor Jaques Torres, Rodriguez plans to expand to include other products as well.

Rodriguez spent the summer of 2012 working at Galletto's restaurant in his California hometown of Modesto and decided to pitch his idea to the restaurant's owner, Tom Gallo.

"He liked it. He wanted to invest," Rodriguez said.

"As soon as that happened, we immediately replanned our business plan basically," he said.

He and his business partners, Daivik Orth, a sophomore from Beaverton, Ore.; Demilade Obayomi, a sophomore from Lagos, Nigeria; and Alex Mathews, a freshman from Yorba Lina, Calif., spent the past few months networking, creating a website ( that launched Feb. 1 and searching for a home for the new business.

"Arbutus was just a fantastic place," Rodriguez said.

"It's very close to UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) so we can try and grab college students from there," he said.

"It was just the right place at the right time," he said.

Because all four of those involved in the business are students at Hopkins, the store will not be open for regular business hours until after the end of the spring semester.

"Our plan is to have people come in for appointments and be able to teach them a little bit about chocolate and be able to show them around a little bit," Rodriguez said.

Once the students get out of school in May, Rodriguez, said they hope to sell their product line, which is currently only available online, in a retail fashion.

"We're hoping that the Arbutus community ... will be able to help us out through the summer time," Rodriguez said.

Though he is happy for the space in Arbutus, Rodriguez's long-term goal is to open a store in Manhattan that will act as what he calls a "chocolate cafe," partnering with local artists to decorate and create and atmosphere similar to that of a coffee shop.

"The idea of this company is to be the next Starbucks of the chocolate industry," Rodriguez said.

"It's supposed to be as relaxed as Starbucks, but not coffee, it's chocolate," he said.

A new law for a new era

Though Rodriguez is excited about opening his shop in Arbutus, the option to sell their products online was not immediately available.

According to county law, a property such as the East Drive location that is zoned Business Local could be used for a candy store, "but goods made on the premises must be sold only at retail on the premises."

Because Jama Cocoa also wants to sell products on the Internet as well, 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk decided to create a bill for the County Council to allow that.

"I'm literally changing the law to help business in Arbutus," Quirk said.

His amendment to the bill states that a business may sell their goods online, but must maintain a retail storefront as well.

There was concern that, because the property includes a prominent storefront window on East Drive, retail might be sacrificed for online sales.

"Our concern was that we not lose the storefront window presence," said Terry Nolan, president of the Arbutus Business and Professional Association.

"If you're a nice candy store and you have nice candy in your window, that's certainly not a loss in any way," he said.

However, Quirk plans to ensure that retail face is upheld.

The County Council unanimously voted to approve an amendment to the bill stating, "except that retail sales may be supplemented with Internet sales provided that the retail component of the store fronts the street."

"Everybody saw the reason for this," Quirk said of the unanimous vote.

"I think that's the key thing, is that we're maintaining a retail frontage," Quirk said.

Quirk is excited to welcome the new business to the area and said it was time the law prohibiting online sales was altered.

"That's something we need to embrace," Quirk said of online retail. "And it's a code that's been long overdue for revision."

Nolan said he is glad compromise was reached and is eagerly anticipating the new chocolate store's opening.

"We welcome this business. We're glad we can reach an accord that will please everybody," Nolan said. "We look forward to their first batch (of candy)."

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