At Noir d'Ebene, owner Journey Shannon sells sweets (and savories), but she sells sensuality, self-love, community care, and adventure too.
If you know Journey Shannon, you’ve heard this phrase umpteen times; it’s her philosophy.
And her passion, compassion, and joie de vivre are mixed into every bean-to-bar, handcrafted chocolate, pastry, and savory at her year-old store, Noir d'Ebene Chocolat et Patisserie.
The shop, at 1309 Chicago Avenue, is two miles from Journey’s childhood home at 2308 Foster Street in the part of Evanston that's considered Evanston’s historic Black ward. The area was created by segregation and redlining that kept housing for Black Evanstonians legally restricted until 1969.
Though it’s just an eight-minute drive from Foster Street, getting here took Journey 20-plus years, hence the name she picked (her birth name is Shannon) when she realized that her life was becoming one of exploration, growth, and change.
“I did many things, good, interesting, and questionable, hoping one day to open a successful store,” Journey says. “Plus, a journey is something you can invite others to go on with you.”
Whether you’re browsing, treating yourself, or grabbing a gift, the shop's “Joy-Pleasure-Happiness” sandwich board draws you in. Then you stay to savor the luscious-looking delicacies, finally choose, and leave feeling uplifted.
Sure, Journey sells sweets (and savories), but she’s selling sensuality, self-love, community care, and adventure too.
“I want to be happy. And I want to be a vessel to remind people they’re enough,” she says. “We allow a voice inside us to tell us we're not special. We're not beautiful. We can't do it. But I’m special. You’re special. And if I can be good and kind to me, I can be good and kind to you.”
Inside the shop, a leather couch invites lingerers. A rustic table and shelves display beautifully wrapped, distinctive varieties of chocolates, brownies, and bars--as much eye candy as they are tantalizing to eat.
“The store is a boutique, where the products change and there’s always something new and exciting,” Journey says. “And I'm really particular about packaging and presentation, because even if it’s just for you, I want you to feel that it's a gift.”
Growing up, Journey had no interest in food or cooking. Burger King was her favorite dinner destination, though her mom, Doris Fitzgerald, cooked a family dinner every night.
But with a close-knit Evanston community and a ‘humongous” extended family in Lafayette, Louisiana where Doris was born and raised with nine siblings--and where Journey spent every childhood summer--it’s clear that traditional African American and Creole cooking equated to love, community, and celebration from early on.
And ultimately, Doris did influence Journey’s passion (today Doris, with Journey (left), and Journey’s sister Tawana Sudduth Ross (right), are often Journey’s right hands in the store and at events and pop-ups).
Journey remembers her mom, always a crafter and creator, coming home one day with plastic candy molds she’d bought, and confectioners coating (an easy-to-use substitute for real chocolate that uses vegetable fat to replace the cocoa butter in genuine chocolate).
“She started making candies. And I'm not interested. I'm a kid,” Journey says. “But you don't realize how much from your youth makes you who you are today. A lot of what I do is because I saw it on a regular basis. I saw pleasure and happiness and joy.”
If she’s not at the shop, Journey is making magic in the basement kitchen of Family Focus Evanston, sharing her joy and talent with young students. The organization has been a big part of Journey’s life since third grade.
Family Focus, founded in 1976, was the original drop-in center for parents, grandparents, foster, and adoptive parents in Evanston, particularly Black families in Evanston’s 5th ward. It was the place for after-school care and activities. It was (and still is) a central feature of the ward, housing social services and programs for youth and families.
“Family Focus was awesome,” says Journey. “I didn't go there because my parents needed me to, I went because there was tons to do, and it was fun.”
She reminisces about fashion shows, the choir, theater, and field trips. And she remembers, “There was a Black woman who was a caterer and used the kitchen. Every now and then you could go downstairs and maybe get a little taste of something.”
Today, Journey is that woman, in the kitchen, surrounded by kids.
“Life is a circle. Sometimes you receive, sometimes you give,” she says. “I love what I do. I want to expose the students to something new, to plant a seed and hope they’ll do something later because I gave them a grain of inspiration.”
As an adult, Journey has traveled the world. She says she wishes as a child she’d had ‘electives,’ in her family life like the electives you take in high school. “I think it helps a child dream differently to know that the world is bigger than your four-mile radius,” she says.
Through exotic chocolates, catering, and teaching, Journey hopes to expand horizons, narrow distances, and celebrate life. Whether you’re a friend, customer, or just a passer-by, she’ll call out enthusiastically, “Hey, sister!” “Hi, beautiful!” “Hey, handsome!”
She does that, she says, because she doesn’t want us to see each other as different.
“There’s a bond I want to create between us,” she says. “And I want to treat you with beauty and love and integrity.”
Journey says she’s grateful to everyone who comes by Noir d’Ebene, whether they wave as they walk by, pop in for a moment, or stay for half an hour.
“I hope that Evanston values this space, and they value it by supporting it and letting me share with them. This is a community house,” she says. “I do what I do to share it with you.”
Here’s more from my interview with Journey.
DE: What inspires you to be so open, to explore, to have joy?
JS: I was a wild kid. My mother used to give me books and I was dismissive, because I wasn't that person then. But I remember it. So that could have played a part in it.
And some years ago, God came to me and said, ‘Your purpose is to live an amazing life.’ And I believe it. I also believe I have the right to choose to be miserable, or to be happy. And I want to be a vessel that can remind people: you're enough. I think there's a voice inside of us that beats us up, because we allow it to tell us that we're not special. That we're not beautiful, we can't do it.”
DE: Growing up in the 5th ward, which was predominantly Black, did you wonder about the white kids you knew and if their lives were similar or different than yours?
JS: I never thought about it and I don't necessarily think about it as an adult. There were other kids on that block my age. We ran up and down playing tag, eating at each other's house, and playing double-dutch. I didn't think about what I didn't have.
My mother was self-employed, she was home when I came home from school, so we always had dinner cooked. She got married when I turned eight. We had family and friends. We did a lot of family and community stuff. We went to church, First Church of God Christian Life Center. My mom’s friend Beverly Mason did plays at the Family Focus theater, so we went to see her. Our life was our neighborhood.
As an adult, I’ve had opportunities to travel and experience more. One of the benefits that I really like about ETHS is that there's a ton of electives. I wish in my family life, there’d been more electives. I think it helps a child dream differently if they go to museums and restaurants and cultural events. You learn that the world is bigger than your four-mile radius. I think it improves the quality of your mind, it improves your social skills, your overall appreciation of life-- and that yes we are different, but we really aren't that different.
DE: Family Focus was a big part of your life. Tell me about that.
JS: I’ve been affiliated with Family Focus since I was in third grade.
I was in JoAnn McKire Avery Avery's room. I’m 45 so that tells you how long she's been in that position. There was Joanne, Lonnie Wilson, Herman, and lots of other people. We had fashion shows. I remember going to a store where we got to try on clothes and model them. We had a choir. We had concerts. We did theater and went on field trips. Family Focus is awesome. I’ve used the kitchen three different times in the last 25 years.
DE: How did your business start?
JS: I’ve wanted a physical location for 25 years. All I needed was a storefront. And the only reason I have this space is because somebody believed in me. This person has always been someone that I admire in the community. We’ve known each other for about 10 years. So it wasn't like the person said, 'Oh, she's got this great idea, here’s some money.' No. It's been 10 years of them hearing me talk about it whenever we run into each other, and I'd bring this person samples. So, this happened because somebody took a chance on me.
Growing up, a lot of people I knew were self-employed. My mother is self-employed. The man that I call my father is self-employed, and my biological father is self-employed. Later, I had a neighbor, Sema. Sema’s mother made sweet potato pies. She made excellent pies and her pies were in a couple of stores. And I’m like, if she can do it, I can do it.
So I went to [sadly, now shuttered] Unicorn Cafe in downtown Evanston. And they said, 'Can you make cookies?' and, 'We want your chocolate covered nuts and raisins.' So the first place I went to said yes, and that gave me great confidence that maybe I could do it. I had no clue about business, or numbers, or anything, I just kept going to places, and everybody kept saying yes. So I had this long menu. And that's how the company started.
DE: Do you feel it was harder for you as a Black woman to start a business?
JS: I can't answer that. I never went to a bank to try to get a loan, so I can't say I'm Black and I'm female, and so it was harder for me. Maybe. But, you don't know what you don't know.
DE: What are your biggest challenges?
JS: The biggest challenges are getting people in the door, and the fact that I make everything at Family Focus and then have to bring it here. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s an inconvenience. And, we’ve been open a year--we opened the week of Thanksgiving (during the pandemic)--and we still haven’t had our grand opening.
But we’ll do that some time this November to celebrate one year. We deserve to celebrate!
DE. Do you think that white people should be mindful about supporting Black businesses?
JS: I think if your objective is to be loving, kind, seek pleasure, joy and amazement, then you build me up because that's who you are. We are here together. And if we don't come together, we will die together. And why not share? Why not be a part of each other's happiness and growth? Get involved with each other. Sometimes, just show up and wave and give a hug. If you have some money, buy something. If you have some time, give your time. If you’re just passing by, smile and wave.
DE: How do you think we can repair the harm white people did to Black people in this country?
JS: I think we should do a better job with sharing our history. If you're the only Jewish person I know, share your history; teach me and educate me. And let me share my history. There are some similar things. And there are many things that are not the same.
Support Noir d'Ebene!
Right now, Noir d'Ebene is geared up for the holidays, offering gifts of chocolate for friends, family, colleagues, and teachers, and an array of delectable holiday pies, including apple, peach, and bourbon pecan. Journey will ship pretty much anywhere too!