A Honduran immigrant combined the spicy flavors from her homeland with native cacoa to make chocolate a hot business.
Born in a mountain village in Honduras, Maribel was always a hard worker. At the age of eight she made penny candies and sold them to the other children, earning the nickname “Caramel.” Now she’s known worldwide as MarieBelle, the New York based chocolatier whose exotic ganaches have earned raves from former presidents and celebrities alike.
Here is her amazing story.
Maribel Martinez was the youngest of eight children, six girls and two boys, born to a seamstress and a village telegrapher in rural Honduras. Their income was modest, but her parents had aspirations for their children, and worked very hard to pay for their educations. But young Maribel was not academically inclined, so her parents urged her to learn secretarial skills. Unfortunately, she failed her classes. “I wasn’t born to be a typist, and I was miserable at shorthand,” Mirabel explains. “It just wasn’t me.”
Coming To America
While Maribel couldn’t grasp shorthand, she had a knack for recognizing opportunities, as well as the courage to see where they would take her. At fifteen, she took an unpaid au pair job in Maryland just to learn English. A year later, she returned to America as a tourist, and with only a $500 stake, stayed on as a student at a beauty school in New Orleans. By day, she completed her high school education, and by night she learned makeup, paying the bills by working as an office assistant at the school. Then through connections she made by demonstrating makeup at trade shows, Maribel got a job in New York City with Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido.
Becoming An Entrepreneur
Working in the cosmetics industry in New York was already a long way from the mountains of Honduras, but when Maribel met and married Jacques Lieberman, a Belgian painter and art dealer, her life took a dramatic turn. Her husband’s business involved frequent entertaining, so Maribel worked hard to become a gourmet chef. She accumulated a library of 300 cookbooks, and wowed their guests with fusion recipes of her own creation. That might have been the pinnacle of her cooking career if a catering company she’d hired for an especially large party had not disappointed Maribel. She was convinced that she could do a better job, and so a new business was born —Maribel Gourmet Cuisine, specializing in catering and fine foods. Using her networks, Maribel got catering jobs from her former employer Shiseido, who then recommended her to other companies. Her pates were so popular with clients that Maribel was able to convince Dean & Deluca, the storied New York fine foods emporium, to carry them too.
“Chocolate came from my land,” says Maribel. “So why is all the credit for chocolate going to the Belgians, the French and the Swiss?
Lunette et Chocolate
Five years later, it was time for Maribel to take her business to the next level. Her catering and gourmet foods business was successful, but now she wanted to sell directly to consumers. With a friend who marketed designer eyewear, Maribel leased a modest 700 sq. ft. space in the Soho district of lower Manhattan. Based on the name of a French company, Papier peint Tartine et Chocolate, they called the shop Lunette et Chocolate, which literally means eyewear and chocolates.
Sweat Equity & Savings
Even a small store occupying 700 sq. ft requires financing, especially in New York City. Maribel was able finance her store with $50,000 she’d saved from her catering business, and like generations of entrepreneurs before, used sweat equity too, doing lots of work with her hands. In the end, she and her partner spent $110,000 to build out the store, and then she had to use income from her ongoing catering business to buy equipment and supplies.
Need financing for your new venture? Read Immpreneur’s Financing Guide to get started.
New Products and an Epiphany
A critical part of the new business was expanding her product line. Maribel wanted a product that would appeal to the upscale and fashion conscious consumers that frequented Soho, a neighborhood known for its art galleries, restaurants and expensive boutiques. She decided that chocolates were the perfect product for the walk-in customer.
Maribel threw herself into research. She learned that chocolate in the form of the cacao bean was consumed in the Americas as far back as 1500 BC by the ancient Toltec people, and later used as currency among the Aztecs and Incas. “Chocolate came from my land,” says Maribel. “So why is all the credit for chocolate going to the Belgians, the French and the Swiss? They don’t have chocolate; they import it from the Americas or Africa.”
What Maribel discovered about chocolate, inspired her and gave a mission. It was time to bring the credit for chocolate back to America, and she was the one to do it.
“Luxury is natural, good quality chocolate. Regular consumers don’t know the difference until they taste good quality.”
Maribel’s Immigrant Advantage: A Fusion of Cultures
Maribel found there was little quality chocolate being made in America, so there was a void at the upper end of the American market — a sweet spot, if you will. She decided to concentrate on dark chocolate bon bons like French and Italians chocolatiers. Maribel was convinced that real choco-holics would flock to her if she produced a European style product made with superior ingredients. “Luxury is natural, good quality chocolate, says Maribel. “Unfortunately, regular consumers don’t know the difference until they taste good quality.”
Quality alone wasn’t enough to make a dent in the market, however; she needed a distinctive product, something different from everything else, chocolates that would appeal to the artsy, fashion forward shoppers in Soho, who didn’t mind spending extra for handcrafted, artisanal products. Her first step was to employ the exotic flavors of her home culture, evocative and sensual tastes such as passion fruit, saffron, cardamom seed, and peppers, resulting in the world’s first “spicy” chocolates.
Next, the chocolates were packaged in specially designed boxes and tins, tied with expensive ribbons. Maribel used high fashion blues and browns not typically employed for foods, but which would appeal to her sophisticated target audience. Furthermore, each piece of chocolate was decorated with a colorful graphic created by her artist husband. When Lunette et Chocolate opened, she had 10 flavors of ganache as well as her signature hot chocolate.“ Everything was put together beautifully since the beginning,” says Maribel. “And it has made a very big difference.
“You must sell the experience, not the product.”
Marketing 101: Tell A Story
Now Maribel had the most unique and beautifully packaged chocolates in America, but she still had to bring the customer into her store. She had already used up her savings to fit-out her storefront, so there was no money for an advertising budget. Maribel’s solution was let the customer spread the story.
Maribel understood instinctively what top ad agencies practice: you’ve got to sell the sizzle not the steak. In other words, you must sell the experience, not the product. For Maribel, this meant stressing the romance of chocolate, not just the taste. To anyone that would listen, she told romantic tales about the cacao bean, starting with its use among ancient native peoples of the Americas, and following up with coming of the conquistadores, which resulted in chocolate being spread the throughout Europe and then the rest of the world.
She also differentiated her chocolates from all others, by telling her customers how slaves were used in Africa to farm cacao, which explained why she only made chocolate from beans grown in the Americas. This not only appealed to her customers’ sense of corporate responsibility, but gave Maribel’s product a unique position in the market. It was now “the chocolate of the Americas.”
Rising from the Ashes of 911
This should have been the end of a wonderful story, but Maribel lost nearly everything after the 911 attacks. Many people moved out of New York, and business went into a steep decline causing many businesses including Lunette et Chocolate to close their doors. Maribel was reduced to selling her pots and pans on the street to raise money. At this point, most people would have thrown in the towel, but not the resilient Maribel.
It was near the Christmas season, and Maribel’s instincts told her that there was still a market for chocolate during the holidays. A friend’s gallery had gone under during the crisis, and it occurred to her that it would make an ideal location for a “pop-up,” a store designed to be opened just for a matter of days or weeks. She filled the gallery with antiques on consignment, and sold $2,000 worth of chocolate on the first day. At that moment, she knew she had found the right combination. She christened her new shop, MarieBelle.
New Growth and Future Ventures
Over the past twelve years, the MarieBelle brand has continued to grow and blossom. Today, Maribel still continues to operate out of her flagship store in Soho, but there are now two stores in Kyoto, Japan, one identical to the Soho store, and other called “Caoco Market,” a new concept for the younger crowd.
Maribel’s chocolates had always been very popular with Japanese customers, and when a Japanese entrepreneur approached her, Maribel decided to license both her products and her brand. For Maribel, the licensing deal provides several benefits: a rights fee, and royalties on products sold, plus, since she provides her products to the licensees, Maribel is able to amortize her manufacturing costs.
Maribel is also planning growth in the United States with smaller footprint Cacao Market boutiques These shops will will feature a different blend of products, including multiple hot chocolate drinks and chocolate covered nuts to compete with other hot drink boutiques in high-end shopping areas. Expect to see more MarieBelle stores and boutiques in both the U.S. and Japan in the near future.
To visit Maribel’s store in NYC, here’s the address:
484 Broome Street
New York, NY 10013