By Scott Robertson
If you’ve recently received a box of chocolates with a company or organization logo in full color on every individual truffle, it probably came from the kitchen of Bellafina Chocolates in Kingsport. The small business founded by Brenda Barnicki has been putting out corporate-gift quality chocolates for just over six years now with an all-volunteer workforce and a policy of giving 100 percent of its profits to children’s charities.
Social responsibility and business sense actually work pretty well together in the Bellafina model, says Barnicki. “I want to show people how you can use business to do good in the world, or maybe I should say to do better in the world, because many businesses already do a lot of good.”
In fact, Bellafina, which was recently honored at the KOSBE Awards in the Small Manufacturing category, has just hired its first paid employees, taking it one large step further into the traditional business realm.
“I always said that if the company grew, I wanted to start creating paid positions for women who are coming out of recovery or who have been incarcerated, and for single moms,” Barnicki says. “I want to help women who need a leg up and need a way to transition back to the workforce. So this fall we hired our first two. In fact, employee 001 fits all three categories. But she’s great.”
The women Barnicki has hired not only get the benefits accrued by returning to the workforce in an active role, Barnicki says. “Those women in the paid positions find that the volunteers we have working with them are great mentors. Our first employee is a single mom coming out of drug recovery who lost her daughter while she was incarcerated. She got her daughter back, and she’s still finding her way. But when she’s working, she’ll be standing alongside an ex-teacher on one side and maybe a woman who ran her own business or was an engineer on the other. They’re talking about school and the future. It’s wonderful.”
Bellafina Chocolates was formed in mid-2010. Making and selling truffles to benefit children’s charities was, at the time, a hobby for Brenda Barnicki, then a vice president at Eastman Chemical Co. “I had no intention of being a chocolatier,” Barnicki says. “It was a way of giving back that was a little more tangible than just writing a check.”
In the first year, Barnicki built the equivalent of an out-of-her-garage business, except her product was coming from the kitchen. Selling at the farmers’ market and at outdoor concerts in the summer, she made around $4,000 for charity. “100 percent of our profits have always gone to children’s charities,” she says.
At the end of 2012, however, Barnicki lost her position at Eastman in a restructuring. As she considered what she wanted the second half of her career to be, she came to realize she wanted to feel more of a sense of meaning and purpose. “I kept getting pulled back to this little chocolate hobby business I had started.”
Barnicki and her husband had both been engineers at Eastman before she started into the management track. After much discussion, they came to the decision that since they had both started their careers as engineers and had never anticipated how well Brenda would do financially as she rose through the executive ranks, they would agree that she had already earned her keep for her career, allowing her to found Bellafina without that pressure.
That having been settled, Brenda went to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, Ca., and began the transition from chemical company executive to full-time chocolatier.
On January 1 last year, Bellafina moved into a downtown building formerly owned by the city of Kingsport. “The city let the police department use it for training, which means they’d put on their riot gear and get out their paintball guns and storm the place,” Barnicki says. “So we got a great deal on it, but we had to have a bunch of volunteers come in to clean and do repairs.” Those repairs were completed in time for the company to fill a 1,000-box order two weeks later.
At 5,000 square feet, the Cherokee Street facility offers plenty of opportunities the business never had when it was operating out of Barnicki’s kitchen. “We have a lot more capacity than we had in my house, obviously.”
The front entrance is a retail sales floor, offering not only the company’s chocolates, but also items sold by the children’s charities Bellafina supports. Behind the sales floor is office and shipping space, with the production floor at the back of the building. Much of the production space stands open right now, but Barnicki has already picked out the machine she plans to fill much of it as the company’s growth allows.
Part of the process is actually reminiscent of the famous “I Love Lucy” chocolates sketch, although Bellafina relies on the chocolates themselves to provide delight, instead of the antics of Lucy and Ethel.
The truffles’ centers are created and cured before being cut and fed into a machine that coats them with chocolate. The final step before packaging is the use of cocoa butter to custom screen-print the corporate logos that adorn gift chocolates on a food grade acetate sheet. The chocolates are placed face down on the sheet while still warm. As they cool, the cocoa butter logos bond from the sheet onto the surface of the chocolate. “It’s a nice, flat, shiny design,” Barnicki says. “Blue Emu, for instance, had a white background and a blue logo.”
Very few chocolate companies are using the process right now, though some are molding logos into chocolate bars. The fact that Bellafina allows companies to use their own color scheme sets its product apart, Barnicki says.
The building offers one other business possibility not present at the Barnicki home. The outdoor space next to the building could host a dessert café. “That’s not going to happen anytime soon, but we’re making improvements to get it ready,” she says. The city had used that space to store construction equipment, so among other improvements, Barnicki had to get rid of a razor-wire fence topper. The landscaping effort is to the planters-and-pavers stage now.
“We were shipping out several hundred boxes a day ahead of Christmastime,” Barnicki says. “Most of those were corporate gifts. But even without buying additional equipment, I’d estimate we have another 50 percent capacity on peak weeks and several times excess capacity on non-peak weeks.”
So how does that translate to hard numbers? “With the equipment we have, we could probably do a $1-million-a-year business,” Barnicki says. “With the piece of equipment we’ll install next, we could grow to 10 times that.”
Don’t mistake the company’s eleemosynary spirit for lack of ambition, Barnicki says. “Those growth numbers are important because we don’t plan on just being a little chocolate shop. We intend to be something that is sustainable, producing here and serving a market across the United States, which we already do. We intend to scale that up so that we can meet my ultimate goal of being able to write $1 million checks to charity.”
Companies making similar products in other cities have grown to the point of being sustainable $10 to $20 million companies, Barnicki says. “It’s not an exact match, but they’re in our niche, at our price point, doing kind of what we do. So it’s not an unreasonable goal.”