Neely Cohen

Starting My Own Chocolate Business

NGI Alum Stories: Neely Cohen on Launching Vicuña Chocolate

I've moved 23 times. From Peterborough to Poughkeepsie, from Tel-Aviv to Boston, from Vermont to Chicago, and eventually to New York City, where I sought the unique culinary training of Natural Gourmet Institute. I graduated from NGI with an extensive skillset and a new level of confidence. Then, it was time to pursue the big dream: making chocolate from scratch – from tree to bar, as it were. So I moved to Peru.

In Quillabamba, I harvested cacao fruit with a machete; roasted, cracked, winnowed and stone ground cacao beans into chocolate; hand-tempered and molded chocolate into bars. In the ancient city of Cusco, I taught tree-to-bar chocolate making workshops and wrote about the ethnobotany of cacao.

I returned to the Boston area to work as a pastry chef, honing my kitchen skills while gradually drafting a business plan. I started looking at commercial spaces for rent. Some were great locations, but too small or too pricey. After a brief visit home, I saw a space on Main Street in downtown Peterborough. I stepped into the dilapidated blue-carpeted beauty salon and knew this was where I'd open my dream business – a bean-to-bar chocolate factory and cafe.

Working alongside a contractor, plumber, and electrician, I mastered spackling and painting, taught myself how to draw architectural plans, and learned about amperage and phase power. Through the winter, I researched flooring and lighting. I studied handicapped accessibility guidelines while designing the new bathroom. I gauged where I could save money on used sinks and equipment versus where I needed to invest in state-of-the-art machines that my business could grow into. I rented U-Hauls to pick up machinery and used them to get rid of a thousand pounds of construction waste. I studied health code laws, applied for my food service license, and attended Meals Taxes seminars.

When I thought about everything I’d needed to do all at once, I'd break down in tears, admitting defeat, that I'd made the biggest mistake of my life and that I was nuts for thinking I could pull off such a huge project. Looking back, I wish I hadn't worried so much about making mistakes. There are so many options for each decision, so many solutions to the same problem – one can't possibly know how to do everything from the start.

I thought I could do everything by myself, and I tried to. My sister-in-law convinced me to do a Kickstarter campaign and I'm glad she did. The generosity from family, friends, community members, and even strangers was humbling. The campaign pulled in nearly $16,000 to help offset packaging, distribution, and marketing costs. By using salvaged doors, old window frames, antique ladders, and my own photography, I designed a rustic, elegant cafe on a tight budget. However, I learned that there are places to save money and places not to. For instance, I learned the hard way not to buy cheap mugs. They're tempting, but they'll break and you'll just have to buy the quality ones you should have bought in the first place.

When starting a business, there's always more to do than you can imagine. It will always cost more than outlined in your business plan. I recommend making a rough, but reasonable, timeline of your to-dos from the beginning and sticking to it as best you can. I think my biggest downfall was thinking everything needed to get done immediately. I thought I could accomplish a gut renovation and build a factory and cafe in three months; every month that went by I felt guilty that I wasn't moving fast enough.

It started to feel like my business might never come to fruition, but alas, it took all of eight months. The Peterborough community welcomed Vicuña Chocolate even before its opening seven weeks ago. It’s so exciting to already have regulars who come in for sipping chocolate, pastries, and to stock up on their favorite bars. Right now, I have my hands full keeping up with local demand, but I'm starting to build wholesale accounts, fulfilling special orders, and even booking private factory tours and tasting events. As I look down at the three hundred chocolate bars neatly stacked in front of me - where the dingy salon reception desk once stood – it doesn't seem like it took very long at all.

This story was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center at the Institute of Culinary Education, which has a bean-to-bar chocolate lab.

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