Around the corner from the mammoth Barclays Center is a quiet row of smaller, pastel-colored tiny shops that epitomize the emergent small business culture of Brooklyn. One of those bright facades belongs to Nunu Chocolates, a family-owned chocolate store with global reach and otherworldly flavor. The passion-driven company began with a shared idea and devotion to chemistry — both in and out of the kitchen — by husband and wife team Andy Laird and Justine Pringle.
The company’s moniker, Nunu, was Justine’s nickname as a child growing up in Johannesburg. Since founding the company, Andy (who hails from Westport, Conn.) and Justine have learned that the South African sobriquet is not so geographically specific after all; it connects people from all over the world to their brand. “We wanted something that was an internal nod to us personally,” says Andy, “But it’s kind of cool that there have been so many people that are connected to the word ‘Nunu.’ It’s a term of endearment, both abroad and domestically.” Justine’s family has even started calling the couple’s daughter, Adda, “Nunu” from time to time.
The success of Nunu Chocolates began with a basic formula of trial, though not necessarily error. Laird and Pringle, who met in 2002, began making their own chocolate in 2006, to create an original product they could sell to fans while Andy, a musician, was on tour. “We kind of paused and at the same moment, and for whatever reason, we both said ‘Chocolate,’ ” Laird recalls. And so, Justine attended Canada’s L’École Chocolat to learn the process and chemistry of making confections. From that point forward, the couple trusted their intuition throughout their entire journey of becoming self-made chocolatiers, carving their own path toward the creation of a distinctive brand. When it came time to develop the recipe for the chocolate, they considered both the product’s taste and and its impact on the environment. “We do take the environment into consideration, especially with the packaging that we choose,” says Justine. The chocolate they liked best during early tastings also turned out to have a minimal carbon footprint — a single-origin Cocoa bean derived from a Trinitario and Criollo hybrid from a sustainable and family-run farm in Santander, Colombia. It’s difficult to imagine the cleverly-assembled packaging — with a logo of interchangeable N’s and U’s — decorating a humble stand at the inaugural Brooklyn Flea in April 2008. It’s safe to say the Flea inadvertently gave Nunu the best marketing feedback. “When you’re doing a direct sale, you have a front row seat to the way people react to it — the way customers pick something up and say ‘I don’t know what this is,’” explained Andy. “And then you know you need to label this better, or explain that better on the packaging, and [see what] people are gravitating towards, or we made too many of these or too little of those.” It was not long before Pringle and Laird required their own space just to produce. The couple left their day jobs within one year of starting the company and opened their Atlantic Avenue shop several months later.
Every single product is made on-site in their Boerum Hill brick-and-mortar store. The shop consists of a chocolate counter with just a couple of cozy seats (and a miniature table and chairs for budding chocoholics) in the middle of their manufacturing and packing process. It’s comparable to a grown-up version of your parents’ kitchen, sitting at the table waiting for a special treat — though this time with beer on tap. This quintessentially New York brand is now sold all over the country (including at NYC-area Whole Foods and Dean & DeLuca stores), and even premiered in Paris for a month-long pop-up chocolate shop. Evidently the Parisians loved most “what was unusual for them:” the chocolate-covered potato chips and chocolate-covered bacon.
The secret to Nunu’s success? Justine and Andy ardently trust in their instincts, and have been served well. Pringle and Laird never anticipated such high demand or outstanding success. “We didn’t really start this as a business; it was something we were curious about and were very into and that fueled more of the passion,” says Andy. While they never anticipated opening a store, or supplying to so many retailers, they also didn’t halt the process or deny the opportunity that their once-tiny business turned into. “A lot of the time it was ‘Oh crap! These people ordered again and we gotta make more!’” The couple began by selling their homemade chocolate to friends and neighbors. “We would test flavors out, and we would like a chocolate and we would go to a local shop and [say:] ‘Do you want to buy our chocolate?’” explains Pringle. “They’d say ‘yes’ and we’d be like [gasp!]. And then we’d have to recreate it somehow!” Nunu’s very first wholesale distributors were Beercraft, Union Market and Blue Apron — businesses that were near their home in Park Slope. As the brand grows, Justine and Andy continue to make and pursue only what they love. “We’re always up for trying anything, but you definitely know when it doesn’t work,” says Andy. “You really do have to try everything.” While their flavors are ever-evolving, they are always selective when choosing their ingredients and never follow the latest craze. “I think we’re just happy when people respond in a good way because we’re really putting out stuff that we enjoy,” explained Laird. “We’re not necessarily targeting [trends] and we don’t shoot for a certain type of customer; it’s as accessible as it can be.” That devotion to their instincts has made this brand a standout.
The inspiration behind the Nunu Beer Box, for example, came from attending a series of beer tastings (at Astor Center, Beercraft, and Jimmy’s No. 43, to name a few). As they began to think of other flavors for Nunu, Andy and Justine were inspired to turn the beer and chocolate tasting into “a one-step process, where the pairing is actually in the bite of chocolate itself,” says Laird. “Since we were featuring so many different beers, it was exciting; it was a product that was always going to change a bit.” When they opened their storefront, they knew they wanted to include beer and wine in their café. Between their menu on tap and their beer box offerings, Nunu has experimented with ale and spirits from all over the State. Featured brews and boozes include Brewery Ommegang, Brooklyn Brewery, King’s County Distillery, Bronx Brewery, Long Ireland, Queens Brewery, Chelsea Brewing, Greenport Harbor Brewing, and Barrier Frau Blucher Rauch Bier. “Anywhere they’re brewing good beer in New York, we’re excited to pour it, put it in our chocolates, or just drink it at the end of our day,” says Laird. The couple has lived in Brooklyn for the past 14 years and owes much of their success to the camaraderie among other small food businesses in the borough. Many new food businesses began in Brooklyn in 2007, and the Flea was the center for active discussions —“Have you tried this? And try this! And, oh! We have to try this!” — which encouraged Justine and Andy not only to take risks, but to develop ideas with their neighbors. “There was this moment where, as we were all starting at the same time, [we chose] to be friendly,” recounts Laird. “To me it typified the collaborative spirit of small business owners here and in the food scene.” The Nunu kitchen is never afraid to dive into a new experiment. “Ultimately, it’s still chocolate, so even the mistakes are really tasty,” says Laird. “Luckily, neither of us has a sweet tooth, so we can taste, and it can stop there.” Other local collaborations include Long Island-based SerendipiTea dried rose petals in their Earl Grey Ganache. The Nunu shop features Crop to Cup coffee, while Crop to Cup uses Nunu chocolate in their mocha. Brooklyn’s Blue Marble uses Nunu’s hot fudge to complement their ice cream. All of the furniture in the shop is from Brooklyn's Nightwood.Like the pursuit of their brand, Justine and Andy are devoted to New York. Justine admires New Yorkers for being “really open to trying [Nunu], and once they’ve tried it, they’re really loyal; they just keep coming back. New York is special like that; [New Yorkers] support small businesses a lot more than other places. They really stand up for the small guys a lot.” Her state of mind is one that admires the patience of New Yorkers, while Andy describes New York as a place where, “You can have your best day and your worst day in the same day.” Despite its global influence and international inspiration, Nunu will remain a true New York brand for years to come. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Justine reiterated at the end of our interview, “ I love it here.” VIDEO: The Self-Taught Chocolatiers: NuNu Chocolates from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.