Photographs by William Hereford
484 Broome Street
New York, New York 10013
It’s a humid day in North Brooklyn and Maribel Lieberman has on a pretty vintage dress adorned with an elaborate diamond pin at the waist. Even on a day when she’s working on candy molds in her Greenpoint factory, she’s dressed like she’s ready to attend a cocktail party at the drop of a hat.
If anyone can sell luxury chocolate in a recession, it’s Maribel, with her deep-dimpled smile, her effervescent charm, and the inspiring story of a young woman who came to New York from Honduras to study fashion design, but ended up owning one of the most stylish chocolate companies in the big city.
It was 11 years ago when Maribel introduced her haute chocolate. The unique design— colorful, abstract art printed on one square inch of chocolate candy—caused a sensation in the culinary world. Daily Candy, the trend watcher website, immediately featured it on their web page. New York Magazine soon followed, and before you knew it, it was one of Oprah’s favorite things. And then, of course, Neiman Marcus came calling. Her product was special, created when the technology of printing on food products was still in its infancy. “When I started, people had very simple designs with one or two colors silk screened onto the chocolate, but mine had four or five colors,” she said.
From the start, most of the chocolate manufacturers she approached were resistant. “They told me there were too many colors in the design, it couldn’t be done.” But she kept pushing, and a few months later, after many trials and errors, a company in Europe perfected the silk screening technique. Her chocolate, infused with exotic flavors like cardamom, rosemary or saffron, looked stylish enough to delight any modern day princess. The designs were wild enough for artists and fashionistas, yet elegant enough for corporate gifts.
Maribel came to New York to study fashion. “I was one of eight children and my mother worked as a seamstress. I always had to wear a lot of hand-me-down dresses. But my mother would alter them, adding a pocket here and there to make them look new again.” So Maribel too decided that she had a flair for fashion and enrolled in Parsons School of Design. “I loved the designing part, but the pattern making part, not so much,” she laughs. She also found out the fashion business was really mainly about “business.” “I thought it would be like the way my mother had done it. You get a piece a fabric and you make a dress. But of course, it’s not quite like that in a city like New York.”
Soon Maribel found another avenue to channel her creativity. “I discovered that I love to cook.” She didn’t go to a cooking school. She learned everything from cookbooks and the Food Network. She was married to New York painter Jacques Leiberman by then, and found herself giving fancy dinner parties that showcased her cooking. Soon she turned it into a catering business. She says she even had Bill Clinton as a client.
To promote her catering business, Maribel put her design training to work, creating chocolate candies, packaging them beautifully, and sending them out as promotional gifts. “Soon I had a lot of requests for my chocolates. In fact, I was making more money selling the chocolate than doing the catering business.” She quickly set up a “pop up” store on Prince Street (Lunettes et Chocolat) in 2000. Business slowed after September 11, but she made a comeback by opening MarieBelle Soho on Broome Street in the winter of 2002. Today, it is one of the most blogged about shops in the city. Its beautiful designs are reminiscent of old European cafes, with delicate chandeliers and turn-of-the-century style wood and glass cabinetry. It even has a Cacao Bar and Tea Salon, where customers can enjoy her Aztec hot or iced chocolate drinks, fine teas, and smoothies, along with her chocolate truffles and pastries.
Over the years, she has created several dozen fillings for her candies, including passion fruit, lavender, dolce de leche, and gianduja. Her most recent creations are dried fruit and nut barks and toffees. Her hot chocolates have made their way onto the shelves of Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca. “I didn’t change the product to meet Whole Food’s price point,” she says. “I just changed the size.” A 6 oz. can of MarieBelle hot chocolate mix goes for about $11.
For years, Maribel’s products were made in a small factory in Soho, but she wanted more space and the rent was getting ridiculous, so she decided to move the production out of Manhattan. “I looked at warehouses in Red Hook and other places, but I like Greenpoint. I want to work in an area with parks, and local shops,” she says. Her next challenge is to get her products into the gourmet stores in Brooklyn. After all, MarieBelle chocolate is now “Made in Brooklyn.”