By: Julie Sagoskin
Photography: Neil Tandy
It might have started as a pipe dream and a pop-up shop for Maribel Lieberman, but MarieBelle New York is now an international chocolate brand. From her flagship Soho location on Broome Street to her stores in Japan, Maribel has been satisfying her customers’ sweet tooth for 20 years – let’s just say that not even a lockdown can keep her down.
While Maribel had initially planned on releasing a special commemorative chocolate collection in honor of her anniversary year, she instead found herself reinventing her brand in the wake of the worldwide pandemic. With so many people stuck at home, MarieBelle has been making an even bigger name for itself on the internet. Between major online marketing campaigns and plans to reopen the Soho space in September, this pioneer of the luxury chocolate frontier is bracing for a big comeback which you can both see and taste. Expanding their online presence has also allowed them to reach an even wider and more diverse audience who are looking for something delicious in these downtrodden times.
Whether it’s gifting some of their famed ganache – many of their European clients have been sending goodies and birthday packages to their children and friends abroad in New York– or buying for yourself, a distinctive blue MarieBelle box is always sure to brighten the mood. In honor of her decades long love affair with New York City, Maribel introduced a special New York Collection, a tasty and timeless tribute to some of Manhattan’s most iconic sites. This collection comprised of her signature ganache has quickly become a bestseller. Her brand might be known worldwide but Maribel has deep roots in her New York neighborhood, which is why she has made it her mission to give back. Most recently, Maribel has been helping to raise the morale of local healthcare workers by sending them her prized chocolatey pieces. With every purchase of their latest collaboration with Citymeals on Wheels, MarieBelle is donating 15 percent of sales to the organization which helps to feed the elderly.
In addition to reopening their flagship store in the fall, Maribel and her team are also busy preparing some palatable treats for the upcoming holiday season. After all, what could be better than receiving some of Maribel’s signature sweets? The holidays are always Maribel’s favorite time of the year for creating intricate handcrafted chocolates. Her Nutcracker and other themed boxes are also a continuous holiday hit. From pick-me-ups to grand gift sets and birthday treats, MarieBelle will make your day a bit more delicious.
With her own factory and brand partnerships with big companies, Maribel has indeed made her mark on the chocolate market. From the moment you enter MarieBelle, Soho’s most mouthwatering spot, you are transported to the tasty world of world-class chocolates, but Maribel herself cannot believe her unique flavors have taken her this far! After five years of cooking with her popular catering company, Maribel opened up her first store in Nolita called Lunettes et Chocolat. The store, which she opened with a friend, featured designer chocolates and glasses. She then wound up opening a pop-up shop in Soho just after September 11th 2001 – this spot, which was only supposed to be open for a few months during the holiday season, has now been there for almost two delicious decades.
Maribel, the empress of her own edible empire, is also passionate about women’s empowerment issues. Since 2015, Maribel has been traveling to Honduras to educate women farmers. She has done so much to help promote products from her homeland, that Maribel was recognized by the government for her contributions and is now a brand ambassador representing Honduras.
She might have started out borrowing furniture for her Soho space, but after years of slowly acquiring new pieces, MarieBelle is now just as elegant as Maribel, the queen of cacao! “The store has really evolved,” explained Maribel. “The way it looks now was always my original vision.” The enchanting store also features a café, a former art gallery, where you can indulge in Maribel’s famous hot chocolate, as well as soups, sandwiches, brunch and of course, tea time. The café, which is now a popular place for bridal and baby showers, used to be small space with just a few tables where Maribel would give out samples of her hot chocolate. “When I created my hot chocolate, it was expensive, so for people to realize that this was not just a regular hot cocoa, I needed to give them samples. I made a section with chocolate and hot chocolate along with a few tables and had them sit here. They knew they’d buy, so it was called paid sampling. I became really known for my hot chocolate and started getting lines to sit, so I decided to extend it. The café adds a lifestyle to the brand. A lot of other stores have recently started adding cafés.”
Maribel has five locations in Japan – all of which are currently reopened- including both MarieBelle and the more casual Cacao Markets, which offer a children’s style approach to chocolate with dispensers, as well as a new store on 38th and Park Avenue. Maribel is super hands-on when it comes to making her homemade chocolates and running the business, and the Broome Street store is definitely this boss babe’s baby. “I live close by so I go to the factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn every morning and in the afternoon I come to the store.”
Her brand, which keeps getting better with every bite, is also internationally known due to being sold in famed department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, some of her original accounts. Maribel, a master chocolatier and mother, makes personalized chocolates for high-end brands including American Airlines and Tiffany’s and Citibank. From her original pin-up girl chocolate bar collections to her signature chocolate filled boxes – a favorite during the holidays – and even pink boxes with garters around them, MarieBelle does things deliciously differently! Maribel also enjoys creating new, seasonal flavors. While the holidays are her biggest inspiration when it comes to creating new things, you can also expect some unique flavors this fall. “We have rose petals and more things with lavender and mint. Our new bars feature a combination of different chocolates like strawberry with white chocolate and hibiscus. I try to bring some new things in for the season, especially in the summertime when people like fresh flavors after coming out of the winter.” Maribel has definitely achieved sweet success, something which she credits to the attention she pays to detail.
“I always wanted to open a store but not necessarily one that just sold chocolates. I started with chocolate because it was less expensive – I was originally planning on adding other items but when I made the chocolates and paid all this attention to detail, it really caught on and people really loved it. I can’t believe time has gone by so fast. I still remember my first employees. I always say if you’re going to do something, do it today, don’t push it off. It’s good to say that 20 years ago I did this, otherwise I would have been saying I should have done it and would have probably been unhappy. I can’t believe it but when I go to Japan there are lines of people waiting for me to sign their blue boxes. I ask if they want it dedicated to someone and they say no, I just want your signature! I never dreamed it would come to this, it’s amazing. I thought that when I opened Nolita it would be a little store, and now I’m selling to the world. I remember that when I first did my chocolates, I wanted to do a design, so I put my husband’s artwork on them. I just did two sizes because it was expensive, but since the beginning I had my blue and brown box. I think that this attention to detail, especially in the beginning, is really crucial to starting a brand. You can do your own personalized thing and be different than any other brand. I used to call it MarieBelle Fine Treats and Chocolate, and then the following year I said treats sounds like for a dog, so I changed it to MarieBelle New York. Some people were concerned that nobody would realize that it’s chocolate, but I knew that it would become known that MarieBelle is a chocolate company. I also thought this was easier to remember.”
Maribel, who incorporates her artist husband’s abstract paintings on her chocolates – she will soon be showcasing his latest works in a new collection – hopes her daughter follows in her flavorful footsteps! “My daughter is in boarding school in Massachusetts. She’s learning time management and being disciplined for college is very important. In the past she wasn’t interested in the business, but now she says that maybe she’ll take over – I would love that! She’s also doing a summer program at Brown. It’s going to be an introduction to entrepreneurial endeavors. I don’t want to push her because everybody is entitled to do whatever they want and what makes you successful is how happy you are at the end of the day.”
Maribel, who is definitely living her best – and sweetest – life, is always mixing things up, and you are sure to enjoy every morsel! “I’m always changing things but the artwork that goes on the chocolate is complicated to make. We make all the silk screening in France and Belgium, so to do a collection every year is expensive, but we do our holiday designs and then bring one to two new designs every year depending on the theme, such as if I want more of a Christmas in New York theme. My favorite thing is creating new gifts, new boxes, new flavors. I wish I could do that but now I have to run the company! We’ll also be introducing a new line of pralines – pistachio, hazelnut, dark milk cardamom and cinnamon.”
The always moving Maribel is still inspired to keep going, and she does it all with five cups of tea and a lot of chocolate each and every day! “I’m thinking of going into franchising, the same way I did in Japan. You have to take care of a retail store like a baby. If you’re not there, everything will fall apart. I want to get licensing to open in other states and have someone else do it under my direction.”
“I have a new movie called “Chocolate Road” launching this year. It’s a documentary and I’m so impressed with the quality of it. The film features three chefs and really shows what it takes to get the product to you. One of the chocolatiers from Denmark goes to Nicaragua and deals with farmers there and another one in Japan deals in Peru. They talk to the local people about what they do with the cacao and it’s just amazing. Right now they’re sending it to film festivals to be featured next year. They’re also trying to sell it to Netflix or Amazon. If it came out in October or November, before the holiday season, that would be the best. This is really showcasing women empowerment by going out to the countryside and seeing the reality of what everyone goes through for you to have a piece of chocolate in your mouth.”
Soho has truly become home sweet home for Maribel. “Soho is my neighborhood. When I met my husband he was already living here and I wasn’t familiar with it, but I have now been here for 30 years. I loved the area when I moved. There were tons of art galleries, it wasn’t as fashionable as it is today. It doesn’t feel like you’re living in a big city, but rather a small village. I know the dry cleaning, the garage people, so I don’t think I would move, I’m so used to it. My family is still in Honduras so I do go visit them and they come visit me.”
As she reflects on 20 years since launching her brand, Maribel realizes that she is leaving an indelible – and very edible – legacy. These might be trying times but she is already coming back better with each and every bite.