Maribel Lieberman was born to be a businesswoman. She says by the time she was 8, she was already selling sweets and caramels in her native Honduras.
“I always had a business sense,” says the owner of MarieBelle, an artisanal chocolate shop which uses cocoa beans from Ecuador and Venezuela, and is located in New York City.
Lieberman started her chocolate store — her second business –12 years ago. After she became a trained chef in 1994, she had started a catering company from her house, called Maribel Gourmet Cuisine. She says she trained herself to cook different types of food — from Latin to French, Italian and fusion.
“It wasn’t ultimately going to be chocolate,” she says about her original business idea which was supposed to offer a large selection of gourmet products. “When I opened the store, the equipment was expensive, and the only thing I found you don’t need a lot of equipment for was chocolate.”
She says she was able to save up $50,000 from her catering business, and that’s what she used to open up her store. She used the creativity she learned in the kitchen to make one-of-a-kind sweets like cardamom chocolates — a spice she says is usually reserved for Indian cuisine.
“Nobody was doing Mexican chipotle ganache,” says Lieberman. “These flavors really made the people talk. The demand was very good…”
The demand has gotten so high that Lieberman just came back from a 10-day trip to Kyoto, Japan, where she opened a store a year ago.
“For Valentine’s Day Japan becomes like a chocolate city,” she says. “When I go to Japan, I come back inspired. The Japanese love ginger, bean paste, sushi, and wasabi…Then I say OK, I could do a green tea truffle, a bar with wasabi, something unexpected…My factory is like my lab for me.”
She says she plans on expanding in Asia, as it has been their biggest customers after Americans.
Lieberman was 20 when she first came to live in the U.S. for school. After learning English, she got a degree in fashion from Parsons School for Design in New York City.
“I was very young, and I always thought I’ll live here one year and then I’ll go back,” she says. “I told myself it was temporary, and then I met my husband and then I stayed.”
The entrepreneur says she practiced fashion for about a year, a natural talent she inherited from her mother, but eventually she started designing edibles. She explains she sometimes even used her artist husband’s graphics and put them on her chocolates.
“This is what made the brand different from the others,” says Lieberman. “I make blue, green, yellow, red, and pink-colored chocolates. I attracted a very young crowd with my designs. That’s what made the brand known.”
The brand, she says, steadily grew until around 2008 when the economy declined, but since 2011, it’s been climbing again.
“Being hit, teaches you a lot of lessons,” says the self-taught businesswoman. “One employee can do a lot by multi-tasking. I have 22 employees today [nearly half of what she started out with], because I learned how to create systems…Today, I know a lot more than I did four years ago.”
Today, she mostly has a routine of getting up in the morning, doing yoga from 7 to 8am, going to her office at 9, going to the factory in Brooklyn, and then the store in lower Manhattan around 5:30 or 6. She is then ready to come home to have dinner with her 7-year-old daughter around 7pm.
“I think I am where I am, because I’m not afraid of things,” says Lieberman. “When I had my catering company, I had less money, but I never felt less…I did a lot of work with my own hands.”
To someone starting out with their own businesses, she says the only thing she would have done differently would be to learn more accounting.
“It is very important to set budgets for yourself…you need to have goals,” says Lieberman. “If your strength is not accounting, find someone who knows it, because the big stress comes when you can’t pay the bills. A lot of companies go out of business because they didn’t project correctly. But if you have it correct from the beginning, you won’t have the stress.”