By GREGORY ZELLER //
Dessert always comes first at North Fork Chocolate Co., a Calverton Incubator original in the midst of a serious sweet streak.
Co-owners Ann Corley and Steve Amaral were among the first tenants to occupy Stony Brook University’s Business Incubator at Calverton in December 2012 and among the first to graduate out. While it still leases incubator facilities to create its gourmet deserts, the business is now based in its own brick-and-mortar shop, with more commercial space and a host of big-time distribution deals in the works.
North Fork Chocolate has already inked several notable deals, including last year’s opening of its 1,500-square-foot space in Aquebogue. In January, its wares started gracing shelves inside five Wild By Nature markets on Long Island; it’s also enjoyed cross-promotions with a dozen Island wineries, including Pellegrini Vineyards and Water’s Crest Winery in Cutchogue and Clovis Point in Jamesport.
Now, while negotiating with the QVC home-shopping channel and a Manhattan dessert dealer – a potential 100,000-unit commitment – the confectionary is acquiring additional equipment, eyeing more commercial cooking space and looking to hire. It’s an impressive run for an on-the-side startup launched with artistic vision and a meager $1,000 investment.
Corley and Amaral met at The Inn at East Wind in Wading River, where Corley, a New Jersey native, worked in marketing and Amaral, a James Beard Award nominee and owner of Mattituck-based Black Tie Caterers, was executive chef.
“I told her I wanted to make chocolate,” Amaral recalled. “She said, ‘OK, I’ll sell anything.’”
They ponied up $500 apiece, incorporated North Fork Chocolate Co. and used the incubator’s facilities to produce gourmet desserts, with the proceeds reserved for their chocolatey ambitions.
They soon had enough to purchase a critical $15,000 chocolate-making machine from a Canadian manufacturer – at least, half of one. Corley was able to sweet-talk the distributor into taking a half payment up front and financing the rest. Amaral’s chocolates were an immediate hit, and as agreed, the entrepreneurs paid off the machine within a year.
So equipped, North Fork Chocolate was off and running, expanding its product line to include handcrafted ice cream and other sweet treats, though the artisan chocolates are easily its biggest seller.
The candies are prepared using butter, milk, eggs and other ingredients from Long Island sources – an important part of North Fork Chocolate’s business model, Corley noted – but it’s Amaral’s attention to detail that puts them over the top.
The chef, whose background incorporates ice sculptures and edible paintings on chocolate canvases, is “very much an artist,” Corley noted, known to hand-paint cocoa butter designs onto individual candies. Combined with handpicked “centers,” the hand-dipped Belgian chocolate creations – Amaral said he learned the technique watching Internet videos – are beautiful, tasty and a one-for-all boon for regional businesses.
Using locally produced ingredients costs more, Corley noted, but “we’re all about supporting Long Island and the regional economy.”
“We’re all about working with other local businesses,” she said. “That’s our niche.”
That niche is on full display inside the Aquebogue shop, which features products from roughly 30 other businesses stemming from the Calverton Incubator and elsewhere, including Southampton-based chocolate sauce-maker Old School Favorites, Center Moriches-based Long Island Pickle Co. and Calverton-based NoFo Crunch Granola.
Also featured are several inedible entrepreneurial endeavors, including Hampton Skincare, a lotion line produced in Southhold, and cross-stitched holiday ornaments handcrafted by a local artisan.
Corley rings up these and other third-party products at the North Fork Chocolate register, but the individual vendors are responsible for their own sales and tax records, marketing and inventory – the hosts claim only 5 percent of each sale to cover card-processing fees, Corley noted, and a “minimal vendor fee” for shelf space.
“We understand how it is for startups,” she added. “So we opened our doors to other food and craft artisans.”
The all-for-one approach also fuels North Fork Chocolate’s marketing efforts, which – in addition to the standard social media campaigns – include a series of “Tasty Tuesday” events, at which those third-party vendors personally promote their wares and those partner vineyards pair their vinos with Amaral’s Belgian treats.
Corley also cited a “goldmine” in a decidedly old school marketing tool: printed Discovery Maps highlighting East End business, which are the startup’s No. 1 traffic generator.
“Everyone who takes the ferry or comes from Nassau or comes out on day trips finds us on that map,” Corley said. “It’s a wonderful piece of marketing. Most of our customers from outside (this region) come from that map.”
No marketing effort to date, however, matches the potential heft of a QVC deal. A QVC producer happened to sample Amaral’s creations during a weekend tasting event at Laurel Lakes Vineyards, Corley noted, and soon approached North Fork Chocolates.
There was some question about whether the startup could meet the margins required by QVC, but with another chocolate-making machine on the way – same vendor, same half-financing deal, this time partially facilitated by an equipment grant from the Huntington-based Workforce Development Institute – Corley and Amaral are confident.
They should also be able to keep up with the demands of that Manhattan dessert company, Corley added, where negotiations are in “the final stages.” To help, the co-owners are looking to hire as many as 10 part-time employees and are establishing an internship program with Johnson and Wales University, Amaral’s alma mater.
And they’re busily scouting locations for a larger commercial kitchen – all part of an amazing growth spurt that’s included a 70 percent increase in sales between Valentine’s Day 2015 and 2016, according to Corley.
“Easter, too,” she added.
The partners plan to have that new kitchen up and running by the end of the year, part of a well-conceived growth plan that started at the Calverton Incubator just a few Decembers ago.
When they began, former incubator director Monique Gablenz told the pair to “set a goal to be out in three years and then move on to our next plan,” Corley said. “She said to take the time to do it right, so that’s what we did.
“Now we’ve set new goals,” she added. “Unless you have a goal to reach, you’re never going to get anywhere.”
North Fork Chocolate Co.
What’s It? Artisan chocolates and gourmet desserts
Brought To You By: Co-owners Ann Corley, a hospitality-marketing professional, and Steve Amaral, a James Beard Award nominee
All In: $1,000, just to stir the pot
Status: Sweet success … with more on the way