The minute you walk into her New York chocolate boutique in SoHo, you can tell Maribel Lieberman is a woman who loves her job. Every detail of her popular shop MarieBelle, from the enormous chandeliers to the meticulously decorated chocolates is elegant and rich. Each bite of one of her famous ganaches is a taste of her native Honduras—a burst of passionfruit or chili pepper—or something she discovered in New York’s culinary landscape, like cardamom or pistachio. After moving to New York at age seventeen and learning English, she took night classes at Parsons School of Design in fashion. Cooking was a happy, lucky accident. Her business going strong after twelve years, the chocolatier isn't slowing down any time soon.
How did you get started making chocolate?
I never knew I liked to cook because I wasn’t cooking at home. But when I got married I started experimenting with food to cook for my husband and I realized I liked cooking. But not necessarily cooking just anything because I’m exposed to so many ingredients. I would go to the Arab and Indian neighborhoods and buy different ingredients. I started buying a lot of cookbooks and eventually I realized that’s what I wanted to do.
How did you turn your cooking into a business?
My idea was not only to just sell chocolate but other gourmet things. But when I started making chocolate I of course used the influence of my design background and that captivated my audience. And then I kept going with my catering business and continued with my chocolates. There’s a lot of influence of my Latin background and the flavors. Living in New York City gives me the freedom and inspiration to create flavors that are more exotic because of this melting pot of cultures in New York. I became aware of many ingredients and that’s what I do in my shop.
How did you become drawn to chocolate?
You know, when we first opened the store, it was with a friend of mine, who is an eyeglass designer and we wanted to split the rent. It was mostly for economic reasons that we wanted to. We first came out with the name Lunette and she said there’s a boutique in Paris called Papier et Chocolat and she said why don’t we name our shop Lunette et Chocolat? And we said okay, we need to sell a lot of chocolate. One thing about me is whenever I get into something, I go deeply. If I’m going to do something I go and do research. I’d never worked heavily on chocolate but it’s very difficult to temper it and all that but I was not aware of these things. I also was not aware that the cacao was chocolate too. I used to know cacao from Honduras and we used to drink cacao drink and I realized it was the same thing. That’s when I started to get passionate about chocolate. I said, “Oh, my God I’m destined to bring back the credit for chocolate to America.” The credit for the best chocolate comes from Europe but actually the best chocolate comes from Latin America. So I thought I’m destined to bring the credit back to America.
Where did you find most challenging about building your business?
If people really like your product it’s great, that’s the most important step. And maintaining it is the most difficult step. Maintaining means maintaining quality. When you create one thing and you have to multiple it by a thousand it has to be exactly like the first thing. It’s challenging because you don’t want to cut corners just because you need to make a lot, and that’s been my focus during my life in business. If I create one piece, they all have to be the same. Therefore it becomes a really artisanal product. The energy that goes into making any product, you feel the warmth and the energy when you have an artisanal product rather than a machine-made product. There’s a difference. It might not be obvious but it might be a feeling, but you capture something different.
What aspect of your business are you most proud of?
The creation. I didn’t think I would be creating so many products that people like and that I love. I’m my number one customer. I make something that I would buy myself. I think the creation is what I love the most. I like to spend time in the kitchen creating recipes, I love that.
Do you have advice for entrepreneurs?
The advice that I give is just do something you really love, that you have passion, not just because “she did great, maybe I’m going to do the same.” Because at the end of the day, this is going to be your life and if you don’t have the passion for it, you’re not going to make. So you have to like what you do because you’re going to be spend long hours working. Don’t be afraid. If it doesn’t work, do something else. Whatever days we have in our lives, we can test anything we want. I think people should forget about being afraid. And about money? You don’t need to start big; you can start small. You can start from your house. Now it’s easier than before, where there’s the internet.
What inspires you most?
I think I’m a little bit of a dreamer. I like vintage. I like to live in yesterday. I just designed the store with what I like, with what I like, what makes me happy, what makes me feel good. Now we have a boutique in Japan, I get blown away with so many things I can introduce to the world. Every culture has beautiful [elements] and it’s great if I have the chance to create something and to make it more mainstream here in New York. I want people to come to this store and identify with something. That’s what inspires me.
If you know someone who should be an inspiring Latina, nominate them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.