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Sugar Rush: ‘My Brigadeiro’ in Norwich Finds an Audience for Brazilian Chocolates

  • Paula Alexandrescu started a chocolate business My Brigadeiro at her home in Norwich. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Paula Alexandrescu started a chocolate business My Brigadeiro at her home in Norwich. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • My Brigadeiro chocolates. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    My Brigadeiro chocolates. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • Paula Alexandrescu started a chocolate business, My Brigadeiro at her home in Norwich. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Paula Alexandrescu started a chocolate business, My Brigadeiro at her home in Norwich. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

  • Paula Alexandrescu started a chocolate business My Brigadeiro at her home in Norwich. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • My Brigadeiro chocolates. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Paula Alexandrescu started a chocolate business, My Brigadeiro at her home in Norwich. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Norwich — Ana Paula Alexandrescu launched her homemade chocolate business in October.

Within a few months, sales took off. Alexandrescu’s business, called “My Brigadeiro,” was attracting customers in almost every state and gained nearly 5,000 followers on Facebook. The Norwich mother of three has been scrambling to keep up ever since.

“I never realized it was going to grow so fast,” said Alexandrescu, laughing. “It’s taking over the house.”

So much, in fact, that the family is moving from their townhouse off Route 5 to a larger place next door. Their new home will feature a “chocolate studio” in the basement, where Alexandrescu can prepare brigadeiros, soft chocolates that are popular in her native Brazil.

This spring, she traveled to New York City, where her chocolate spread — layered white, milk and dark chocolate that can be spread on bread, used for dipping fresh fruit or eaten plain — was included in VIP goody bags at the Emmys. The spread, which she made especially for the Emmys, will be available this fall.

Her spicy dark chocolate brigadeiro won the “People’s Choice” award in the Chocolate Lovers Fantasy in Manchester in June, and earlier this month, she flew to Chicago to start training as a chocolatier.

“There are just so many things happening at the same time with this business,” said Alexandrescu, who goes by Paula.

Not that she minds.

“I just feel so blessed to be recognized,” she said.

Of all the growing pains a new business might encounter, rapid growth is, perhaps, the happiest. But it’s a challenge, nonetheless.

Elaine McCabe, who runs the Thetford-based Red Kite Candy with husband, Mike McCabe, describes their company’s growth as “gradual.” Still, she’s familiar with the challenges of expanding.

McCabe started out selling her candy at the Thetford Farmers Market and eventually branched out to several Upper Valley stores. Now, it’s also sold throughout Vermont and at a store in Maine. A few years ago, Whole Foods Market began carrying Red Kite candy in 28 New England locations at the holidays.

“That was a big leap, and we pulled that off,” she said.

As is the case for many owners of cottage industries, space is an issue.

“It’s pretty much taken over our house,” said McCabe, who last week was busy preparing for the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival today in Shelburne. Their foyer is filled with shipping boxes, and at Christmas, “we are tripping over ourselves.”

The couple, whose youngest child is 9, like working from home. They recently installed a commercial kitchen in their basement, but because they were limited by their home’s footprint, even their new workspace is too small.

“You just deal with what you have,” said McCabe, who places an emphasis on flexibility.

“There are always going to be things to deal with,” she said. “People that do startup food companies are in for a big surprise if they think that they can do A through H and think then things are going to run smoothly.”

Starting a business can be daunting, said Deb Eibner, area business adviser with Green Mountain Economic Development Corp. in White River Junction. For those who are new to entrepreneurship, she recommends taking a workshop for prospective business owners, held at several Vermont Small Business Development Center sites across the state, including GMEDC.

“People come in feeling overwhelmed,” but the intensive four-hour class uses a step-by-step approach to cover the process of starting a business, Eibner said.

It’s also an opportunity for people to “kick the tires.”

“They need to evaluate, is it right for me? Is it right for my family?” she said. “Do I have the resources, including financial resources, to make this dream come true?”

Encouraged by friends who’d enjoyed her chocolates, Alexandrescu came up with the idea for the business last year. She and her husband, Dorian Alexandrescu, talked it over in July, and by October, My Brigadeiro was born.

Her start was a bit late to capture Halloween business, she said. But by Christmas, My Brigadeiro was selling an average of 2,000 chocolates a month.

When it came time to set up the business, Alexandrescu looked to her husband, an investor. He navigated the “bureaucratic part,” including licensing to make the chocolates in Vermont and New Hampshire. She did “everything else,” said Alexandrescu, an amateur photographer whose images illustrate the business Facebook page and website.

Alexandrescu generally spends two or three days a week making chocolates and promoting the company. A friend helps her on the weekends, and during busy times, her family pitches in. Last year the holidays were “very hectic,” so she hired two people to help package the orders.

In addition to feeding her love of cooking and entertaining, the business is also a way to “honor where I come from,” said Alexandrescu, who has lived in the Upper Valley off and on for several years.

“In Brazil, every kid learns how to make brigadeiros,” a simple dessert made from chocolate, milk and butter, she said. Her interpretations, however, are “very fancy.”

Brigadeiro businesses are popping up across the U.S., Alexandrescu said, so she tries to makes hers stand out, opting for organic chocolate, natural toppings and a variety of packaging options, and 34 flavors, including cappuccino, banana and marshmallow.

To keep things fresh, she is always adding new flavors — next up will be sea salt and taffy varieties. Depending on the packaging a customer prefers, a box of 15 sells for about $28, or $10 for a half-dozen.

Online sales account for about 60 percent of her business, but local sales are growing. She’s been promoting the chocolates locally, at fundraisers and tastings, and they are available at Dan and Whit’s in Norwich, The Chocolate Shop in Hanover, and the Lebanon Co-op. In December, Morano Gelato in Hanover featured a brigadeiro-flavored gelato, based on Alexandrescu’s product.

So far, sales haven’t repaid their investment.

“My husband asks me that every day,” she said, laughing. But, she points out, “It’s only been a year.”

Last week, an upbeat Alexandrescu tackled several tasks at once.

Wearing a white apron, she rolled white, milk and dark organic chocolate into balls, then added toppings. As she worked, the coconut-, nut- and sprinkle-covered sweets filled a white glass cake plate. She had just a few days to prepare several orders, some to be shipped to Iowa, California and New York. The others, she’d deliver herself to a customer in Hanover.

At the same time, she was arranging for movers to transport “the big stuff,” such as furniture, to their new home. For a chocolate maker, July is a good time to move.

“The summer is very slow,” as some people lose their taste for the sweet treat in hot weather, she said.

She’s looking forward to her new kitchen, which is outfitted with industrial touches, such as a stainless steel backsplash. And, like the McCabes, she’s happy to be able to work from home.

“It’s so convenient,” said Alexandrescu, whose youngest children attend the nearby Marion Cross School. But if business keeps growing, she envisions commuting to an industrial kitchen.

“I have a feeling that this is going to be out of my hands pretty soon,” she said.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.