Burlington chocolate shop moves its business online

By Amanda Kuhnert

On March 15th, the day before Governor Scott ordered the closure of all restaurants due to the evolving Covid-19 crisis, the Toohey family temporarily closed their chocolate shop and café on Burlington’s Battery Street to customers. The following day, instead of filling retail cases with their handcrafted chocolates, they were picking, packing, and shipping these delicacies to addresses across the country. Their mail-order business had taken centerstage.

“Luckily we invested in a website when we opened,” said Kevin Toohey, who owns Nu Chocolat with his wife Laura and their adult children Virginia and Rowan. The store’s online shopping page features over 30 product selections, from gift boxes to individually wrapped chocolate bars.

The family of chocolatiers has worked together for years, most recently at Shelburne’s Bijou Fine Chocolates. In January of 2019, they opened Nu Chocolat, where they sell their artisan chocolates, caramels, and sipping chocolates, along with tea and espresso for customers to enjoy in the 12-seat café. “We’re very lucky to have had the foresight to have designed our space and purchased the equipment that will allow us to effortlessly continue on this trajectory,” Kevin said.

Shipping support

Nu Chocolat’s online store immediately took off. “FEDEX noticed how our numbers were growing and reached out to us to help develop our business in several ways,” Kevin said. Discounted shipping rates and seven-day residential delivery across the U.S. has allowed Nu Chocolat to compete with chocolatiers across the country. FedEx also has appointed the Tooheys with an independent business consultant to help improve web sales. Over the past few months, they revamped their website to increase their conversion rate and provide a smooth printing and shipping process.

Using data provided by FedEx, the Tooheys have worked with their consultant to come up with competitive shipping rates based upon regions, demographics, and customer perception. They’ve also reviewed their shipping patterns to determine the optimal price point for offering free shipping.

On the delivery side of things, Fed Ex offers support services to help mitigate potential issues related to transporting perishable products, from rescheduling deliveries to testing Nu Chocolat’s hot weather packaging.

An opportunity for innovation

While adapting to this new way of running their business, the Tooheys are also focused on the future. They’re working with their teams in Bogata, Chicago, and Belgium to implement new state-of-the-art technologies to balance their truffle recipes at the molecular level. The goal is to improve the taste and texture of their truffles, while providing a longer shelf-life without the use of chemicals.

“The preliminary trials have given us a level of quality high above even our high standards,” Kevin said. “We’re all quite excited. The groundwork for the truffles can then be applied across all of our product lines. It’s hard for me to get across to everyone how unprecedented this is in the industry.”

Looking ahead

“Our challenge, as always, is that we’re understaffed for growth and are unable to see the future to guide the growth we’re experiencing,” Kevin said. “We don’t know, at this point, how the summer will go as folks turn to beer and ice cream in the warm weather.” Last year June was Nu Chocolat’s slowest month, although they benefited from tourist traffic throughout the summer months. This year they’re not sure what to expect. If their numbers start to sink, Kevin said that the PPP loan they received in April, along with the EIDL loan they applied for via the Small Business Administration, will be helpful.

Kevin continues to seek advice and guidance from Steve Densham, an advisor with the Vermont Small Business Development Center (VtSBDC). The organization, which provides no-cost professional expertise and guidance to business owners, is helping entrepreneurs navigate the changing business landscape and plan for the aftermath of Covid-19.