For Brenda Barnicki, making chocolate started as a hobby and ended up being her life’s mission.
Although the founder and president of Bellafina Chocolates has been obsessed with chocolate all her life, she didn’t start making her own truffles until she stumbled across a recipe about 15 years ago. After seeing how much her family loved the truffles, Barnicki started hand-dipping the chocolate treats in her kitchen and giving them to the people who worked for her at Eastman.
“As I rose through the ranks at Eastman, that got to be more and more and more people,” Barnicki recalled. “At one point, my husband said, ‘This is getting a little out of control. You need to do something with this.’ ”
So about eight years ago, Barnicki started a company called Bellafina Chocolates out of her kitchen. Barnicki put together a website and started fulfilling orders while also working full-time as a vice-president at Eastman. According to Barnicki, the business has been a means of giving back since Day 1 as 100 percent of the profits have gone to help women and children in need.
“It was just intended to be a way to give back more tangibly than writing a check,” Barnicki said.
In the first year, Barnicki made small batches of chocolate to sell at the Kingsport Farmers Market or during festivals downtown. The money went to local charities such as the literacy council and a sliding-scale preschool in Kingsport. Bellafina has never had a marketing budget, but word of mouth quickly led to an increased demand for Barnicki’s truffles.
“Once it grew a little bit, my mom would come during the day while I worked, and I took the night shift,” Barnicki said with a laugh.The growth of her chocolate business was a pleasant surprise, but Barnicki was content with the work she was doing at Eastman. Her job allowed her to help launch and lead small businesses, work she found fulfilling. However, her position at Eastman was lost during a restructuring, leaving Barnicki with a decision to make.
“Of course, my first thought was I just need another big job, but I took a six-month consulting job with Powell Construction in Johnson City, Barnicki said. “In that six months, ‘I said I’m just going to take that time to think about what I’m going to do with the second half of my career.’ ”
During that time, Barnicki came to the conclusion that she wanted to do something with more purpose. She wanted to live out her faith. She wanted to run a business. So ultimately, she came to the conclusion she was going to take a leap of faith and turn Bellafina Chocolates into a full-time service endeavor.
“At that point, I bought commercial-scale equipment and started looking for a building to put the business in,” she said.
Since the business started eight years ago, Barnicki estimates the volume has grown 50 to 75 percent each year. After securing a 5,000-square-foot building on Cherokee Street in Kingsport, Barnicki has been able to increase the positive impact she has on the world around her thanks to sales of her gourmet chocolates.
The more chocolate Bellafina sells, the more people Barnicki is able to help at home and around the world. Bellafina supports several charities that help women and children fighting poverty, abuse, disease or neglect.
Most everyone who lends a hand at Bellafina works on a volunteer basis, but recently Barnicki has also been able to hire a few women in need of jobs. She is grateful for the opportunity to help single mothers and women who have completed addiction recovery programs or fled an abusive situation.
“We very much run the business like a business, so what happens is this is kind of a transitional job for them,” Barnicki said. “In a lot of cases, these women have never worked, especially in the domestic violence situations. They’ve left with nothing, including no way to support themselves. Depending on where they are at in life, we help them understand how to be reliable and how to work a job.”
With her business enjoying steady growth, Barnicki is hoping to continue increasing her charitable donations. The goal, she says, is to one day be able to write million-dollar checks to help those in need.