Bittersweet decision to sell chocolate shop

  • Neely Cohen is selling her chocolate shop / wholesale chocolate business, Vicuna. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Neely Cohen is selling her chocolate shop / wholesale chocolate business, Vicuna. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, December 20, 2016 10:2AM

When Neely Cohen returned to her hometown of Peterborough for the first time in a decade to open Vicuna Chocolate, it was a cathartic experience. Moving into the downtown space took a lot of work, and for a few months, Cohen found herself tearing down walls, covered in construction dust.

“There were a lot of tears, a lot of blood, a lot of physical and emotional labor, and it wasn’t just about building this space,” Cohen said last week, in an interview at that same space, now nearly polished, with chocolate churning in stainless steel mixing bowls. “It was a very personal thing that I was going through. All of that, the destruction and rebuilding, really mirrored what I was going through.”

Now, nearly two years later, Cohen has put her thriving business on the market, ready to move on to her next calling. And, much like the ethically sourced, bean-to-bar chocolate Vicuna provides, the decision, too, was bittersweet.

“It’s such a vulnerable, bittersweet thing,” she said, “to engage the community in support of me starting this place and then share all my hard work, heart and soul in this creative vision and then coming to a place, learning so much through this process and finding out that this is not necessarily the best fit for me right now.”

The business grew over the past two years, even with limited café hours. Regulars would stop in Saturday and Sunday mornings for a cup of coffee with a shot of chocolate or to pick up a couple bars of Peruvian or Dominican chocolate, beans hand-ground on the premises. All the while, the wholesale side grew, too, as Cohen landed contracts that sent her bars all over the country.

Cohen always knew her strengths lay in creativity and vision, but was well aware that opening her shop would take more than just an idea — it would be a lot of hard work and maintenance.

“It’s always been wearing all the hats and doing everything,” Cohen said. “So that concession I had a good handle on going in to this thing.”

But now, she sees Vicuna on the verge of becoming more than a chocolate shop, and between her skill set and her wanderlust, she doesn’t think she’s the one to take it to that new frontier. Cohen said the café could easily expand, be open more hours, host after hours events, chocolate tours, tastings — “become a community staple,” she said.

“I feel like this has all that potential,” she said, “but I’m not necessarily the person to do that.”

Of course, the obvious question is: what chocolatier could replace Cohen, who’s attended international confectionary schools, won a dessert-themed reality show and even baked dessert for Vice President Joe Biden? Cohen said, modestly, that the task isn’t all it appears.

“It’s not necessarily about fancy recipes,” Cohen said. “It’s really about the process. The flavors of the cocoa beans that we source are the ingredients. There are really only two ingredients, the cocoa beans and the sugar.”

So, she said, theoretically, anyone who follows the existing process should be able to create the same quality of chocolate that she’s established.

For now, Cohen said she’s happy to wait for the right buyer, as Vicuna hits the market with a price tag around $100,000. Once that’s done, she hopes to move on to her next project: a travel documentary film project on cultural preservation through food, about equality, race and gender issues, “but really using the lens of food to touch on broader topics,” Cohen said.