Chew on This

Fuquay-Varina couple sees chocolate business as Plan B

aweigl@newsobserver.comMarch 27, 2013 

Kirstin, left, and Robert Neira of Fuquay-Varina with their daughter, Addyson. The couple are behind Red Light Chocolates.

COURTESY OF NEIRA FAMILY

  • Where to buy?

    You can purchase Red Light Chocolates’ truffles, chocolates, caramels, caramel sauce and bark bars online at redlightchocolates.com. Their products are available locally at Southern Season in Chapel Hill and NOFO at the Pig and Kindred Boutique, both in Raleigh.

In this difficult economy, many people have had to figure out a Plan B.

Most of us know someone – or have been the person – who had to find a new job, pursue a new career, go back to school or start a business.

The moment Robert and Kirstin Neira of Fuquay-Varina had to start thinking about a Plan B was almost six years ago in a Target parking lot. Their daughter, Addyson, had been born 12 weeks early and weighed 2 pounds and 13 ounces. The baby was still in the neonatal intensive care when Kirstin Neira left the hospital. The couple stopped at Target on the way home, and Neira called her boss at a local technology company.

That’s when she learned that she had been laid off. Or as she was told in human resources-speak: “There have been resource actions. I’m sorry to tell you but you have been affected.”

Over the next two months, the Neiras spent many hours with their daughter at the hospital. During that time, the topic they kept returning to was the lack of job security in the technology industry, which employed them both.

“We had no backup plan,” Neira aid. And so, the idea to start their own business was born.

In the interim, Neira found another job with the same company to maintain the family’s health insurance. But the next year, Robert Neira was laid off. A few months later, he was rehired as a contractor. The couple’s experience during this economic downturn left them determined to find more a more reliable way to support their family and spend more time together.

Watching the Food Network one night, they saw a show about a woman who started a business selling giant fortune cookies.

“If she can do this,” Neira reasoned, “we have to find something.”

The couple considered and rejected several ideas: cupcakes, cake pops, cake truffles. They finally settled on chocolate truffles.

Despite having no experience in the food industry, Neira, who has a degree in industrial engineering, talked her way into a class at the Callebaut Chocolate Academy in Chicago. The school let her take the first course but insisted that the instructor would have to OK her taking more courses. The instructor approved of Neira’s skills, and she completed four courses.

Neira returned home, started tinkering with recipes and teaching her husband how to do what she had learned. They purchased equipment piecemeal and perfected their recipes. They launched their business, Red Light Chocolates, in 2010 at an annual fundraising event for March of Dimes, a charity they got involved with after their daughter’s premature birth. (Except for being nearsighted, their daughter has no lingering health effects.)

The Neiras started making chocolate truffles and now have a line of 16 flavors. They use cream from N.C. State University, local eggs and North Carolina honey in their confections.

But they didn’t stop there. At the request of Southern Season, they started making hand-wrapped caramels. To keep business going during the summer, when chocolates aren’t as popular as ice cream and other cool sweet treats, they came up with a caramel sauce for ice cream sundaes. They make holiday-themed chocolates and a line of bark bars. They will even decorate a chocolate with a corporate or event logo, as they did earlier this year for Gov. Pat McCrory’s inaugural ball.

Since November, business has been booming but manageable, the couple says. Both still work full time in the technology industry, doing much of their chocolate work at night after their daughter goes to bed.

But at least now, if either loses a job, there’s always Plan B.

Weigl: 919-829-4848 or aweigl@newsobserver.com

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