Making chocolate for a cause

Alumna Brenda Barnicki parlayed a candy-making hobby and job loss into a nonprofit for children’s charities.

Alumna Brenda Barnicki of Bellafina Chocolates in Kingsport, Tenn. (Courtesy photo)

While working as a chemical engineer, Brenda Barnicki, BSChE ’86, made chocolates as Christmas gifts for the colleagues who reported to her. By the time she became vice president of technology at Eastman Chemical Co., the culmination of a 25-year career, the batches of chocolate had grown. So, when her position was eliminated during restructuring in 2010, she had an idea of what she wanted to do next. 

“People would say, ‘These are wonderful, you should do this as a business,’” Barnicki recalls. When she left Eastman, Barnicki had already started Bellafina Chocolates as a hobby on the side to raise money for kids in need. “I’ve always felt that people should give back in whatever way they can, using the unique gifts they have,” Barnicki says. “From day one, 100 percent of our profits have been dedicated to children’s charities.” 

Barnicki started Bellafina out of her kitchen, hand-dipping truffles in a bowl. Eventually, the business expanded into her dining room, where she and her husband, who also works as a chemical engineer, installed commercial-grade chocolate-making equipment.

About Brenda Barnicki

WHO: Brenda Barnicki, BSChE ’86 

HOLIDAY RUSH: When Barnicki first started out, 50 chocolates was a big batch. Now, Bellafina can make up to 3,000 in any given morning during the holiday season. 

FRESH AIR: “East Tennessee is beautiful,” Barnicki says. “We’re just up the range from the Smoky Mountains and love anything outdoors.” 

SEE FORY YOURSELF: Follow Bellafina Chocolates on Instagram.

In 2016, Barnicki opened Bellafina in a downtown storefront in Kingsport, Tennessee, where the company sells chocolate in person and operates a robust mail-order business. 

“There’s actually a decent amount of chemical engineering involved in chocolate manufacturing, which I hadn’t expected,” Barnicki says. “Skills like quality management and continuous improvement, which I was introduced to at WashU and then developed throughout my career, have surprisingly wound up being relevant.” Barnicki also trained in advanced chocolate making at the Culinary Institute of America. 

Bellafina specializes in truffles that are made fresh to order and include no preservatives or added sugar, in flavors such as mint, espresso and moonshine, as well as other chocolate-covered treats. True to Barnicki’s origins as a chocolatier, Bellafina makes custom- order truffles for corporate gifts and other occasions, with logos and artwork printed on the packaging or even embossed on the chocolates. 

Now an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Bellafina is run by approximately two dozen volunteers who chip in at various times of year. The company also has a few paid staff positions that Barnicki fills with women who are in recovery or otherwise need a helping hand. Barnicki continues to volunteer herself and now holds a position on Bellafina’s board, as she and her husband look to their next endeavor. 

“I always wanted to make sure that Bellafina would become a sustainable nonprofit. If the company were just going to last the course of my own career, I could have just gotten another big job and donated my paycheck,” Barnicki says. “The reason I chose to do this — besides that it’s way more fun — is I believe that Bellafina can grow and stay dedicated to giving back for the long term.” Barnicki’s goal is to one day write $1 million checks to children’s charities. 

Next up for Barnicki and her husband is a fruit and berry farm, profits from which will also go to benefit kids in need. The couple is beginning to plant now and hopes to have the operation up and running within a few years. “Being able to run your own business because you believe in its mission puts a whole different spin on your life,” Barnicki says. “It’s just so rewarding.”

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