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Meet the Tar Heels behind this year’s hottest toy

Three Carolina alumni founded Nugget Comfort, a children’s furniture company whose play couch has become one of the most sought-after gifts this holiday season.

Two children play on a Nugget sofa
Nineteen-month-old Tobias Krier (left), son of Carolina employee Michael Krier and UNC Health employee Paige Krier, and 18-month-old Wyatt Pontrello (right), son of Carolina employee Tania deLuzuriaga, playing with a Nugget configured as a fort.

What children’s toy could be so special that 200,000 parents are willing to wait hours to enter an online lottery or pay an outrageous markup price to third parties? Apparently, a play couch that was inspired by the company founders’ aversion to the cheap futons in their Carolina dorm rooms.

Co-founded by Carolina alumni David Baron ’12, Ryan Cocca ’13 and Hannah Fussell ’14 and headquartered in Butner, North Carolina, Nugget Comfort manufactures play furniture out of foam cushions that allow children to use their imagination and configure the cushions into couches, beds, chairs, slides or even forts — any structure that inspires them. The cushions are zipped into washable microsuede covers that come in a wide variety of colors that appeal to children and parents alike, such as Redwood (a warm, earthy brick) or Atlantis (peacock teal).

“The Nugget is no different from most building toys on the market,” said Baron. “Children are the most creative people, so our goal was to convince parents that the Nugget would encourage their children’s creativity.”

It worked. Parents have purchased the Nugget at a rate that has overwhelmed the small startup. Currently, more than 200,000 parents have attempted to purchase a Nugget when the website restocked just for the chance to backorder a Nugget, with a delivery date by June 2021, and thousands have entered the “Nug Lotto” over the past three months for a slim chance of winning a Nugget before Christmas. On the company’s Facebook page, hundreds of parents desperately comment on posts hoping to find someone willing to sell their Nugget or even their place in the Lotto line. On third-party websites previously purchased Nuggets are offered for two or even three times their value.

Demand intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools, daycares and extracurricular activities came to a halt and families began quarantining at home. Living rooms suddenly transformed into both classroom and playground, and parents became desperate for any way keep their children engaged and learning. Nine months into various stages of social distancing, and demand for the Nugget has reached a fever pitch.

The runaway success of the Nugget in 2020 is unexpected, especially considering the founders’ original inspiration.

Carolina foundations

Nugget Comfort co-founders Baron and Cocca met as students at Carolina where they had a shared experience — loathing their dorm furniture.

“It all started in Ehringhaus [Residence Hall] with the futon I loved to hate. I bought a futon the day I moved in, and it was even less comfortable than expected, difficult to put together and eventually disposable at the end of the year,” said Baron. “But as much as I hated it, it was the center of my dorm room and social life by extension. I thought it was rude for big-box stores to sell subpar products to unsuspecting students, and once I graduated I decided my way of getting into business was improving upon the standard futon.”

Half a dozen years ago, Baron and Cocca were prototyping their improved futon and testing the product on local young adults, when Cocca introduced his partner to Fussell, then an elementary school teacher. She suggested that a modular couch might actually be better-suited for children. Fussell later joined the company, and the three co-founders embarked on creating a modular couch that could be reconfigured into any shape. They marketed it to parents instead of college students.

The founders kept their company and manufacturing local. Originally headquartered in Durham, the company recently opened a new, larger factory in Butner, 15 miles northeast of Durham, to allow for increased production. Baron cites North Carolina’s industrial legacy and furniture market as the impetus for remaining in state.

A thread of care

“I wasn’t surprised to hear that David [Baron] is one of the founders of a successful company at all, because he’s got the entrepreneurial gene,” said one of Baron’s former mentors, the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship James Johnson Jr. in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. “I’m just pleased to know that he’s working in an important space and making a significant contribution given where we are during the pandemic. The Nugget’s success supports the notion that you can leverage the power and influence of the entrepreneurial spirit to do good in the world and do well in a financial sense in the marketplace.”

Nugget Comfort’s contribution during the pandemic — a tool for creativity and fun at a time when both are challenging — is certainly valuable to parents. Baron says when building Nugget Comfort, allowing a “thread of care” to run through every business decision he makes is something he learned from Johnson at Carolina.

That thread of care includes paying their employees a livable wage and continuing to pay salaries and benefits for all employees in the spring of this year when production shut down during Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order.

The future of the Nugget

As Baron and his colleagues continue to build and ship as many Nuggets as possible for the 200,000 people on their waitlist, they’re hoping to make even more Nuggets next year in their new facility.

That’s a small hope for all the parents who haven’t managed to get their hands on a Nugget yet and suggests the possibility that the Nugget might once again reappear on next year’s lists of hottest toys.

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