One evening in the summer of 2018, I ran into the entrepreneur David Baron, whom I vaguely knew from undergraduate days at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Over the din of Durham’s Surf Club bar, Baron explained that he’d spent the last few years designing a modular children’s couch. He handed over his phone with pictures that showed a construction of mod, colorful cushions, like something you’d see in an airport lounge.

Politely sipping my beer, I remember thinking: “No way this is gonna be a thing.”

I was wrong. The couch, which retails for $229, has attracted a devoted following and a hype that, ticking up over the years, nearly reached a fever pitch during the Great Indoor Year that was 2020. Named Nugget, the couch has become a social phenomenon that bridges divides between play and home life, toy and furniture, spawning an entire market of knockoff designs in the process. 

But more than that, Baron—alongside co-founders Ryan Cocca and Hannah Fussell—seems to have built an equitable, conscientious company, one that may be the new face of North Carolina furniture manufacturing.

On its own face, a Nugget is simple. It consists of four foam pieces (two triangle pillows, one seat cushion, and one base) and currently comes in 18 colors.

For families doing both school and life at home during the pandemic, the Nugget—which can be rearranged into slipsides, forts, or just a regular-looking couch—has become a ticket to a creative, customizable (and padded) new world. Rave customer reviews emphasize the versatility of the design.

“This product beyond exceeded my expectations and my son is OBSESSED!” reviewer Amy Taylor wrote on the Nugget website “AND I personally want all things Nuggety.”

Everyone seemed to want all things Nuggety. Getting them has been another thing.

Even before the pandemic, the small company, which manufactures out of Butner, N.C., had been struggling to catch up on mounting orders. Since 2017, demand has been roughly tripling each year; at the onset of the pandemic, the company was still fulfilling orders from the end of 2019.

Lockdown set the company further behind. In mid-March, cautious about COVID-19, Nugget paused its operations and Nugget staff, then around 20 people, went home with pay and benefits for 45 days.

The closure drove fulfilled orders down and parental hype up. At one point, there were 200,000 people on the waitlist, and the resell market boomed, with Nuggets selling for $500, then $1,000, then several times that. Knockoffs also began to pop up on the market.

In a profile of the company, Buzzfeed described the coveted couch as a “Supreme Drop for Moms” and by the fall, Inc. Magazine had named Nugget the fastest-growing furniture manufacturer in the United States and fastest-growing company in North Carolina.

Last October, looking to level the playing field and manage expectations, the company created a “Nugget Lotto’’ system. The first week, there were nearly 300,000 entries for the 10,000 Nugget slots.

The Nugget creation story goes back to UNC-Chapel Hill, where the three founders met, and where Nugget Comfort CEO Baron first dreamed up the idea for the company.

At first, he sought to reimagine one of the creakiest, most disposable facets of college life: The dorm-room futon.

“It hit me like a brick—what was a demonstrated desire that people kept on buying, but nobody liked?” Baron says.

Asymmetric information kept cheap college futons in demand, Baron reasoned, despite their long list of drawbacks: bulk, discomfort, and the fact that they don’t even convert particularly well from couch to bed. From there, Baron—and Cocca, the founder of local streetwear company Thrill City, who had come on board—began to imagine a piece of furniture as elemental as a cushion.

In 2015, the pair launched a Kickstarter for “the easiest couch ever.” It didn’t take long for 574 backers to pledge $84,748 to bring the Nugget to life.

Over Zoom, Baron—who has a deep baritone voice and an engaged, almost electric conversational style—explained that, in these early Nugget days, he was already trying to imagine what kind of company he wanted to build.

“The core tenet of a good company is that you don’t hurt anyone in the process of what you’re doing,” Baron says. “You are ultra aware and you don’t hurt anyone—internally, externally, or indirectly.”

In 2017, the pair sent a design to Cocca’s partner, Hannah Fussell, a fourth-grade public school teacher. It proved a fortuitous shipment: Fussell’s classroom loved the Nugget and when she returned to North Carolina, later that year, she joined the company, initially as an intern.

Immediately, Fussell made key changes, phasing out the stark white zippers and bright Crayola colors and replacing them with an appealing palette of shades ranging from “cactus” and “blue jean” to “redwood” and “bamboo.”

If parents were going to integrate Nuggets into their common spaces, she reasoned, they were going to want to look at them all day. Knowing how vital convenience is to caregivers, she also made the machine-washable covers easier to remove. Soon, Fussell fell in love with the work and the possibilities for carrying on the state’s legacy of textile manufacturing.

“Now, I’m the head of product for a furniture company in the great state of North Carolina, the furniture capital of the world,” Fussell says. “We’re always thinking, ‘How can we continue to be talking about bringing furniture back to North Carolina?’”

During her first few years, Fussell also expanded brand reach by making connections with Triangle-area parents.

Maddie Gaulden, a mother of two in Durham, was one of the original Triangle parents whom Fussell contacted. She is drawn to toys with the potential for “open-ended play to encourage their imagination,” she says. And despite a three-and-a-half-year age gap between her sons, the Nugget has been functional common ground for both of them (“it’s essential when playing ‘the floor is lava.”). Gaulden spread the word.

These grassroots efforts were the beginning of a marketing journey that hasn’t relied all that much on marketing: Notably, the company has never paid for advertising, instead relying on an inviting social media strategy and word-of-mouth.

This includes Facebook. When I began researching the company, knowing that Facebook was a major contributor to the Nugget zeitgeist, I did a perfunctory search, expecting to encounter one or two Facebook groups; instead, I lost count after 40. There are regional Nugget chapters, and military parent Nugget groups, and even the Nugget Comfort Club BST & More chapter, which bears the peculiar disclaimer “NO DRAMA.”

The largest group has 69,300 members. Posts run the gamut from photos of creative fort builds or hype about a forthcoming new color to questions of a more philosophical nature (“If you had all the money in the world, how many Nuggets would you own?”).

Scroll a bit further down into the Nugget Facebook fandom and you’ll also come across several (well-populated) groups themed around “Nuggets After Dark”—and yes, reader, those groups feature exactly the kind of adult conversations you might expect.

But, perhaps, a few PG-13 subcultures are just a byproduct of making a really, really popular couch.

Cocca says that the company approach toward the Facebook group phenomenon is hands-off. And the desire to unite and build community around a product, he reasons, is only natural.

That’s for the best, as the company has had plenty of other things to focus on this year, like getting people their Nuggets. It’s an area in which the company has experienced growing pains.

By the end of 2020, Nugget had shipped out an impressive 156,000 couches, though the lottery system means, fundamentally, that not everyone who wanted to have a Nugget under last year’s Christmas tree got one.

But, Baron says, he’s not in a rush to overextend the capacity of a small company.

“We could always make more than we make if we were willing to bend our values,” he says. “We never want to overwork anyone. A comfortably made Nugget is one of quality and everyone deserves to have a high quality, comfortable, well-paid job. We’re never going to just ask for them to be made faster for the sake of being made faster.”

To that end, the company pays a living wage and offers healthcare to its employees, who now number 80, and have made local non-profits like No Kid Hungry NC, Student U, and You Can Vote NC a fundraising focus.

“As a family company, I think it’s an obvious connection that you would try to run things in a way that’s more thoughtful about the future,” Cocca adds. “It’s not like we have it all figured out, but last year was a great opportunity for us to show some leadership.”

The social efforts make a strong case that Nugget is more than just a bunch of cushions—that it is a company nurturing local roots and, in the process, shifting a nationwide conversation about what home, play, and family life means.

The toy market is famously faddish—Tickle Me Elmo topping the charts one year, Furby the next—but Nuggets corner two markets at once: they don’t go in the toy bin at the end of the day because they’re a part of the room, and home. Baron also doesn’t rule out creating new kinds of Nugget Comfort products in the future, either, when the team is ready.

“[The pandemic] is a catalyst for people understanding that the home is an important place for family time, comfort, education, and creativity—that the home is a lot more than a respite from everything happening outside of it,” Baron says.

Gaulden, the mother who was an early Nugget adopter, echoes this sentiment. “I’m not surprised at all that they are this successful,” Gaulden told the INDY. “What sets them apart is not just that it’s a well made product, but that they have built such a solid team and have great leadership at the helm. As a parent today, I really try to be an ethical consumer whenever possible. I don’t think that I’m alone in that.” 

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