Putrice Thomas loves puzzles. As a child, she’d spend hours matching the tiny pieces to the design on the box. She smiles, thinking about the memories of sitting in her room in her family’s home in Trinidad and Tobago, carefully and strategically piecing together each puzzle piece. It’s an activity that she would one day want to share with her daughter. As a teenager, Thomas would move to Toronto, Canada, and by 2019 to Brooklyn, New York — cities that were much different from her hometown of Point Fortin, Trinidad. Like many immigrants, Thomas tried to stay connected to her culture, but found it challenging.
“When we moved to North America, everybody was so different and when you niche down and try to find things that connect you back home, it’s difficult to find,” Thomas says.
By 2018, her daughter Zariah was born. Thomas, who grew up with a Black father and Middle Eastern mother, wanted to share her vibrant upbringing and culture with her daughter, who was growing up in a city completely different from hers. As a stay-at-home mother, Thomas excitedly built a library for her daughter. However, it took a lot of work for her to find books and toys that represented her daughter and her diverse background.
“I was looking for books that were written by BIPOC authors and illustrators that represented children of color, minority children, also Caribbean children too — because I am from the islands. [I thought] where is that in this space, for kids?” she says. “It was a struggle, I really had to go out of my way to find things. I had to hunt [for it].”
Looking through children’s story books, Thomas thought, ‘I can do that’ and decided to make illustrations and stories for her daughter. By then, her daughter was growing. It was time to work on her hand and eye coordination and fine motor skills. Subsequently, Thomas introduced her daughter to something that she loved as a child: puzzles.
Thomas created puzzles for her daughter that had images that represented children like her — children who were Black, Caribbean and from the city; children who depicted kindness, creativity and bravery. Before the illustrations for the puzzle came to fruition, Thomas gave them a background story, all inspired by her daughter and her culture.
She hired an Ecuadorian artist, Jeff Jacome, from Queens to sketch the illustrations and turn the stories into art. Thomas took these sketches and added her personal touches and color. By June 2021, Thomas launched five puzzles for her company: Cocoa Puzzles, Brooklyn’s first children’s jigsaw puzzle company.
Thomas put a lot of thought into her product, making sure she created something she’d feel safe letting her daughter play with. The puzzles are all made on recyclable cardboard and printed with nontoxic soy-based ink. None of New York City’s manufacturers could make puzzles like this, so it was and still is outsourced to a business in China. However, all the designs and illustrations are made in New York and Putrice enlists the help of many Brooklyn print shops to test the printing of her puzzles.
Not every step of launching the business fit together like her puzzle pieces. The city was just recovering from the pandemic and it was difficult for Thomas to market her products when everything was essentially shut down.
“When I first started the company, I had the vision to have the puzzle in libraries and have the puzzle in schools. But the pandemic was really challenging because I was not getting any exposure for the brand. Everyone was indoors. How do you get the exposure?” she says.
Thomas did not give up. She applied to be in markets across the city and began pushing her product via social media. Soon enough, orders came through and business picked up. Thomas was even recently chosen to be one of the four businesses spotlighted by Bank of America at Bryant Park’s Winter Village.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be selected. It’s an honor because there are so many great small businesses in New York City. [I can’t believe] I read about it, entered the competition and won,” she says.
A jigsaw puzzle from Cocoa Puzzles can be the perfect gift for the little ones in your life. Thomas currently sells five jigsaw puzzles, two with 42 pieces and three with 100 pieces — each with a heartfelt story behind it. For example, the “Music is Love” puzzle ($20) depicts two children on a tropical island dancing to the beat of a Djembe drum and a pan flute. The image shows two cultures uniting through music.
“Kids not only need to identify with the things they see but also feel a sense of connection. There are a lot of meaningful stories that go with the pieces. When you create a picture versus a picture and words, you have to have depth in the work for people to be able to connect and make sure that kids, when they see it, they feel a sense of confidence — they feel a sense of kindness, they feel trust, they feel creative. They feel like they can express themselves and those are some of the things I want to come out of the images,” she says.
The company has allowed Thomas to connect and be reminded of her culture and roots; she hopes that other children can see themselves in these illustrations in the same way she sees herself. Next year, she’ll be expanding the collection of puzzles with new stories and more children represented in the designs. While the brand is just beginning, she’s happy to see all the support she’s received.
“Support local makers and artists,” she says. We really do put a lot of love and work into the products that are coming out. So to know that you are a New York brand and New Yorkers are buying it and New Yorkers are supporting you, has been really awesome.”