From Manchester to Michigan: Kilwins Chief of Design & Brand Ron Brunette finds his sweet spot

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Ron Brunette has “the eye” and the subsequent accolades to prove it. As Chief of Design & Branding for Kilwins Chocolates, Fudge, & Ice Cream Shoppes, Brunette’s warm and amiable personality assuredly parallels the charm of the signature stores he designs. Kilwins, famous for its assortment of fine and novelty chocolates, fudge, caramel apples, and ice cream, offers an immersive experience of nostalgia, suspending thought, engaging the senses, and evoking reactions of gleaming faces. But, as passionate as he is about his substantial visually artistic career, his ultimate devotion is being a father to his 18-year-old daughter, who he describes in the most sincere of fashions. 

I had the opportunity to connect with Brunette, a native of Manchester, who cites his unique journey from his humble beginnings amongst costumes and curtain calls, as an active member of the theatrical arts in NH.

Ron Brunette holds a photo of his award-winning Lord & Taylor Christmas windows. Courtesy Photo

CC: Have you always gravitated towards merchandising? How did that come about?

RB: Actually, no. The way it came about really is, I was interested in theater at a very young age. I started doing summer theater and local theater when I was around 12 years old. A teacher at my high school, Trinity High, recognized that I was far more interested in theater then my school was going to be able to provide, so he gave me an article which was an announcement about auditions at Saint Anselm College. Essentially … they needed to get some young children involved so that the college kids could play adults and parents to younger kids. I was very small at the time and I could easily pass for a 12- or 13-year-old when I was 16- or 17-years-old. So, I started doing theater as an actor. I went to college for theater at the University of Texas in Austin and did national tours and did a little bit of Broadway, mostly backer’s auditions, a couple of commercials and things like that. I was working a lot. I moved to New York and I started to realize that, No. 1, it was a real-life choice if you’re doing theater you really have to dedicate your life to it and sometimes forgo a lot of things that I really wanted for myself, a family, a home and so on. So, I was in New York and I was sort of scouting around. I was 22 looking for something interesting to do, and that’s when I started looking at design. My intent was to go for theater set design but then what I started to realize also, was that there were going to be 30 Broadway shows opening that year they would essentially be designed by the top four or five designers. The opportunity to do professional work as a designer wasn’t feasible and I had taken a lot of design classes in college as well set design and costume design so I started working at Lord and Taylor as a visual trimmer, with a  staple gun and glue gun putting things together. That’s when I started working my way up to a professional career and when I left Lord and Taylor, I was Director of Display for the store on Fifth Avenue.

I was in New York a few months ago and I found my cab was going by the store. I hadn’t intended to and I got very emotional about it because that’s where I started, and it recently closed. That was at a time where we used to build things for windows and for displays within the store. We used to theme displays. It just sort of put a spin on what a different time it was. I had a staff of 69 people for this one Fifth Avenue store doing visuals. There were painters, carpenters, and electricians. We had a makeup artist that used to do makeup on mannequins. We had a wig maker on staff. It was a whole different time so that’s sort of how I got my start.

My last year at Lord and Taylor I spent three-quarters of a million dollars doing four Christmas windows, so I don’t know what that’s like in today’s dollars but it’s probably about  $3 million. They were all one-third scale mechanical people moving and it was four scenes that were authentic, 1930s Radio City Music Hall lobby, The Daily News, the Rainbow Room, the top of the Chrysler Building from the inside the observatory. All were authentic, built to scale, so if someone was six feet tall, in the mechanical figure was two feet, and costumes to scale, done authentically, to the Great Depression. We had a party after the openings of the windows and it had to be 200 people who had been involved with some way, shape, or form, included in those windows. That was my last year there, we won all sorts of design awards. I was interviewed on NBC and I was interviewed on Japanese Public Radio and we had a double-page spread in the New York Times it was just really fun times-a long long time ago.

The Kilwins experience.

CC: You were involved with the Palace Theatre in Manchester, correct?

RB: I’m guessing probably my junior year in high school I was involved in a couple of ways, obviously, volunteering like crazy. I was involved with lots of different groups that would do theater there. There was a group at the time called the Manchester Players and I was involved with them and the Saint A’s group (Saint Anselm), the Abbey Players as well as a number of other groups, and I was involved with that. I did a lot of theater in the summer. I did a dozen or so shows there under my own production company. I performed there quite a bit. 

CC: Have you heard recent news about the Palace? They have a great team there.

RB: I’m a Facebook friend so I get notices occasionally. My mom is 92-years-old and she lives in Goffstown and she’s independent and then my sister in Portsmouth my other sister lives in Hooksett and my other sisters are on the West Coast, so I’m still somewhat connected to Manchester. I don’t get to go back often. My mom comes and stays with us for extended periods of time. It’s easier for her to get away at 92 then it is for me, so I kind of keep up with things. I did a program at UNH called the “Little Red Wagon,” a touring program, and I did that for a couple of years and then I taught in UNH in the Children’s Theater Department. I made friends with a lot of different people at UNH, some who are still doing theater. There’s a number of people who have done Broadway and films and there’s a woman named Maryann Plunkett.  This is the story of Maryann: She did a production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that I produced. Her first job after graduation was to replace Carrie Fisher on Broadway in “Agnes of God.” Her second job was she replaced Bernadette Peters in, “Sunday in the Park with George.” and her third job was, “Me and My Girl,” which was a huge musical and she won the Tony Award for it.

 What’s really cool about Maryann is that a couple of months ago we went to see “Little Women” and Maryann plays the boarding house owner and then a week later we were rented the Tom Hanks movie about Mr. Rogers and Maryann Plunkett plays Mrs. Rogers. She’s an incredible actress. I have a lot of friends that have done theater in New Hampshire, and national tours. I have people at UNH that I’m still in contact with who are in theater in New York. I don’t do theater anymore myself, obviously, but I’m still very interested in it. 

CC: What was it in your childhood that got you interested in theater in the first place?

RB: I think that coming from a large family I was one of six kids. I still felt like an outsider in my family in many ways because I had all sisters and I guess it was my own thing. It was something I could do that no one else in my family was doing. There was nobody with that kind of background and I wasn’t really into sports or naturally athletic or anything, so for me it was something I was able to get out of the house and do for myself. Also, I think I was a little bit precocious for my age, so when I was in high school I was hanging out with kids in college and they were a little bit older. They seem very sophisticated to me. It was just exciting and my parents were pretty lenient about it. I mean my parents were strict. They both had a French-Canadian Catholic background and didn’t really “get” American culture that well. They were still very steeped in Manchester. We lived on the West Side for a long time and my parents spoke French at home. Even though I was really a child of the ‘70s, because of my parents’ structure and of course because my grandparents lived above us on the second floor, it was very kind of a 1940s culture. My parents were very open about me being involved in theater because it didn’t really feel like it was going to be a problem and it wasn’t, but a lot of parents would have problems with their kids staying out until one in the morning at rehearsals or hanging around with older people, but they didn’t. For me it represented a way for me to create. You’re sort of searching for who you are and I just loved theater. We still see a lot of theater here and a lot of arts. I like to sing and dance. It was very interesting to me that’s why I got involved with it.

CC: How did you meet Kathy Hamel, owner of With Heart and Hand on Elm Street? How did you know she had that eye? 

RB: I have a friend, Lois Cote, and Lois was my general manager for my theater company when I was doing some of my own productions, so she was involved and we did a lot of theater. We did “Gypsy” at the Palace and “Dark of the Moon,” and we did probably a dozen or 18 different shows at the Palace over a few years. She was always organizing things and schedules and getting donations. Kathy and Lois are really good friends so Lois was the one who introduced me to Kathy.  When Kathy was interested in opening her shop she asked me if I would help her and I mean I just gave her so little help it wasn’t like a big deal, it was just to go in and give her help to put things together. Also, our daughter is from China and so when my husband and I adopted in China, Kathy was very charmed and she loves kids so she was very interested in that whole adoption process.

CC: As far as “the eye,” can that be learned?

RB: I don’t think it can be learned. I think that if you don’t have it you really don’t have it and here’s what I’ll tell you. My dad and I were very different people. My dad went to boarding school, wore uniforms, and was in the Navy. He was a very straight-laced kind of person. We were very different. We didn’t get along a lot until I became a little bit older, a little more mature and he understood that I was not there to take over his business. But it was very interesting because he wore a white shirt, black pants, and a colored tie every day. We used to joke that he could get dressed in the dark because he could. I remember he was reading The Boston Globe one time on Sunday and there was a quiz about design and he totally didn’t understand it. He never understood what I did, even as an adult, he didn’t understand that at all. Funny story: I was showing him pictures that were of the windows that were in Lord & Taylor and he said, “I don’t get it. What do you do?” I said “Well, I design these windows,” and he said, “Well, what does that mean? Did you make this mannequin?” I said “No, I didn’t make a mannequin,” and he said,“ Did you design this dress?” I said “No I don’t design clothing.” He said, “Well I don’t get it,” and it just so happened there were big massive Victorian floral arrangements that were dripping with flowers. I couldn’t get anyone at Lord and Taylor to really kind of understand what I wanted. The dresses were very lacey Victorian-looking dresses so I just did the floral arrangements myself.  I thought, okay, I know what I want, and I just did them, and so my Dad is still saying, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand? Did you put the lights in?” I said, “No.” And he said,“ “What about these flowers, did you arrange these?” I said, “Yes I did!” But then a couple of months later, my mother told me he was telling people I was a floral arranger! I mean there’s nothing wrong with being a florist, but that’s NOT what I did! 

 My mom — she doesn’t know it, but it’s probably one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. She doesn’t get that she is but she comes out of a very different generation. My mom can go to a restaurant and have a meal and she can say, okay, wait a minute, and she can go home and recreate that meal. My Mom can look at a dress that somebody is wearing and she can make it. She would be able to figure that out. My mom made all of my sisters’ wedding gowns. I’m talking full-blown couture, handmade lace- exquisite, that people can’t believe and that’s my mom, and she kind of discounts that. She thinks that everybody has that ability but she’s always been able to do stuff like that.

Janette Desmond, owner of Kilwins Portsmouth.

CC: Who or what inspires you?

RB: Oh wow — a lot of things! I think that everything is sort of connected so I get inspired by everything. Changes in fashion, food, architecture. It’s interesting because a lot of times people don’t see the connection. I teach classes as well at the University of Michigan. As an example, when Apple computers came out and they did those white casings on the computer they ushered in an entire movement around the use of the color white to the point where Justin Timberlake was wearing white shoes and white belt in a video that my grandfather would have worn 20 years earlier. No one was wearing a white belt and white shoes. White cars began to sell particularly well so there was a whole movement around that. You can track a lot of different designs from magazines to architecture, to art to music. Sometimes form follows function, Sometimes function follows form, I mean, this crisis that we’re going through now, I’m guessing, will usher in a lot of very conservative designs. and Then you can look at World War II. Clothing got much more tailored, much tighter so part of that was around the military, part of that was also around practical matters. Not being able to get the amount of fabric that you would have gotten before, and part of that is around the seriousness of the war effort. So all of a sudden, women’s dresses that were very flowy and different colors and had lots of fabric started to be very severe and tailored with tweed and conservative fabrics. An entire movement was happening around the war. You can take fashion, music, food, architecture or furniture and you can pretty well see all types of influences happening. If you could have put together a chart you could lay on the history that was happening at the time, it would all make sense.

CC: What are some practical tips that you can give to the average homeowner who wants to merchandise their home?

RB: Here’s what I would suggest if anybody is worried that they don’t have an eye or maybe think they have an eye but they’re not really sure what to do. A couple of things you can do is, No. 1, number one, take a look at your wardrobe. Don’t look at each individual piece but take a look at the colors of your wardrobe and you’ll find out what you respond to naturally. There will be some outliers like that mustard blouse you never wear but basically, if your wardrobe is 60 percent blue you like the color blue and that’s a sure thing. The other thing that I do a lot is, and I used to do this with a private client, I go through and I just tear out tons and tons of pictures from magazines. I’ll go through magazines like Architectural Digest and Elle Decor basically anything that has pictures and I’ll just tear out all these pages. I’ll have a stack of 200 photographs and I’ll say okay we’re going to go through this. All I want you to do, and you can’t really spend any time on it thinking about it – I say, do you like it or do you not like it, yes or no? Then that pile from 200 will go down to let’s say 50, and then I’ll say okay, let’s go through this again, and let’s say on a scale from 1 to 10 – 10 being I love it. What you end up with is 10 or 15 photographs, and it’s like, I’m sorry, you keep telling me you like traditional, but take a look at these photographs, not one is traditional. Everything here is modern and so you’re responding, and speed is important because it allows your gut to speak before your brain can get in the way and so, that’s one of the things that I do. I do that sometimes for campaigns I’m working on. I just flash inspiration pictures. What do you think of this, what do you think of that, what is it about this that you respond to?

CC:  Kilwins seems to be poised to receive a lot of visitors once this pandemic has lessened – a very good spot to be in. What are your thoughts? 

RB: I think so, too. I think people are going to want to get out and want to be in areas where other people congregate. During the recession, a lot of folks felt, I can’t afford that expensive vacation but I’m going to take my kids out for ice cream, and you know what? I’m going to have that little indulgence. I’m not going to buy a $400 outfit, but I’m going to treat myself to a manicure and get the best chocolate I can. So I think we’re uniquely poised to be part of the recovery. I’m sitting here, like everybody else, thinking “Oh my God, and I can’t believe this,” but I do think that we’re going to be a lot kinder and a lot more appreciative of what we are going through collectively as a country. I think there are times in history, 9/11 was one of them — there are certain unique periods in American history where we come back together as a people and say, okay I get it. We just went through hell but we went through it all together. I was in New York during 9/11. I get it. Boy, you never saw New Yorkers more unified then after that, it was unbelievable. We’re living through a fractured time right now, so I’m hoping that we really use this as an opportunity to grow. We’ll see. 

CC: In your opinion, how important is imagination?

RB: Oh my gosh, it’s everything, because you’re always striving for the next step with a new development or a better way. Imagination is a gift. I can’t see any of it, so to make it real, you have to be able to imagine it. Whether it’s a new dress you want to make or a meal you want to concoct or an advertising program you want to create, a store you want to build or whatever it is you have to imagine. It has to be real for you and your heart. Real visionary people are people who can imagine something. One of the things I hate is unconventional businesses when you come up with an idea, when somebody in the room says, “Well, why would that be successful? Who’s done that before,” and it’s like, “Well, nobody! That’s the whole point!” With Kilwins there’s no national chain of chocolates and made in-store items and ice cream stores. We have competitors in ice cream, we have competitors in chocolates, we have competitors for a mom-and-pop fudge and caramel apple, but we don’t have a competitor who does what we do. It’s kind of shocking in a way, but somebody at some point had to have the imagination to say something that you could see in five or 50 stores –100 stores –  it has to be that, so back to your question, how important is it? It’s pretty much everything. Any other thing you can learn or get somebody to show you. I can get somebody to do every other thing, that is just practical. The only thing that you can’t just harness is the imagination. You have to be free to it happening. I mean imagining yourself in a relationship, imagining yourself with a child, whatever it is, you have to believe that it’s possible.

CC: What is in the future for you?

RB: Professionally, taking the company much more national. We are now in 27 states. When I joined the company there were 47 stores and we were in 23 states and now we are in 27 states. I see an opportunity to go national with the company in a very big way. This is probably my last job so, for me, it’s also about changing the way that I work and I don’t see myself retired. I love what I do, and I love my work but, what I do see myself doing is, I’m a big believer in hiring people that know more about things than you do and letting them do that. We continue and grow by stepping back and allowing younger people to sort of take the reins as we grow. You wear less and less hats. I do all the creative merchandising for the company, the visual merchandising, architectural structuring, packaging design, and marketing. I want experts. My job is going to, more than likely, morph into a creative vision and align much more than actually doing. That’s exciting and I’ve set up things like that before but seeing it happening in a small company is very exciting. That’s cool. And personally, my daughter starts college this year. She has no fear at all, but we are basket cases! We’ve spent the last 18-years of our lives dedicated to her…we’ll figure it out. We are redefining the whole relationship.

Kilwins Portsmouth.

CC: It’s been a good experience for you to be a father then?

RB: Oh! It’s been the best! I never felt better about myself, more sure of myself and happier than being a dad, it’s just the best part of my life. All of it too, by the way. It’s like-bring it on! Everybody else was saying: “Oh, this part is gonna be bad”… no-it was great! She’s an easy kid and she is very warm and funny. The only thing I’d say is I wish everything could be half-time, so she could be 4-years-old, for two years. It just went too fast.

CC: Looking back on your career do you believe in coincidence?  

RB: No. I can’t say that I do. That’s interesting because I have a friend on Facebook that I went to junior high with and she reminded me — and I had forgotten this — but we had a career day and we were supposed to write an essay about what we wanted to do. Do you want to be a cowboy or firefighter, a lawyer, whatever. I wrote down interior designers and even though they were years where I didn’t think about that when I was a kid, I used to rearrange my room about once a month. I was always painting something, so no, I don’t believe in coincidence. Do I think sometimes people do things that are not meant for you? I do believe that that’s true and sometimes people make a mess of things whether it’s marriages or relationships or jobs or whatever. But if you’re really looking at yourself I think you end up where you should be. I don’t think there are mistakes. I think everything you do leads you to a different place. You use every single thing, bad and good. You use all of your experiences –  especially if you’re being true to yourself.

Constance Cherise is a classic film aficionado and also freelances for Reach her at Review her portfolio here.