The Nugget is simple: foam blocks covered in microsuede fabric that together form a couch, but separately, can be used for fort-building, jumping, or general toddler mayhem. With a devoted fandom that spread by word of mouth, it’s become the hit of the pandemic for parents. The only problem is its manufacturer can’t keep it in stock. Resellers are gouging on eBay and Facebook Marketplace, and the company has resorted to limited “drops” of new stock, even instituting a lottery system for the chance to buy.
Basically, Nugget couches are like Supreme for moms.
“During the shutdown during the spring, I checked the website every day for it to be in stock. When they did the drop I was on time and my cart glitched out and I totally cried!” Courtney Nowak Powley, a mother of 15-month-old twins, told BuzzFeed News. She ended up getting one and is entering the lottery to buy a second.
“For a lot of companies, this is a great problem to have,” said Hannah Fussell, one of the cofounders of Nugget. “But for digitally run company, it’s not a great problem because the social narrative can take over.”
As a couch, it’s acceptable — it’s low to the ground, but as far as a futon or $230 couch goes, it could be worse. Your buddy Dave could crash on it (Dave will crash anywhere). But this is not a couch for Dave. This is a couch for kids.
The Nugget has developed a cultlike following that would make Gary Vee slam his nuts in a drawer.
The Nugget has developed a cultlike following that would make Gary Vee slam his nuts in a drawer. Parents recommend it to other parents in Facebook mom groups and rave about it on Instagram. In one group, which has 60,000 members, parents post photos of new “builds” their kids made with Nuggets, many of them owning three or more.
The Nugget’s ubiquity on Facebook has made some skeptics. “When someone would ask [in a Montessori parents group] about what to buy their kid and every answer was ‘Nugget,’ ‘Nugget,’ ‘Nugget,’ despite price and availability issues, it just annoyed me,” Toni Thomas wrote in the Facebook group for parents who are fans of the podcast Forever35. “Why are we (moms/parents) putting this pressure on ourselves to secure glorified couch cushions like the success of our parenting hinges on it?” said Amanda Ligon in the same group.
The explosion of the Nugget rides the winds of a specific technology: Facebook groups. In 2017, Facebook saw groups as its future and pumped them up in the feed, for better or worse. Parenting groups, typically full of millennial women, flourished — the ideal breeding ground for word of mouth about a newfangled kids product.
“Why are we (moms/parents) putting this pressure on ourselves to secure glorified couch cushions like the success of our parenting hinges on it?”
Web Smith, founder of 2PM, a direct-to-consumer and e-commerce newsletter, believes Nugget isn’t just the latest Furby. “Nugget is past the point of probably going to fizzle out,” he told BuzzFeed News. “They are far too big for it to be COVID-caused.”
The three founders of the Nugget couch met as students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. David Baron, a biology major and now the CEO, had an idea for a better futon when he noticed how futons were piled up in the trash on campus at the end of the school year. After graduation, he spent a year in his parents’ garage experimenting with foam and bamboo until he came up with an early prototype, some of which he managed to sell to local college kids.
He enlisted his friend Ryan Cocca, a journalism major, who already had his own shirt line and retail store in Chapel Hill. Once Cocca graduated, they launched a Kickstarter that raised over $84,000 from under 400 would-be buyers.
Foam pieces cut to specifications come from a supplier in North Carolina. The fabric is woven in China and cut and sewn in El Salvador. In their Durham warehouse, Baron and Cocca would assemble the foam and fabric themselves, packaging and shipping out orders just the two of them.
Hannah Fussell, Cocca’s girlfriend and a public school teacher, asked them for a Nugget for her classroom and saw how much her students loved it. By then, Baron and Cocca had realized this should be marketed to kids, not frat houses.
Fussell quit teaching and joined Nugget. She immediately made design changes: ditching the white zippers and dorm room color palette (the Kickstarter site from 2014 shows how the Nugget first looked in lime green, royal blue, red, and bubblegum pink). She also suggested making the covers easier to remove and wash, remembering the lice outbreaks her classes kept having.
Slowly, the Nugget started to catch on. Fussell sent free ones to parenting influencers, who posted about them on Instagram and blogs. The site Cup of Jo featured photos of the home of designer Stacey-Ann Blake, which included a reddish Nugget. Several Nugget-owning moms told BuzzFeed News that Blake’s stylish and colorful home was the first place they heard of Nugget.
During the holiday season in 2017, Baron slept in their warehouse in Durham, working late into the night sending out orders by himself. Like a Casper mattress, Nuggets are compressed so they can ship in a reasonable-size box. The kind of air compressor machine capable of this is very expensive, so for the first few years, Baron DIY’d a version using cinder blocks to weigh down on the foam to smush it. Only Baron himself could work this contraption, so the number of units they could ship was constrained by how late he could stay up.
Running out by Christmas would continue to be a pattern, even as they increased their output each year. They moved to a bigger facility and started to hire staff, but the demand kept outpacing their projections. When COVID hit, they were finally shipping out the last of the backorders they had taken just before Christmas 2019.
“I was ready and clicked checkout by 12:01 and didn’t get one.”
The pandemic hit with a double whammy. The startup had to shut down its facility for two months from late March through May. At the same time, families with kids cooped up in the house were desperate to find something that could occupy their kids other than screen time. Across parenting Facebook groups, Instagram, and Pinterest, the same advice came up: get a Nugget.
But by then, it was impossible. Over the summer, people would sign up to get an email alert for when the item was back in stock. On a day when it restocked, there were 200,000 visitors to the website vying for only ??? available couches.
Online, the sentiment was nearing Tickle Me Elmo levels of anxiety. In one group for moms who own Peloton bikes (a cohort of people with disposable income, enough room in their homes for extra large furniture items, and a willingness to try trendy startup products), comments rolled in about who was able to score one or not when a “drop” happened in late June. “I was ready and clicked checkout by 12:01 and didn’t get one,” lamented one Peloton Mom.
Resellers were price gouging. One woman saw a Nugget for sale on Facebook Marketplace for $10,000. She messaged the seller, asking if the price was a typo (it wasn’t).
Fussell believes that the pandemic has fueled that response. “There’s a few different emotional things, and we can feel it,” she said. “It’s always been that people loved our product and people wanted our product when we would sell out, but it's never been before this level of emotion.
Baron is quick to point out that they can’t claim that COVID caused all their backorder problems. Yes, it slowed production and ramped up the demand, but ultimately they failed to predict the exponential demand. “It was a failure of our imagination,” Baron said.
By the end of the year, Nugget will have shipped and sold approximately 150,000 couches, a number that they know has not kept up with demand. The company is growing. They have a new warehouse facility in Butner, North Carolina, with around 80 employees paid a minimum of $15 an hour with healthcare (employees were paid throughout the shutdown this spring). They plan to ramp up production to make 750,000 next year — over $170 million in couch sales alone (additional covers are sold separately).
“We’ve sold Nuggets for anywhere between five to seven days this year — that’s how many days it was actually available for sale on our site,” Baron said. “That’s what makes it hard to plan.” They’ll be opening a backorder later in November for anyone willing to wait into 2021 to get a couch.
One promising sign about the future of the company is the existence of a 16,000-strong Facebook group called Nugget After Dark for discussion about using the foam cushions as adult furniture. (The group’s description reads “Not for the easily offended. All genders allowed 💕 A foam couch brought all us nasty motherfuckers together 😈.”) When people resell their used Nuggets in groups, they often make sure to note it was “not used after dark”.
Web Smith believes this is a sure sign of longevity. “If you build a product that can be co-opted by the sex industry, you will succeed.”