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In Focus: Lulu’s Artisan Chocolate
by Eric Battersby
The More Things Change…
When I first stumbled upon Lulu’s Chocolate in the late Spring of 2018, I excitedly hoped to pay them a visit directly with a little weekend getaway to beautiful Sedona, AZ… the easiest vacation spot for those of us in the Phoenix area.
Digging a little deeper, however, I sadly realized that Lulu’s had just closed forever… in Sedona, that is. Turns out, Louise (Lulu) Bonner herself sat right in the middle of a full relocation to Nevada City, CA, right as I’d discovered her as a “neighbor” of sorts. A bit bummed out, I reached out to Lulu nevertheless to see if an In Focus interview might perhaps materialize in the relatively near future.
We queued it up, knowing full well it would likely take months to fully bring to fruition, and now, just before 2018 comes to a close, we’ve finally put it all together. Patience was a virtue for both of us, and big thanks to Lulu for making it happen so we could finally introduce all our Chocolate Connoisseur readers to Lulu’s Chocolate.
Gorgeous Sedona! Yes, Lulu left all this behind for Nevada City…
You might expect a move from Sedona would be best served as a move to bigger city, a place where an entrepreneurial chocolate maker could find a larger local audience to cater to, versus sticking with a smaller market like Sedona – population just over 10,000.
One of the first things to learn about Lulu, however, is that growing up in rural Tennessee, she discovered a big love for nature early in life. Indeed, she spent most of her younger days enjoying the great outdoors, and now as adult, she still feels called to nature, vying to scrounge up as much time as possible for precious moments outside.
That much more clearly explains her chocolate shoppe’s relocation to the tiny town of Nevada City, California (population just over 3,000). Yes, she moved Lulu’s Chocolate to a market about one third the size of small town Sedona –
“I know we’d be way busier in a city, but i love spending my free time in the trees.”
As you’ve probably already guessed, Lulu Bonner’s chocolate journey offers quite the unique tale, as most heartfelt chocolate makers’ and chocolatiers’ stories do. She may, however, take the prize for craziest path to chocolate connoisseur you’ll ever find. In addition to that, Lulu is the only chocolate maker who not only openly shares the deep backstory to her chocolate career, she does in a way that’s worthy of her own written word in Chocolate Connoisseur here or elsewhere.
So, that said, I’m going to get out of the way here briefly and let Lulu herself step in to share her story (edited ever-slightly for content, and originally published across multiple sections at LuluBonner.com).
– Excerpts from The Lulu Bonner Blog –
by Lulu Bonner
In 2006 I was several years into my cleansing phase. After being raised in the fast food culture of small town Tennessee, part of my spiritual awakening was learning to eat healthy. I tried many different diets, paying attention to how specific foods made me feel. One day I noticed that I was very sensitive to sugar. This was bad news for my sweet tooth, especially considering that I’d been a chocoholic my entire life. What to do?
Off to Maui
I was back in Portland, Oregon, where I had been living since 1998. Having just returned from a year of solo travel between Europe and Central America, I settled back into my jobs of teaching yoga and waitressing. I never had the pull to go to college and accepted this as my career path. But I was restless… on a whim I took out a credit card and flew to Maui, my favorite place, to visit my sister, meditate, cleanse and ponder moving there.
I took a side trip to the Big Island where I met a nice guy who convinced me to go explore Waipio Valley, an untamed place populated mainly by natives and wild horses. He introduced me to his friend Isis and I stayed at her lovely home in a dense jungle.
One day I was telling her of my sadness caused by giving up chocolate. She made a surprised face and answered “why would you do that? I’ll take you to a cacao tree. You don’t need sugar to have chocolate.” Now this really took me aback… what did she mean a cacao tree?! In all my years I had never even paused to consider where chocolate comes from. I was about to find out… and it would change my life forever.
At the Source
The cacao tree was beautiful and unlike any tree I’d ever seen. It was giant and the pods grew directly off of the trunk. We pulled a pod off the tree and opened it to reveal rows of bean shaped seeds covered in the most delicate, floral scented white fruit. I can’t even describe what the fruit tastes like and until you get to try it for yourself, you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say it’s almost sexual. Exquisite.
I devoured the entire cacao pod and my brain chemistry went into bliss overdrive! My endorphins sang and I became as excited as a little girl on Christmas while simultaneously settling into the deepest calm and presence I had ever known. I was in love. Madly, deeply in love…with a tree. This, I thought to myself, this is what it’s supposed to feel like to take ecstasy! Yup, I was high. Naturally, legally high.
Chocolate for Breakfast
We collected buckets of these pods and I nearly lived on a diet of them for the next couple days. Upon my return to Maui I told my sister of my new obsession and my need to recreate that cacao feeling. We went to Mana foods so she could show me David Wolfe’s Raw Cacao Powder.
“Just mix it with some type of oil and a sweetener,” she suggested.
Every morning for breakfast I took my coconut bowl, coconut spoon and tried out different combinations. I’d sit with my bowl of raw chocolate and eat it in pure, ecstatic bliss.
After my breakfast I’d do yoga and meditate, totally high on cacao. I literally cried tears of gratitude several days in a row and I’m not one to cry easily. I was enveloped in a world of magic, it was as if my angel was there with me, massaging my heart.
Hawaiian Cacao Pods, likely similar to these, served as Lulu’s first experience with wild cacao
It was time for me to leave the island and hit Burning Man festival before returning to my work life. Deep in my heart, I knew two things: I needed to be sure to have chocolate for breakfast everyday. I was compelled to share the experience of raw cacao with everyone I knew.
A Business is Born (Christmas 2006)
At Burning Man, I mixed up a new flavor of chocolate each morning for breakfast and each night before heading out onto the wild playa. I fed everyone around and noticed that each evening the crowd had grown due to people hearing that what I was mixing up would give them energy all night and they could be high without taking drugs.
I shared willingly with everyone and began to carry a jar of my mixture around at all times for the joy that came from watching one light up when I fed them some. By the time I was back in Portland the word was out.
As it neared Christmas 2006, however, I found myself broke after my year of travel. I was housesitting for a friend and had no more to my name than what fit in my van. After the holidays I was going to move my free ass back to Maui, where I could teach yoga and waitress for a living…at least that was my plan. I needed some quick cash and decided to give selling some of my chocolate a try.
I found a cigarette girl tray to sell my goods on, bought some jars and made my first batch of Lulu’s Coco (what I named it back then) and went to a hip, Portland Solstice party. My chocolate sold out quickly even though I wasn’t prepared to educate people about what the hell to do with a jar of fudge textured raw chocolate. Duh, you eat it with a spoon!
I know, not very classy on my part. The next morning, to my surprise, I woke up to several voicemails with chocolate orders, all needed by Christmas. By Christmas itself I had a pile of orders, and from there it only gained momentum until a business was born. Born from the desire of those who wanted it and from my joy in sharing it.
I used the money I made to get more jars, chocolate powder, agave & vanilla. I got busy and was flying high!
That is until I started getting calls that the chocolate had molded. See, when I said I knew nothing about chocolate, I meant nothing. I had used equal parts oil and water in my chocolate breakfast each morning, so why not bottle that, right? At this point in the story I would love to say I went right on down to Powell’s Books and bought a book on chocolate.
Nope, instead I simply decided the answer was refrigeration. And I cringe to say that I went right on bottling chocolate with water in it… and proceeded to sell it to stores. I bought some jars, printed some stickers and starting selling the first version of Lulu’s Chocolate.
– END Excerpts from
The Lulu Bonner Blog –
As Lulu told us for our In Focus interview, she initially thought the chocolate gig would only be a Christmas thing, but suddenly everyone wanted Valentine’s gifts. From that point forward, it’s as if Lulu’s Chocolate had a mind of its own.
Let Me Carry the Water
She officially launched the company by selling to one store at a time, hand delivering samples to local store buyers.
“They loved it, brought it in and I spent many weekends in the stores sampling my creations to their customers. Word of mouth began…”
Unfortunately, the water and chocolate combo reared its ugly head once more.
“Thankfully my product was only in two stores when I got the call that a customer returned a jar due to mold. I wanted to cry. Someone was talking me through it, and a light bulb came on inside when they simply said “just make it without the water.” I did my first product recall, threw it all away, and tried the same recipe without any water.
Needless to say, it was much better. And the product got to move from the fridges to the raw section shelves. It was an embarrassing lesson to learn but of course one can only move forward.”
Back to success, Lulu then launched a website so people could purchase her chocolate even if they didn’t live in the Pacific Northwest. When that went well, she expanded Lulu’s Chocolate reach to stores nationwide, and you can now find the company’s products in four hundred stores across the country.
Still, as blissful a path as it sounds, don’t look at Lulu’s as an overnight success, simply because she went from rags to riches of sorts in a relatively short time. Her journey spread across many years, and her chocolate journey, even with the great results, still presented its share of bumps in the road.
Many chocolate makers and chocolatiers we cover in Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine find their way through chocolate on their own, at least to a large extent. Lulu, however, sits on the extreme edge of this scale. For one more salvo, let’s return to Lulu for her story…
Riding The Coco Dragon
I was self taught. There were tears involved. Making chocolate is hard without professional training. At the time I didn’t know there was an online school for learning the art of chocolate. My saving grace was another chocolatier handing me a book called “The Art of Chocolate.”
A chocolatier that I loved in Portland gave me the book. I always used to visit her tiny, cute little shop and buy her chocolates. Everything was made in the back and she would even let me peek back there, which furthered my curiosity.
You may be surprised to learn that I knew absolutely nothing about chocolate (save for the fact that I had always been a chocoholic) OR business when I began this endeavor. Experience alone has been my teacher. In fact, I never went to college a day in my life.
I’m going to give credit for the product’s success to pure luck. That and the fact that it is truly amazing chocolate. It’s definitely not because I was a suave CEO driving the ship to success. My driving of this ship included wrong turns, dead ends and seemingly going off a sheer cliff towards certain death.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the captain. Something divine, compelling and way bigger than me was calling the shots. For years I have lovingly referred to this journey as “riding the Coco Dragon.”
The chocolate wanted to be born & I was its muse. Or was it my muse? Beyond bringing this product to market, the Coco Dragon had a behind the scenes purpose… to be my soul’s salvation.”
Therein lies the beauty of cacao itself… when treated properly, it truly serves as the food of the gods, including the god within each of us. From our first new issue two years ago, where Hadara Slok found raw chocolate for health reasons and turned it into Rawclates for all of us, to today’s revelations from Lulu, we so often hear the same wonderful refrain – we can eat chocolate for our health, enjoy every minute of it, and share the love.
Lulu’s Chocolate Love
Now let’s finally dive into the chocolate itself, and take a gander at what makes Lulu’s Chocolate special. First, all of Lulu’s Chocolate is un-roasted and raw. It’s also certified organic, 100% vegan, and free of soy, gluten and refined sugar. Instead, Lulu sweetens her chocolate with coconut sugar, which as we frequently point out, sits lower on the glycemic index than sugar, making it suitable for most diabetics.
Similar to Rawclates, Lulu’s receives grateful feedback from many of their customers, ecstatic because they finally found a chocolate they can eat –
“Everyone agrees they feel amazing after eating our chocolate and that is because of the absolute purity we adhere to. And the great thing is that we don’t do it at the expense of the flavor. Thus our motto, Purity. Pleasure. Chocolate without Compromise.”
As for the beans, all the cacao Lulu’s crafts chocolate from originates in Ecuador, and it’s specifically the Arriba Nacional variety… wild harvested, “tended by nature alone,” as Lulu puts it. The old trees produce an heirloom cacao with the most interesting flavor profile Lulu herself has yet encountered.
Perhaps the lone surprise in her journey, Lulu says, “Unfortunately, i have yet to go to Ecuador myself.” New Horizon supplies her beans, however, dealing directly with the farmers.
“We love and trust them. When the cacao pods are ripe, the owners of the land are paid a living wage to pick them.”
One of Lulu’s favorites, the Aztec Crunch Bar (pictured above) showcases cacao in its more raw form with raw cacao nibs serving as the bar’s topping.
It’s a conscious effort to help introduce people chocolate’s origin, since, as Lulu notes, “Most people le I’ve spoken to have never eaten a cacao bean.”
The Raw Love Bar (pictured earlier) is another favorite, featuring silky smooth 78% cacao, while the complementary Midnight Velvet bar serves up a dark, rich 88% cacao.
Both bars contain a plentiful amount of pure vanilla bean as well, yet another conscious decision from Lulu herself –
“Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid flower and also is cacao’s mythological lover.
Vanilla orchids have aerial roots and often grow in cacao trees. So beyond it being an incredible flavor combo, it’s also romantic!”
For a more classic pairing, their Smoked Sea Salt Almond bar marries 70% cacao with organic sprouted almonds, and registers as Lulu’s best selling bar.
Lulu’s overall best seller, however, is her Maca Buttercups (pictured below), featured in Bon Appetit Magazine. Perhaps their most unique offering, the Maca Buttercups offers a nostalgic nod to Reese’s Buttercups, but with much higher standards of course. White chocolate and sprouted almond butter entwined with wildcrafted maca inside a 78% cacao cup, sprinkled with Fleur de Sel sea salt.
“We can hardly keep these in stock,” Lulu gleefully notes. They now offer Salted Caramel Cups as well.
Lulu also sells Love Truffles. Yes, Love Truffles… are you surprised? I hope not. These 78% cacao heart-shaped chocolates hide a creamy chocolate hazelnut filled center, hand-poured and finally sprinkled with Fleur de Sel sea salt. They were even featured in Health Magazine as the best treat for your “healthy valentine.”
You Down Wit CBD?
Ever the health-conscious one, you’ll undoubtedly find the newest member of Lulu’s Chocolate family fits right in. Yes, CBD chocolate has officially arrived, and here’s Lulu’s take –
“I strongly believe in CBD as medicine and we take great pride in this product. We’ve received some amazing mainstream press and this item is truly taking off for us. After experiencing the amazing effects of CBD, I just knew i had to put it in chocolate.
Chocolate, like cannabis, contains cannabinoids. The cannabinoid in chocolate is called anandamide, which is a bliss chemical that is naturally ocurrring in our brains already. When you combine chocolate with other cannabinoids, like CBD, it creates a lock and key effect in the brain, amplifying the wonderful effects of each.”
If you’re as yet aware of CBD, it stands for Cannabidiol, and it’s an oil extracted from the flowers and buds of hemp or marijuana plants. Unlike marijuana, however, it does not produce intoxicating effect, as it’s devoid of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for marijuana’s “high.”
Although it’s legal in the majority of states (and, in light of that last statement, should probably legal in all of them, especially since it’s legal in the UK and not considered a controlled substance), the big sticking point currently appears to be which plant is used for the oil. CBD from hemp is legal in most states, but the laws and regulations very wildly.
Bottom line, if you’re approved for medical marijuana use, you’re likely approved for purchasing CBD oil products as well.
Approval or otherwise, however, Lulu’s CBD chocolates quickly grew (no pun intended) to become their number one selling item, which Lulu holds in high regard –
“I get amazing testimonials from our customers telling me how our CBD chocolate has helped them.
Some folks have told me that it is the only thing that has truly helped them get a good night’s sleep. Helping create positive results like this for people is very fulfilling to me.”
Indeed, New York magazine named Lulu’s CBD chocolate one of the Top 14 CBD Products of 2018, which certainly didn’t hurts sales either! Each 1oz bar contains 78% Cacao and 80mg of CBD, and in addition to CBD, Lulu notes –
“We’ve chosen to add extra Terpenes to activate & accentuate the healing powers of CBD Oil. We specifically chose a terpene profile believed to support pain relief, stress reduction, relaxation & a joyful mood.”
If You’re Ever in Nevada City…
As we reported at ChocolateConnisseurMag.com earlier this year, Lulu’s recently opened a tasting room at their Nevada City location. At the grand opening, Lulu’s offered free European-style sipping chocolate to everyone, Lulu’s version of sipping chocolate is 78% cacao, mixed with just a little water. As she describes it, “We put 2 full ounces of chocolate in a 4 ounce cup. It helps to have a spoon! Think of it as a truffle in a cup.”
The new shop gives Lulu a chance to educate people on the health benefits of chocolate, to “help bust the myths that people sadly associate with chocolate.”
That fits right in line with her personal chocolate philosophy, which is simply that chocolate should be enjoyed daily as a guilt free pleasure.
“We firmly believe that pure chocolate can be enjoyed by all, and most allergies and ill effects people think they may have with chocolate actually come from the sugar, dairy or other fillers found in traditional chocolate. It’s such a pleasure to see someone light up when you hand them a permission slip to enjoy chocolate guilt-free!”
Find Your Lulu
Of course, now that you’ve learned all about Lulu’s Chocolate, you’re most certainly ready to give it a try. Luckily, thanks to her nationwide distribution network, that should be a relatively easy task.
I first spotted it at a Natural Grocers here in the Phoenix area quite some time ago, although at present they no longer carry it, so please don’t go to a Natural Grocers and then send me hate mail! Instead, click here to jump over to Lulu’s website and find a store near you (many Natural Grocers and Whole Foods do indeed carry it).
You can also place an online order on Lulu’s site as well, and if you’re interested in seeing Lulu’s Chocolate as one of our monthly chocolate offers, drop us a line in the comments below or via email to let us know. We’ll give Lulu a call and see what we can do!
In the meantime, BIG thanks to Lulu Bonner herself for helping with this article. We wish her and everyone at Lulu’s all the best in the future. We hope you enjoyed her chocolate story and will give Lulu’s Chocolate a try when you get the chance.
NOTE: All photos by Taylor Clark Johnson for Lulu’s Chocolate