Winning first place at the Moonshot AZ Pioneer Pitch event, Sarah Ann Lesslie -- owner of Chocolita in Sedona -- handmakes raw chocolates with wild-crafted ingredients.
On April 11-13, 2019, Sedona and Verde Valley entrepreneurs competed for cash, scholarships, and prizes while working with mentors to improve their pitch and business development. What led Chocolita to this win?
Lesslie studied with master chocolatier Kelly Johnson at Chocola Tree after a cacao ceremony left her fascinated and feeling great.
“Someone told me I should meet Kelly and coincidentally he was at a small chai party thrown by my roommate the same day. That was 2005.” Lesslie then began her journey as a chocolatier.
Because her mother and aunt are diabetic, Lesslie wanted to make a chocolate that they and other diabetics could enjoy. She uses coconut palm sugar, with a low-glycemic index of 30 to 35.
“I also had dysmenorrhea, so I tried combining my study of herbs and chocolate to ease the pain. It worked for me, so I shared it with friends; they loved it.” Lesslie didn’t stop with this Moontime bar. “Some people wanted the bars without added herbs, so I started making the Nude bar: vegan, raw white chocolate that’s evenly blended, tempered, and not too sweet. I eventually added two other flavors without herbs. Dark M:lk is a vegan version of a darker milk chocolate, and Dark & Sweet is an 80% dark chocolate bar.”
Officially founded in 2014, Chocolita products are now carried nationally by over 150 stores, including more than 60 Natural Grocers across the United States, several Whole Foods locations, all four Erewhon markets, and many independent health food stores. Somehow, she’s figured out how to ship chocolate from the Arizona heat to much of the country.Her online shop is located at https://chocolita.com/.
Chocolitas are made at and distributed from Synergy, a shared commercial kitchen and lounge in west Sedona where customers can purchase exotic flavors.
“Chocolate used to only be for royalty because it was such a powerful food and then it started to be used by warriors. When Spaniards brought chocolate back from Central America, one of it’s first uses in Europe was blended with herbs and taken like medicine from a pharmacist,” Lesslie explained.
With the additions of preservatives, refined sugar, other additives, and heavy processing like roasting at a high temperature, chocolate often winds up in the junk food category. But when pure, it’s known as a health food.
When making raw chocolate, cacao beans are cold-pressed to remove the fat, which is made into cacao butter. The beans are then stone-ground in granite grinders at a low temperature to help preserve vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals. Lesslie grinds the cacao butter and ground beans with coconut palm sugar, herbs, and other unique ingredients for 24 to 48 hours. The result is a smooth texture that’s as pure as possible, with no GMOs.
Cacao contains antioxidants, fiber, magnesium, and iron. Plus, anandamide, an endocannabinoid known as the bliss molecule that also works with the food component PEA. Research shows PEA to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Using heirloom Arriba Nacional Cacao beans from a protected, indigenous tree species in Ecuador helps farmers earn a living wage. Valuable in agroforestry, sustainable farming, and biodiversity, they’re typically shade-grown and provide habitat for other species.
“An organic certifier, Stellar, has certified our ingredients organic. But pine pollen in our Pine Pollen and Lemon bar is wild-harvested. It’s not farmed, so it can’t really be certified organic in those growing conditions,” said Lesslie, who minored in Sustainability at Arizona State University. “Since the Pine Pollen and Lemon bar is more of a power bar, its name is soon changing to Power. All the varieties will eventually be rebranded that way.”
“I’m currently working on a new matcha, or green tea bar, as a sweet morning treat with just enough caffeine.” Lesslie is also planning to work on packaging and with a co-packer. Then to grow as big as possible nationally so more people can experience the true benefits of chocolate and eating chocolate as a food instead of a treat. She’d eventually like a small team of chocolatiers to make truffles at Synergy and someone to help with shipping.
“As an entrepreneur, there are small successes. Buying my automatic tempering machine, I thought, ‘wow, I’m spending nearly $10,000 on a piece of equipment’.” Lesslie’s first Kickstarter campaign failed, but her second campaign brought in nearly $20,000 before fees and fulfilling orders from campaign backers. With that and winning the Moonshot Pioneer Pitch, Chocolita is feeling the love.
“Verde Valley Regional Economic Organization offered us four workshops before the Moonshot Pioneer Pitch Event, plus the Friday and Saturday workshops.” Lesslie also appreciated the one-year access to business plan writing software. “Since meeting them through the Pioneer Pitch event, Molly Spangler with Sedona has been super helpful, Mary Chicoine with VVREO was really helpful, and Jennifer Wesselhoff with the Sedona Chamber of Commerce has been great.”
The Sedona Economic Development Department helps businesses create and keep jobs and opportunities in our community. For information on revolving loans, business education, and other business support resources, contact Sedona Economic Development Director Molly Spangler at firstname.lastname@example.org.