Lagusta’s Luscious, with its flagship store in New Paltz, NY, is just one company representing a growing concern about the ethical sourcing of chocolate.
After all, hiding in the centers of traditional bonbons are not-so-savory secrets about the chocolate industry. Large chocolate companies have long promised to phase out child labor in the industry.
As the dark side of chocolate comes to light, chocaholics can rejoice that fair trade options are readily available. And entrepreneurs like Lagusta Yearwood are crafting sweets that are not only swoon-worthy, but which source ingredients that are kinder to the earth and more equitable to the workers who harvest and trade them.
Yet several investigations and extensive studies and several studies have estimated that more than 2.1 million children in Ivory Coast and Ghana still do the dangerous, exhausting work of cocoa harvesting. At its worst, this practice can also involve trafficking and slavery.
Lagusta is also concerned with the well-documented problems with human rights abuses in the chocolate industry. “And while fair trade isn’t a perfect system, it does help to ensure that you’re not eating something that was produced in ways that would make your stomach turn,” she says.
“In addition to using organic and fair trade chocolate, we also don’t use chocolate from West Africa, where most of the worst labor abuses have been reported. There are interesting things happening in that region, however, with people in their local communities attempting to change the system and produce ethical chocolate. It’s something I’m always watching.”
When she founded Lagusta’s Luscious in 2003, Lagusta was a young vegan chef who wanted to create a company that reflected her commitment to feminism, social justice, animals, and the environment. Though the word “vegan” isn’t bandied about in the company’s branding, it’s the guiding value of the business.
Lagusta cites her late mother as her inspiration for both her business and lifestyle choices. Pauline Dubkin-Yearwood was a longtime journalist for The Chicago Jewish News. “My mother was a deeply kind and compassionate person,” says Lagusta, “so I try to carry those qualities over into my everyday life and my work.”
She was impressed by how her mother came home from her “day job,” and delved into personal writing projects like plays and a novel. “She was a passionate vegan, so I’m always motivated to do better work for the vegan community because of her.”
The flagship Lagusta’s Luscious shop where the chocolates are made opened its doors in 2011. It’s in the village of New Paltz, New York, a picturesque college town just 90 minutes from midtown Manhattan — yet a world away. Lagusta credits the location as a factor in the venture’s success:
“People in the Hudson Valley are passionate about food and ethics, and we’ve found a great customer base here.”
Lagusta shares the shop with Maresa Volante, whose Sweet Maresa’s Macarons are an egg-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free version of the traditional meringue-based cookie. The two women recently partnered to open a New York City retail shop in the East Village called “Confectionery!” — exclamation point intentional.
Lagusta ’s second location in New Paltz is just around the corner from her chocolates shop. “Commissary!” (exclamation once again on purpose), serves “coffee + tea + noshes” — and of course, chocolates. A “Mitzvah Wall” near the register encourages customers to purchase a treat anonymously, to be paid forward to a future customer.
Do Lagusta’s Luscious customers come first for the chocolates, or for the ethics behind them? “I think it’s probably about 50/50,” she mused. “We don’t market our products to vegans, because it’s better vegan activism to have non-vegans eat our wares, but it’s always nice to have vegan customers, who are so appreciative and sweet.”
Lagusta’s Luscious chocolates are not only divinely decadent, but also beautiful to behold. The barks look like miniature abstract artworks, dotted with dried fruits and bursts of sweet, smoky, and savory flavors. My personal favorite is the strawberries and cream bark, with swirls of homemade white chocolate — something nearly nonexistent in the plant-based realm.
“As a vegan anarchist feminist, I have a passion for transforming the world according to my own values,”Lagusta says. “At its root, that’s what gets me up in the morning: changing the world.”
Lagusta’s Luscious confections can be purchased online. Or, to see if there’s a store near you, put your zip code into the store locator. To visit Lagusta’s Luscious and its satellites in person:
Lagusta’s Luscious – 25 North Front Street, New Paltz, NY, Tuesday–Friday 12 pm–7 pm, Saturday–Sunday 10 am–7 pm, closed Monday.
Confectionery! (a joint shop from Lagusta’s Luscious and Sweet Maresa’s) – 440 East 9th Street at Avenue A, New York, NY, Monday–Saturday 12 pm–9 am, Sunday 11 am–8 pm.
Commissary! 11 Church Street, New Paltz, NY, Open every day 8 am–8 pm.
Photos by Evan Atlas
Originally published in Jewish Food Experience, reprinted by permission