Lagusta’s Luscious calls its chocolates “heartbreakingly delicious,” and that description couldn’t be more apt. The chocolatier’s decadent vegan treats -- we lust after the caramels in particular -- will literally make you weep with joy. Not to mention that the New Paltz, NY-based business works with local farmers, uses 100% fair trade and organic chocolate, and packs its products in recycled paper boxes.
Based on those things alone, we were already huge fans, but when we found out that Lagusta’s Luscious also has a badass female founder, we were truly smitten. Lagusta Yearwood, who started the company in 2003, is an entrepreneur, chef, writer, and fearless animal activist. And even though she’s reluctant to admit it, she's also strikingly stylish, with a defiantly cool, authentic look.
Naturally, we wanted to ask her everything, and she was gracious enough to let us. Check out Lagusta’s story below. Want more? Go to our other post detailing a few of her favorite fashion things.
When and why did you go vegan?
I've been vegan since I was 15, so about 22 years. I did a lot of animal rights work in high school, and I was lucky that my mother became vegan the same time I did, so we supported each other and that made the transition a bit easier. I became vegan because I care about animals, and don't believe it's morally permissible to eat them. Even if the animals are treated "humanely" while they are being bred for our dinner plates, it's not our place to use them as we do. I'm an anarchist. I believe that each living being should live for themselves alone, and this extends to animals. I don't believe in dominion or moral hierarchies.
What got you interested in cooking in general, and especially making chocolate?
The vegan world can seem to be, to an outsider, all about deprivation and strict rules. I like the idea of making vegan chocolate because it is so rich and luxurious. It shows people that veganism, even though it begins with a moral impulse, can be just as sophisticated and decadent as the mainstream food world. I went to culinary school after college so I could have a job I loved that somehow advanced veganism, and I feel so happy I landed on this weird chocolate business.
Can you tell me a little about your activist background? Have you had to deal with burnout, as many other activists do?
I got super super burnt out! I started an animal rights group in my high school and was very active in local ones in my community. I was pretty burnt out by the time I got to college, where I did some environmentalism activism and not much vegan stuff. I have friends who work full-time for animal rights groups, and they are my ultimate heroes. In high school I assumed I would be doing what they're doing, but looking at all those sad photos and having all those exhausting conversations and being yelled at at demonstrations just wounded me so much. It's hard to stay positive. But the truth is, I think things are changing so much in popular culture and the mainstream world that there are real reasons to stay positive these days. I think the image of veganism in pop-culture is improving so much, it's really wonderful to see.
What have been your biggest challenges so far with Lagusta’s Luscious?
I've had the usual challenges with struggling, in the beginning, especially, to stay afloat. I had no savings or investment money from friends or family or Kickstarter (which didn't exist then) when I started -- I just wanted to work for myself! So I put my student loans on hold and my partner paid my share of the rent for a while until I could afford to pay my way. It took a while, of course, but it was so worth it. These days I still need to keep a close watch on finances, naturally, but it's such a relief not to be so worried about the day-to-day operating budget.
Has your customer base evolved alongside your business?
I feel like veganism has sort of "gone mainstream" in a weird way. It seems so much easier to have a vegan business now than it used to be. People aren't so weirded out when they find out that our chocolates are all vegan. They just seem surprised, sometimes a little confused, but generally excited. This isn't to say there isn't a vegan backlash still, but in our little chocolate-y world it really seems like things are looking up.
What do you think it will take to bring veganism fully into the mainstream?
I think it's getting there so fast! I just wrote a piece for the The Guardian all about this, actually. Change is slow, but I feel it in the air.
What is your creative process like when it comes to making new recipes?
It used to be that I had to be alone in order to concentrate, but these days the process is a bit more collaborative, because we have such great people working in the shop who always have good ideas. I keep notebooks of ideas on paper and on my computer, [including] flavors I've tried, seasonal ingredients I want to use, and techniques I want to work on. I also take into account what our customers want. I tend to want to make mega-weird chocolates -- super-strange combinations, very savory formulations, stuff like that -- and though there's a market for that, and our customers are awesome and are usually up for anything, it's also important to make things people want to eat. I know a lot of our customers are vegan, and we try to balance making the more challenging chocolates that I get excited about with more mainstream-y sweets that are sometimes veganized echoes of popular non-vegan treats. In the end, I always get excited about those too, though I can be a little snobby about them in the beginning. We have a Turtle Bar that is sort of Snickers-y, and I want to make a peanut butter version, and an ice cream version for the summertime in the shop.
Yum! Do you have any other exciting plans in the works?
Always! Every month we introduce a new chocolate, so that keeps things fresh. We have so many awesome long-term plans that we just need to find time to do, including reviving our Savory Dinner Series. [The dinner series] was really successful, but expansion of the chocolate side of things squeezed it out. On the business side of things, I'd love to have a full-time crew that I could provide benefits packages to. It's so hard for super-small businesses like ours, particularly ones in the food service industry, to be able to compensate their employees adequately. It's something we're always working on, making those little business-y dreams come true.
What advice would you give other women who want to start small vegan businesses?
Be prepared to work really really hard for longer than you ever thought possible, with less reward then you ever thought possible. I guess every small business owner has that same advice, but it's so true. And of course women still have to fight harder to be taken seriously. It's a real thing -- be prepared. Specifically for vegan businesses, my advice is not to market to vegans. Vegans will find your business, trust me. We're really good at sniffing out quality vegan businesses, and we tell all our friends. If you really want to make positive change in the world, market toward non-vegans, so that you go to bed at night knowing you've fed or clothed non-vegans with vegan products. It's a really good feeling to know that if we weren't around, people in our community would be eating non-vegan chocolate, but because they like our chocolates, they eat something vegan every day. Hopefully, it changes their perception of what veganism can be.