U.S. Navy officer Thereasa Black had dreams of practicing law so she could fight for social justice.
"My plan was always to become the next Thurgood Marshall," she says, referring to the civil rights attorney and first Black Supreme Court justice who died in 1993.
Black was on the precipice of achieving her goal when a single phone call sent her life in a completely different direction—one that involved launching plant-based chocolate brand Bon AppéSweet and earning the title of Rising Star at the Natural Products Expo West Pitch Slam.
In May 2017, shortly after graduating from George Washington University Law School and taking the bar exam, the Navy Reserve informed Black that she'd be deployed overseas for a full year. This news not only put her budding law career on hold, it also meant she'd be separated from her daughter, Isabella, who was just shy of 2 years old.
"I cried every day before I left and for the first six months I was gone," Black says. "I talked to her almost every night. I was having a hard time of it, but she was just a baby, so she was really going through it. She kept asking, 'Mommy, can I come see you at your new house?' She literally thought I dropped her off and moved to a new house."
One day, while Bella was chatting with her mom on her tablet, she said something Black will never forget: "Mommy, I understand you are stuck in my game, and when you figure out how to get out, please come back to me." Hearing that, Black knew couldn't bear to be separated from Bella for that long again, meaning no more military deployments—but also no law career.
"As a new practicing attorney, you're working 80-hour weeks, so I'd come home from overseas but still never see her," she explains. "I know people do that every single day—work a lot and only see their kids on the weekends—so I understand that that's normal. But I also knew I couldn't do it."
Better-for-Bella dessert becomes a business
What Black could do instead, she realized, was start her own business, which would keep her at home and give her ample time with her daughter. What type of business? Bella inspired that, too.
"I never gave my daughter sweets, but when I was deployed, everyone was like, 'Oh, poor baby, you're so deprived; have all the ice cream and candy you want,'" Black says. "When a baby has never had something, they don't miss it. But once they have it, just try taking it away! My compromise was to let her have candy and ice cream as long as I made it. So, I launched a better-for-you dessert company in July 2019."
At first, Black focused on gelato, handcrafting her healthier spin on the frozen treat and selling it at local farmers markets. Her all-natural gelato contained zero processed sugars or sugar alcohols, sweetened with organic date syrup instead. Then in December 2019, Black opened a gelato shop, Amore Congelato, in Arlington, Virginia.
But of course, COVID-19 was right around the corner. When everything shut down, Black tried e-commerce. But she quickly discovered that shipping gelato overnight and ensuring it wouldn't melt was entirely too costly.
"It was a horrible model," she admits. The retail shop's future wasn't looking good either. In December 2020, the landlord announced that another tenant would be moving in, and Amore Congelato would be booted the following March.
Finding success at Expo East
Black refused to give up. Along the way, she had started making her own plant-based, date-sweetened chocolate for the gelato, selling it in bar form at farmers markets. Then in January 2021, she did a test-run of her bars at Glen's Garden Market in D.C. (later acquired by Dawson's Market) to see if consumers would bite.
Oh, they bit. Her bars flew off the shelf at Glen's, and she soon landed a few other local retail accounts.
"I thought, this is great; I guess we're pivoting," Black says. "Chocolate has only a few ingredients, and it's easy to ship, so we pivoted in May 2021 and launched officially [as Bon AppéSweet] at Expo East last fall."
Black had won a free Natural Products Expo East booth in a contest earlier in the year, plus a free booth at the co-located Harvest Festival through New Hope's partnership with (included), a collective for people of color who are executives in the consumer packaged goods space.
"I can't explain how beneficial that was," she says. "Expo was crazy. Every single store that met us brought us in."
Now Bon AppéSweet is sold at stores nationwide, including Whole Foods Market, Central Market, Cambridge Naturals, MOM's Organic Market and Gopuff, plus 100 Walmart locations. The brand also launched on Amazon a few months ago and is now adding e-commerce capabilities to its website.
"It has just been a whirlwind," says Black.
Pitch Slam helps Black fulfill her mission
Black rode this momentum into the Expo West Pitch Slam, where she competed against other up-and-coming brands for a free booth at the 2023 show and other services from New Hope, a package worth $35,000.
Since Bon AppéSweet debuted during the pandemic, this was Black's first time presenting live versus virtually. But she nailed her pitch, wowing the judges with her story, innovative plant-based products, stellar sales growth and commitment to social justice.
"When decided I couldn't go into law, I still wanted to make a real change, and I realized that the best way to do that is through our packaging," Black says. "We fight for social justice by spreading the word about important issues, because sometimes it's not that people don't care—they just don't know about the issues."
To inform consumers, each label includes a snippet explaining a cause, such as funding public defenders' offices, restoring voting rights, ending excessive bail or decriminalizing drug addition, followed by a link to a petition on Bon AppéSweet's website. Additionally, the brand released the Warrior Bar in November, donating a portion of proceeds to the Wounded Warrior Project, and will do so every year during National Veterans and Military Families Month.
"Although I wasn't injured, I see what happens when injured veterans come home and try to adjust to whole new life—they need a lot of help," Black says. "The Wounded Warrior Project builds new wheelchair-accessible homes for people help them get back to a normal life."
Of course, Black was aiming to win the Pitch Slam. But she is grateful for the exposure gained by participating—and by being named the competition's Rising Star.
"With a small brand like mine, unless people meet you personally, they may see your products in stores, but they don't know your brand or anything about it," Black says. "Being able to tell our story is a big part of our brand, and the only way to get out there is to be out there. Expo West let us do exactly that, especially the Pitch Slam because there was a spotlight on it."
Bon AppéSweet a lesson for Bella
Now Black is trying to raise money to propel the company's next stage of growth. With funding, she'd like to move Bon AppéSweet out of a commercial kitchen, where she and four employees currently make chocolate seven days a week, and into its own manufacturing facility.
Black has also cooked up a genius marketing strategy. She's planning to purchase the "Bon AppéSweet Ride," a brand-wrapped RV in which she'll travel the country this summer to demonstrate her chocolates at retailers, wineries and vegan festivals. She'll get the kitchen certified and turn it into storefront, with an awning outside creating an area for folks to hang out. Black is very excited for the tour, which she expects to launch in June, once her daughter's school year is over.
"Honestly, most of my journey is about being able to spend time with Isabella—but it's also about showing her that you're in charge of your own destiny," Black says. "When I got pregnant in law school, people wrote me off. They said, 'This is the end for you; this is it.' I'm showing her that, no, this isn't it. You write your own story. Don't let anyone else write your story for you."