“It sometimes starts with a memory,” says Tonya Bennert reflecting on her journey as a food entrepreneur, “and then a passion builds and develops slowly.” For Bennert, that memory is of her grandmother sitting on their porch in Kingsport, Tennessee, eating a raw cucumber just plucked from the nearby garden. It’s a memory of her grandmother’s devotion to gardening, nutrition, and fresh food. It also marks a time when the tenets of raw foodism – uncooked, unprocessed, fresh, local – first seeped in for Bennert.
Looking backward, she can see how the dots connect. As a seasoned marketing professional for various food startups, including Odwalla Juice and Larabar, Bennert not only gained experience but also absorbed those founders’ passion for healthy food products. This passion also led her to obtain her certification in holistic health and wellness. Today, she applies those lessons as the owner and Chief Chocolatier at UliMana, a small-batch, raw chocolate artisan based in Asheville, NC.
For Bennert, purchasing the chocolate company is a culmination of her journey from Kingsport, TN. UliMana’s raw, chocolate truffles are handmade, vegan, and certified organic. They are also dairy-free and have no processed sugars, making them popular with vegan and gluten-free customers. Raw chocolate means that the cacao beans are not roasted at a heat that burns off core nutrients, such as iron, zinc, vitamin C, and magnesium. It is also supposedly higher in antioxidants. UliMana never cooks cacao above 115 degrees, thus preserving many of those nutrients.
Bennert first learned of UliMana several years ago as a marketing advisor at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a food startup incubator in Asheville. The founder operating UliMana out of the incubator space had decided to sell the company. Bennert, who loved the company — and its energy and loyal customer base — was intrigued. Ultimately, the founder did not sell, but Bennert stayed in touch and six years later, she received a call. Was Bennert still interested? She replied with a resounding ‘yes’.
When she took over in June 2015, Bennert found that, while the company was in good standing, sales had been dropping. So she immediately focused her efforts in three areas aimed at growing sales: 1) staff retention, 2) retail partnerships and 3) retail packaging and truffle size.
The first order of business was staff retention. The small team of seven had been with UliMana for much of its ten-year existence and were devoted, passionate employees. Fortunately for Bennert, the staff wanted to be part of the next phase.
“They stayed and I’m very, very grateful,” said Bennert.
Next, the focus turned to UliMana’s current retail partners. “Before I worked on increasing sales, I needed to strengthen our current retail partnerships by doing demos and showing support for them,” said Bennert. She reexamined (and continues to review) placement at stores, hired regional account managers, and increased in-store demos. All lessons she learned while at Odwalla and Larabar.
By increasing her visibility with existing partners, Bennert hopes to show that they can rely on UliMana . Currently, the company’s products have a strong presence in Earth Fare stores and Whole Foods Markets across the southeast region in North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, as well as various spas and health food stores around the country. She is also growing the company’s footprint in Michigan and Northwest Ohio, where Bennert and her husband have a home.
Finally, UliMana relaunched theirtruffles with a new packaging option. Along with the current packaging of clear, resealable jars containing 13 truffles (below, left), they were also packaged as three-packs rolled up in coin wrappers and plastic packaging.
“People couldn’t see the product in the paper wrappers, so new customers didn’t know what they were buying,” said Bennert. “The perceived integrity of the product was also compromised.” So UliMana introduced clear tube cylinders (above, right) so the truffles would keep their shape and have visibility, as well as resealable tops to keep them fresh.
Through conversations with customers, Bennert also realized they wanted smaller truffles. In response, UliMana resized the truffles to 0.4 ounces from 0.6 ounces. Customers now enjoy four (instead of three) truffles, in the new packaging. According to Bennert, UliMana’s truffle sales have doubled since making the packaging change.
There’s still much work to be done; however, it is clear Bennert is enjoying the ride and is excited about what’s in store for the company.
Every Monday, the UliMana team gathers in the company’s chocolate kitchen to make the week’s chocolate by hand. As they roll out the chocolate, the women share stories, give advice, and sing songs (though Bennert insists she doesn’t do the latter). For Tonya Bennert, the chocolate kitchen is like being back on that porch in Kingsport, TN. Her grandmother would be proud.