Interview with Lagusta Yearwood: Chocolatier. Vegan. Anarchist. Furious Vulva maker.
She’ll make you want to quit your day job and follow your dreams!
Interview and Photos By Michele Zipp
Setting goals is something all of us do. You can dream of something and want to make it reality, but sometimes that goal ends up like a wrinkled piece of paper stashed away in the back of the junk drawer. Pushing the demands of everyday life out of the way and taking a risk to achieve your goal is the greater challenge. Of course, if there was copious amounts of time, resources, and money, you wouldn’t be held back. But what if none of that mattered and you just took a giant leap in, like you stomped in the puddle and let the collected raindrops splash all around you and you figured it out as you went and it didn’t matter if your shoes got a bit messed up in the process? That’s what Lagusta Yearwood did...with chocolate, metaphorically speaking.
Lagusta, a vegan chef, loved the art and precision that came with making chocolates. And in 2011, she followed that passion, set a goal, and and jumped in--opening the completely vegan chocolate shop, Lagusta’s Luscious, in New Paltz, New York, where handmade artisanal chocolates are imagined and created. People fell in love with her creations (I certainly did). Next came, Commissary! -- a cafe and coffeehouse (also in New Paltz) -- in early May of 2016 followed by Confectionary!, which opened in the East Village in Manhattan later that same month.
She did it on her terms and without that lottery win often wished for in order to make a lofty goal reality. Lagusta stresses how she doesn’t do it alone. Her team and collaborators work together extremely well -- they are a group of 17 to 25 people depending on the season. When speaking of Commissary! specifically, she feels it’s run in an anarchist style, where things are decided on an as needed basis. She says she has the “perfect staff” which is something she credits to the fact that she feels the cafe attracted people who needed to work here, to collaborate together. The pride everyone has in their work shows. The shop also hosts letter writing where they donate proceeds to “lefty causes”, and on some evenings there is live music.
Lagusta did what may seem nearly impossible -- she opened up a vegan chocolate shop that became wildly successful enough to birth two more businesses. It is in this feat that we can find inspiration. We can’t let “the man”, the “establishment”, the challenges great and small hold us back from our dreamed achievements. And we can do it on our own terms with our own beliefs intact. You can do what seems impossible.
Since Commissary! makes the most delicious vegan mac and cheese I’ve ever had, let’s just say anything can be done.
Here’s some more about how she did it.
Michele Zipp: What inspired you to be a chocolatier?
Lagusta Yearwood: So for nine years I ran a meal delivery service where I cooked vegan meals using local produce and whole foods that were delivered to clients in NYC every week. It was wonderful and I loved interacting with local farmers to get produce, but in time I developed more of an interest in the small line of chocolates that I was making on the side. I'm a precise person, and making chocolates is an activity that rewards tidiness and precision. I was thinking more and more about chocolates, and in 2010 I decided to shut down the meal delivery and focus on sweets full-time. I opened the chocolate shop in 2011 and things just grew from there. I feel like I was a really good chocolatier for about eight years. Now I teach other people how to make chocolates and I run three small businesses, and I’m trying to claw my way back into making things too, by delegating paperwork and business tasks to our managers. I’m trying to go backward these days, and be a chocolatier and chef again.
You created a vegan chocolate shop that has non-vegans flocking to -- and then a vegan cafe with the most delicious mac and cheese I've ever had, that is also frequented and loved by non-vegans. This is truly a feat and so admirable. Were you ever nervous that your formula wasn't going to work? If so, how did you get through any doubt?
Aww, thanks! Nah, I just made stuff I wanted to eat. I’ve never had any money when starting a business, and so the stakes were low. No investors to pay back or anything. It was a huge amount of work, but me and my co-owner, Jacob, just went for it. He’s a coffee freak and I’m a chef, so it was nice to combine our skills. I’ve built up my “brand,” in New Paltz for the past 15 years as a mega annoying food snob who makes good food, so I had a feeling people would be into it, as silly as that sounds. Mostly though, my mom had just died, and I just wanted to work hard to ignore the awful pain. I still feel that way, every day.
What would you say to others who want to venture into something different and are afraid to take that first step?
Hmm. I guess just -- what do you want your life to be? Think about it. God, life can be so goddamn boring. Might as well do something weird, right?
Some have the belief that vegan food doesn't make for a satisfying meal or that it is boring, but you smashed that notion. I know you don't use anything "fake" or imitation (and the almond milk you make at Commissary is out of this world). Can you share a bit about your philosophy here?
Basically I just want meat eaters to die from shock at how good our food is. That’s it. Pretty simple philosophy. And I want people who are ethical eaters in any way -- vegan or vegetarian or eating less meat or trying to eat local food or can’t afford or don’t have the time to do any of those things but are trying in whatever way they can to eat in ethical ways -- I just want to spoil those people with good food. And kill the rest from the shock of having their beliefs challenged. Ha!
You've said you are an anti-capitalist and you also have three businesses. You are an entrepreneur, and part of the great change our society needs without compromising your values. This is another feat. How would you encourage others to do the same?
Well, I try to be okay with holding a lot of opposing viewpoints at a time. Because what else are you going to do? Just go for it with the brand of hateful capitalism generally practiced? Of course most anarchists and anti-capitalists will say I’m a huge hypocrite -- I totally am. And I’m so fine with that. Because I’m employing 20 people who have good jobs because of me. Because I’m living in a way at least marginally in line with my beliefs, which is saying a lot! Because I wake up every morning and race to work. So who cares? I’m trying, and that’s all I care about. I think people get so bogged down in not being perfect they don’t try. Everyone in my little liberal bubble sees the problems of the world so acutely these days. It’s really, really, crushingly depressing. And it’s paralyzing a lot of people. I get that. But I don’t have time for that. I have to run payroll. I keep my head down, I’m trying to do what I can do, which in the scheme of things is so, so, so little. But who cares? I’ve got a nice life.
Can we talk about Furious Vulvas? Because they are delightful chocolates and of course I had to own a Furious Vulva mug. For those unfamiliar, how did the name come about?
Sure -- we have a line of chocolates we created in 2008 called Bluestocking Bonbons, all named for different women. The Furious Vulva is named for my friend Noel Furie, who is a collective member of Bloodroot, a feminist collective restaurant I worked at for almost a decade. Some women have vulvas and some don’t -- our mission isn’t to ground feminism in one body part, it’s basically just to get people saying the word vulva, because it freaks people out, and that’s fun. They’re also really good.
In Commissary, you created a safe space for people to gather, eat, have coffee, work using your Wifi with the best password ever. (You'll have to visit for the reveal.) In these times, with this administration, a safe space is needed more than ever. With that, do you ever face opposition for your values and how do you rise above it?
Well, I’m in New Paltz, New York. I moved here because the mayor was in the Green Party and was marrying queer people a decade or so before it was legal. I chose this totally privileged super liberal town to work in, and I we don’t generally get a lot of opposition. We have a great art piece by Nathaniel Russell hanging in all our shops. In NYC our shop is on a super witchy street, 9th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A, which is home to Enchantments and Flower Power and good shops like that, so we get people honestly asking us about casting spells and if we’re witches and stuff. But one time in our New Paltz chocolate shop we had a woman who was really excited to be at the shop, had traveled to get there, and was lining stuff up on the counter to buy when she saw the witches sign. She asked if we really believed what it said. The person working at the counter said it was a piece of art, and she got all huffy and left. It was pretty great. I did get into a scary situation when I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance while serving on my local Planning Board. One of my fellow board members went on Fox News to talk about how me and another board member wouldn’t say the Pledge, and I woke up one morning to a lot of death threats in my email, the shop voicemail, and business Facebook pages. It was all people from out of town though -- everyone in town kept coming in to say that they supported me, and even created a Facebook event to shop at the chocolate shop which resulted in our busiest day ever and me getting a sore throat from standing at the cash register saying “thank you!” to so many people in a row.
What attracted you to serve on the local planning board?
Well, I’d done a lot of traditional activism for years and years, and, as everyone knows, it’s so demoralizing and depressing. I wanted to put my very little time to use in a way where it could have maximum impact, so I applied to be on the Planning Board. It’s been six years, and now I’m co-chair of the Board. It’s an interesting process. Very frustrating, but very useful. It’s really easy to whine about government, but it’s something else to go to endless four-hour long meetings and see how your local government actually functions. I don’t enjoy it at all. But I’m proud of myself for sticking with it. I know all the acronyms now. That took a few years.
The Mitzvah Wall at Commissary! brings me joy when I read what others write. How did this come about? It really adds to creating that safe place and comfort of community.
I saw a similar idea at Little Baby’s Ice Cream in Philly, and wanted to do something like it. In thinking about about how to personalize it, I thought about what the idea of doing something good for others meant to me, and I thought about my mom, who taught me to do a mitzvah every day -- preferably an anonymous one. My mom died after a year-long struggle with pancreatic cancer in December 2015. I spent all of 2015 caring for her, and in 2016 I threw myself into running my business as a way to claw my way out of the awful grief. This intense energy for work resulted in me opening two additional businesses: my partner and I opened Commissary! in early May 2016, and my best friend Maresa and I opened Confectionery! in late May 2016 -- opening two businesses in one month while keeping the original business running definitely helped take my mind off my sad heart. And we all worked to build in elements of my mom’s lovely and kind energy into both businesses. The Mitzvah Wall has taken on a life of its own, she really would have loved it.
What is one every day thing you do that advances feminism/kills misogyny?
I’m kind to all women and mean to straight white men. What else is there, really?
Who inspires you?
Other small business owners I know, for sure, their persistence and creativity. People who remain soft-hearted and committed to their work even when struggling. Dogs.