Rob Lenfestey of Mandala Chocolates hasn’t always savored chocolate. In fact, it was many years before he even tasted the decadent treat.
Rob spent his younger years allergic to chocolate, so it wasn’t until he was twenty years old on a mountaineering trip when he first experienced chocolate in all of its glory. He and his adventure partners were in a pinch — they still had many miles to trek before reaching civilization and had run out of food. “The last thing that we found was a packet of brownie mix that my friend had shoved at the bottom of his bag,” recalls Rob.
They cooked up the mix and Rob decided to take a risk and try the brownies. “It was one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth.”
Better yet, the chocolate did not trigger an allergic reaction.
The ensuing series of events made it abundantly clear that Rob was meant to work with chocolate.
He followed his backcountry trip with a solo road trip and headed to the West Coast. Within a week of settling into California, he found himself again in the presence of the rich treat. Rob got a job making batches of superfood chocolate for a children’s charity where his only parameter was to make each batch a different flavor.
“I got paid to literally just experiment and make raw, organic, superfood chocolate.”
Several months later, Rob decided to continue exploring superfoods and attended a Chinese herbal elixir workshop focusing on raw foods and desserts. He walked in to find the event planner in a panic; the chocolatier she had hired was a no-show, and she needed someone to lead the event by making chocolates and raw pies. Drawing upon his recent experience with superfood chocolate, Rob offered to jump in and teach. The workshop was a success, and the planner hired him on the spot to lead 17 more workshops.
As these gigs continued, the event planner began presenting Rob as an illustrious chocolatier and an expert in cacao, exaggerating his level of experience and expertise. When Rob expressed discomfort with this representation, she retorted, “well, you’d better start to learn how to live up to it!”
Rob decided to accept her challenge. Drawing upon his education in agricultural ecology, he traveled to Costa Rica and soon found work at the Hawaiian Agricultural Research Center. During his time there, he experimented with various types of soil microbiology and composting to determine the best methods to grow and harvest organic cacao.
Creating Mandala Chocolates
Rob’s repeated encounters with chocolate felt like a message that could not be ignored.
“Cacao chose me every step of the way. I never decided to start making chocolate. Chocolate chose me.”
After learning to grow and cook with cacao, Rob turned his attention to its physiology. Cacao is a vasodilator, which means that it opens up the bloodstream and allows other nutrients to be more easily absorbed. It also contains an abundance of vital nutrients and minerals.
His new knowledge unearthed a desire to share the power of this nutrient with others. Although chocolate overwhelms our food markets, he had not seen many other companies or individuals making chocolate by combining cacao with adaptogenic herbs, stone grinding the cacao to increase its bioavailability, and flavoring the blend with low glycemic, high quality sugar. He decided to take on this possibility himself.
After traveling through Costa Rica and other magnificent places around the world, Rob found himself called home to the beauty and biodiversity of Appalachia. In 2011, he settled back down in Western North Carolina and embarked on the journey of creating Mandala Chocolates.
He started small-scale to find the ideal chocolate consistency, making little batches to experiment with tempering in his home crock pot. Then he began solidifying the chocolate and splitting it into bark for local retail. He attended festivals, farmer’s markets and organized accounts with Asheville’s West Village Market and the Co-Op. While his chocolate began to develop a local reputation, he worked alongside Mountain Biz Works to achieve organic and B Corp certification, which paved the way for today’s era of Mandala Chocolates.
Rob has continued to cultivate his passion for conservation in synthesis with his work as a chocolatier. In 2013, Rob received a call from his friend, Jeremy Schewe, who works in stream restoration and other conservation efforts. Jeremy’s colleague was mapping the cloud forests of Guatemala, and came across a large area that had not yet been mapped or traced in any documents.
Rob was invited to help explore the land, and he was immediately drawn to the opportunity.
Upon arriving, the team was met with an astounding landscape teeming with caves, prodigious trees, waterfalls, and other natural wonders. Its abundance demanded protection.
They soon learned that local tribes possessed ownership of the land and were selling pieces of it; an 8-acre portion had already been purchased and clear cut by the buyer in that same year.
In an effort to preserve the beautiful landscape, Rob launched a YouCaring campaign in Asheville to raise money for buying and protecting the land. Within a couple of months, the local community raised $70,000, which allowed the conservation project to purchase 444 acres of cloud forest. Within a year and two months, the campaign had raised $1.2 million, allowing the project to protect 10 square miles of the forest. The project has now raised $5 million, all used to protect this exceptional land.
Rob currently collaborates with a nearby local tribe, the Quitschemaya, who grow cacao on the cloud forest land. Eventually, Rob plans to help them certify their crop as organic so that he can use their cacao in his chocolate bars.
By sourcing his ingredients ethically and sustainably, Rob is able to ensure that his passion for sharing the power of cacao aligns with his conservation efforts and values.
He currently obtains his cacao from family cooperatives in Ecuador, then stone grinds each batch for at least 24 hours to ensure maximum bioavailability. This process creates a silky, smooth chocolate texture and drives the volatile bitter compounds to off-gas, leaving a more consistent, velvety flavor. These methods also prevent oxidation, which in turn preserves cacao’s nutrient value.
His other ingredients are also chosen mindfully. Each bar is sweetened with coconut sugar, a natural and low-glycemic alternative to other sugars. For Rob, quality and taste are more important than cost. All of his recipes use a special Tahitian vanilla which is his most expensive ingredient, retailing at $350 per pound. “It’s unbelievable how [this vanilla] changes the flavor.”
Our Collaboration: The CBD Alchemy Chocolate Bar
Our partnership to create CBD Alchemy Chocolate blossomed from an alignment of company standards and values, and fell into place at just the right time.
Our mutual use of quality ingredients and sustainable practices in our work made it natural for us to step into partnership.
Rob had been interested in creating a CBD bar for quite a while, but the opportunity finally arose when he ran into Will in downtown Asheville, who was meeting with The Hop to finalize plans for CBD hemp ice cream. The two arranged to meet soon, and within a few days they had created a plan for the CBD Alchemy Bar.
Our CBD Alchemy bar is flavored with a blend of organic cacao, coconut sugar, calamus, and Tahitian vanilla, organic local chaga and reishi, Celtic Sea Salt and CBD, which together offer a velvety flavor and many possible benefits, including anti-inflammatory support.
Just as the chocolate is made strongest by its combined elements, our collaboration is a synthesis of our combined strengths. “For any business that is attempting to be a force of integrity on the planet, there is no need whatsoever for competition over collaboration. . . rather than fighting for the little sliver of people we already have in our little fold, [it is] far better for us to work together and reach out and increase that slice of the pie.”
10% of Mandala Naturals profits currently support funds to establish legal conservation at Mandala Springs.
Located in the hills of Appalachia, Mandala Springs is home to Rob’s retreat center and a lush landscape of mountain creeks and forest. He hopes to eventually transition the land into a permaculture farm to support the Asheville sustainable food community.
Since the beginning of Blue Ridge Hemp, collaborative effort has been a foundation of our growth. We have worked to refine our strengths in creating and sharing high quality CBD topicals, superfoods, and flower products, and when we combine those skills with the strengths of other local companies, we can make products that have even greater healing potential.
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At Blue Ridge Hemp Co. we produce CBD-infused natural care products for pain and wellness management. We are on a mission to empower through wellness, gratitude, and self care!