CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — After experiencing the taste of Japan’s creamy nama chocolate while traveling abroad, Ella Livingston said, she quickly became a chocoholic and decided to turn her passion into a business that would help her native Ghana.
Since she created Cocoa Asante in 2018, Livington has continued as a math teacher in Hamilton County while trying to build her startup venture. But that has quickly changed in the past couple of months.
Sales of Livington’s luxury chocolates made from cocoa beans grown in Ghana surged March 11 when TikTok star Keith Lee gave Livingston’s business a glowing review on his account. Lee has more than 5 million followers of his food-review videos, according to analytics tracker SocialBlade, and his endorsement of Cocoa Asante propelled sales overnight.
Within 45 minutes of Lee’s post on TikTok, Livingston said, her stock of chocolates was completely sold out. Cocoa Asante daily sales revenue skyrocketed from just under $1,000 to $24,719 in one day.
Last week, Livingston got another major boost for her growing business by winning the top prize in this year’s Idea Leap competition from the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union. From among nearly 100 local small businesses that applied for the Idea Leap grant competition this year, Cocoa Asante won first place in the Chattanooga competition, taking home a $30,000 grant awarded Thursday.
“I have entered the competition for each of the past three years and to win this grant is an amazing moment for me and a tremendous boost for our company,” Livingston said in a telephone interview Monday.
Since the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union started the Idea Leap grants in 2018 to help local startup businesses, the credit union has awarded about $500,000 in grants and scholarships. The program was expanded this year to include new competitions in Cleveland, Tennessee, and North Georgia, where the credit union also operates.
Todd Fortner, president and CEO of the credit union, said applications for next year’s program will open in November.
Livingston won the top prize this year, but the credit union also awarded another $135,000 to small businesses judged to be the most promising for future growth.
Livingston, 30, said she will use her grant to buy more cooking equipment to grow Cocoa Asante. She gave up her teaching post this spring to work full time on her business, which now has three full-time and another couple of part-time workers.
Livingston, who moved to the U.S. at age 3, was lured to Chattanooga by the Project Inspire program designed to promote more science, technology, engineering and math teaching in schools with a preponderance of minority students. She started her business in her own home, later moving to a commercial kitchen and then the Hamilton County Incubator as the company expanded.
“The $30,000 we won means a lot to us because it means we’ll be better able to meet the demand we already have and hopefully build our business even more,” she said.
Livingston said she is also preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for more equipment and staff to continue to grow the company.
Cocoa Asante is committed to becoming bean-to-bar, and eventually Livingston hopes to move the candy production to Ghana to help boost her native country, which grows the biggest share of cocoa beans but gets only a small share of chocolate sales.
“This means that we will control the entire production process from the cocoa bean to the final chocolate bar,” she said in a statement on the Cocoa Asante website. “Doing so will allow us to invest more into the communities that grow our cocoa beans, and it will ensure that our customers get the highest quality chocolate on the market.”
Tommy Nix, vice president of business and commercial services at the credit union, said Cocoa Asante is among dozens of companies that have been aided by Idea Leap, which was created six years ago and is funded by the credit union from proceeds generated by Idea Leap loans made to small businesses.
“For the first time ever, we expanded the Idea Leap grant program by hosting three separate competitions in the Chattanooga, Ocoee and Northwest Georgia areas,” Nix said in a statement Monday.