Published May 21, 2013
Volume 21, Number 5

Alexandra Saunders Fuses Her Passions in Nuubia Chocolat 

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

The path from conservation to commodities to chocolate has been an organic progression for Alexandra Saunders. Along the way she acquired the entrepreneurial skill set to fuse her personal passions into a successful business, Nuubia Chocolat, recognized for its exquisite high-end confections.
                                                                                                  (Photo courtesy Nuubia Chocolat)
The multiple layers of the Nuubia story parallel Saunders’ own career trajectory. Consumers are introduced to its products as hailing from a luxury brand that provides “the definitive chocolate experience.” The level of artisanship put into manufacturing is evident in the tributes paid to Nuubia co-founder Lionel Clement, who was named Chocolatier of the Year in the company’s debut season, summer 2011.

Clement’s creativity and technical virtuosity make up a good part of the recipe for superlative quality, but the linchpin is Saunders’ tireless focus on the quality and sources of all ingredients. Possessed of very high culinary standards, she has always been “very particular” about what she eats, her preference leaning toward “epicurean food beautifully prepared, using only fine ingredients.” 

Those tastes carry over to Nuubia’s chocolate-making, part of the rationale for founding the business. “I was concerned about what goes into food products today, and I decided I could do it better,” Saunders relates. Butter comes only from grass-fed cows, and GMO products have no place in the chocolate kitchen. “We are very careful about the products we buy to put into our confections. We insist on 100-percent product transparency.”  Saunders investigates—and sometimes personally visits--the source of each ingredient. “For a confection of up to 30 ingredients, to understand the source of each and every one is a tremendous undertaking,” she comments.  

This is where another layer surfaces. Humane sourcing is so important to Saunders because of her abiding commitment to wildlife and conservation. Born in Oak Ridge, Tenn., she moved to Java with her family at the age of five, when her father, a physicist, took a post as a university professor. Her education included private tutors who frequently used the rainforest as a classroom. “Other children played in parks, but I played in the rainforest,” is how she describes this critical early influence.

It was not always a happy one, however. The sights of poverty and deplorable living conditions were “very painful” to the young child. The same feelings arose for the native animal population, which continued to lose habitat with the clearing of the rainforest.   

She had an early epiphany: “Individuals might not be able to stop the destruction, but they can change their own behaviors and eating habits. Very early on, I started setting a high bar for myself about what was and was not acceptable.”

After a decade overseas, the family came back to the United States, settling in Alamo to be near her father’s new job at Livermore National Labs. After high school, Saunders embarked on her long-held dream of studying wildlife, majoring in conservation at U.C. Berkeley and eventually earning her doctorate. Her educational experiences inspire many fond memories, especially of the time she got to spend with orangutans and forest animals in Indonesia and Borneo.

Making use of her international background, she was recruited into the rice trade analyzing world rice markets. It was an instructive entrée into the world of business. At the time, in the 1980s, the U.S. was the largest exporter of rice, selling all over the globe, and she became “very knowledgeable” about how international trade deals are put together. “It is a little-known, quiet market, but one of most powerful groups in the world. Governments rise and fall on the price of rice,” she explains. 

Subsequent career moves led her into high tech, marketing, and finance. Then, in 1999, she turned back to her earlier passions with the launch of Canopy, a company developing sustainability programs for businesses. Its primary modus operandi was connecting clients to wildlife biologists in the field. “This was in the realm of corporate social responsibility, not philanthropy,” Saunders emphasizes. The intention was to boost corporate awareness of what the biologists were doing while creating a funding source for their work. 

One such rewarding project was with the Fairmont Hotel group about to break ground on a new luxury resort in British Columbia. The property was prime grizzly bear birthing habitat. Another was a mountain lion project working with the high schools in Eastern Washington.

Canopy was a pioneering program in the field of sustainability and is one of Saunders’ most notable career achievements.

In 2007 she co-founded Mirrageos to create agricultural analytics.  While working on this she learned with alarm about the palm oil industry and how rainforests were being sacrificed to meet the demand from manufacturers. As she delved deeper she learned that tens of thousands of orangutans, elephants, and rhinos were being killed by the industry to make way for the plantations. When she began to inquire about where the demand was coming from, she learned that cheap chocolates contained palm oil and that it was an ingredient in seven out of 10 products on grocery store shelves.

Right then and there she decided to create a company to manufacture “pure artisan high-quality products, avoiding all GMO and palm oil ingredients.” This company is Nuubia, located right here in Hacienda.  All aspects of the operation, from raw materials to packaging, come from sustainable sources, and a portion of the profits are reserved to support wildlife sanctuaries.

“As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized I can be responsible for my own actions,” Saunders comments, noting that running a company widens her platform. “We get to decide where we’ll spend our money and what we will make and what to use as ingredients.”

Nuubia is “a conscious, purpose-driven food company committed to inspiring people to care about the planet, value the amazing ecosystems from which ingredients are derived, and re-examine their choices as consumers and power they own to protect the environment,” she relates. Nuubia has earned the business of “some of the top resorts in the country—the St. Regis, Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons—where the chefs appreciate ultrafine quality,” she notes. Nuubia has plans to expand to retail in 2014.

In the meantime, the brand has developed quite a local following. People stop in at the Hacienda facility, in Suite 220 of 5673 West Las Positas Blvd., all the time and buy right from the kitchen. The lobby has been converted into a retail store, while the website, full of enticing images and a video of the chocolate-making process, offers online ordering.

Fans will be delighted to learn that Nuubia is introducing a new line of chocolate snacks and nibbles, including S’mores, Cloud 9 caramels, sea salt caramel candy bars, and pure origin chocolate bars. They share the same quality and sourcing as the ultra premium chocolates, but are single-serving items “easy to pick up for people on the go,” she says.

Saunders has clearly proven that the fusion of luxury products and environmental responsibility is indeed an appetizing business model.

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