Two women from North Carolina want chocolate bars to be sweetened with dates, not sugar. But they’re not taking the health food route. These are visually stunning bars meant to be savored.
Kathryn Shah and Sarah Bell worked in luxury goods, food, beauty, and CPG at brands such as Harry’s Grooming, Unilever, and LVMH for years before they launched Spring & Mulberry.
But for Shah it was a trip to India via Dubai that would later become the inspiration for their startup. On her way to her engagement party in Mumbai, Shah and her husband stopped in Dubai. Here she saw how dates were packaged artfully and treated as a celebratory gift. It was a stark contrast to finding dates in a bulk bin back home in the US. “And this was in 2012, so quite a while ago. But I always remembered that and just parked it in the back of my mind,” she says.
Unfortunately, Shah went through a testing period after getting married; she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she sought treatment and healed her body, she turned to foods to help her recover. “I really had to put my life on pause, and just focus on getting healthy. At this time my husband started looking into holistic ways that I could improve the outcomes of my treatment and the Western medicine I was taking with foods.”
The two found scientific research online suggesting a link between high sugar consumption and cancer tumor growth, she says. So, Shah became more aware of the sugars she was taking in, even the ones hidden in everyday ingredients. It was then she also remembered the beautifully packaged dates from Dubai as a healthy sweet she could turn to when she had cravings.
Since then going low sugar has become a lifestyle for her. “There wasn’t anything on the market that I felt checked all the boxes, and was made of whole ingredients that you could just buy as is,” she says. Plus, a product, she argues, that felt like a luxurious treat.
“We are so thrilled to show consumers how to enjoy sweets that don’t use refined sugar or the latest fad sugar substitute. There’s so much natural sweetness out there–jammy dates, floral pollens, rich cacaos, tangy spices–that bring a variety of flavor and level of finesse to our bars. We want to invite consumers to explore a world of sweet beyond sugar that offers interesting, nuanced, and sophisticated taste experiences.”
So they started with date-sweetened chocolate bars. And to get their second most important ingredient, cacao, they turned to Suhum, Ghana. Both Shah and Bell had spent time in Ghana after college so they had a personal connection, she says. But more importantly, Suhum was a cacao growing region known for being organic and biodynamic —- farming values that resonated with the brand’s bean-to-bar approach for simple, high quality ingredients.
“Farmers are part of a co-op here. And they made 40 percent more than the organic and fairtrade premium combined for their last harvest,” Shah explains. “We felt it was important to have a direct relationship with farmers and these are farmers who are really thinking about the land and the community.”
The organic medjool dates, meanwhile, come from Woodspur Farms in the Coachella Valley in California. For the other ingredients that adorn their bars, Shah and Bell went on a bit of a tasting spree, trying to find artisans for each ingredient. For instance, they use salts from Jacobsen Salt Co. in Oregon, as well as their bee pollen from their honey enterprise. For chili, they defer to Spicewalla, a fellow North Carolina brand.
Although the duo have launched with chocolate, they don’t see themselves stopping there. The broader vision is to be a food company with an assortment of products, all with health in mind. “Everything we have used is natural, whole ingredients, and mostly organic here,” Shah iterates.
While the bars are pricey, they’re designed to be an indulgent treat. Of course one could pop a date or two for a sweet snack, but if the goal is to have an elevated bar of chocolate, this is where Spring and Mulberry come in. In the future, Shah hopes that they can make more affordable options as well, as they expand their business.
To date, Shah and Bell have self-funded this venture with the support of family and friends but they’re not closed off from the idea of raising capital. “Right now, we’re interested in bootstrapping and letting it grow organically, but let’s see,” Shah says.