Business

Bellingham company wants to empower others, one chocolate bite at a time

Paul Newman and Ari Lee-Newman visit the Bihar region of northern India during their honeymoon in 2014. Newman and Lee-Newman spent their honeymoon distributing vitamin A to children in rural villages for Vitamin Angels. During that honeymoon they also decided to create a business geared toward helping people, which led to the Bija, a chocolate bar company based in Bellingham.
Paul Newman and Ari Lee-Newman visit the Bihar region of northern India during their honeymoon in 2014. Newman and Lee-Newman spent their honeymoon distributing vitamin A to children in rural villages for Vitamin Angels. During that honeymoon they also decided to create a business geared toward helping people, which led to the Bija, a chocolate bar company based in Bellingham. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

On their honeymoon in India four years ago, Paul Newman and Ari Lee-Newman made a commitment to create a business that helps people. It will soon be getting national attention.

Newman and Lee-Newman operate Bija, which makes organic direct trade chocolate bars, but with a business model that attempts to provide a better wage balance between the grower, producer, manufacturer and retailer. The company is based in Bellingham but spends a lot of time working with growers in Peru and the Dominican Republic in this bean-to-bar business format.

The Bellingham Whole Foods store recently asked the owners if they would like to be a part of an upcoming segment for NBC's "Today Show" about businesses that make a difference. The segment on Bija is expected to be done later this month, running in early May.

Direct trade is a where buyers work with the farmers or processors to get a product. Bija works with a mix of men and women farmers, as well as women-based cooperatives that process the beans. Those beans are sent to a company in Vancouver B.C. before being brought to Bellingham and shipped to U.S. stores. Bija plans to increase what it does in Bellingham later this year, which could mean more local jobs.

The company got its start selling chocolate bars at Terra and the Community Food Coop. They are now in several states as well as many other Bellingham stores; the goal is to become known nationally because that helps more people, Lee-Newman said.

The focus is helping people who produce and process the cacao bean, particularly women. The chocolate bars wrappers have pictures of some of the women the company works with, as well as their stories.

By working directly with the farmers and the cooperatives, Bija pays 25 percent above the fair trade prices in order to better distribute the profit, Newman said. On Bija's website they feature photos and videos of how the women are doing.

The time spent educating consumers about what's happening with farmers and women's cooperatives is a big part of the company, and well worth it, Lee-Newman said.

"If people know better, they will do better," Lee-Newman said. By buying a chocolate bar, the consumer can choose one that breaks the cycle of of poverty and empowers women in communities, she said.

For details on the chocolate bars and updates on the "Today Show" segment, visit the company's Facebook page.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz
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