When Yvonne Kasimbi had her first taste of chocolate as a five-year-old in Kenya, it was the beginning of a life-long love affair.
Now, as owner of Sanaa Chocolate, Yvonne’s goal is to give everyone a taste of love that melts in your mouth.
Her passion turned into a career in 2017, when she met Oscar Kaunda. On their first date, he asked her what she was passionate about.
Yvonne recalls, “I was always scared to tell people what I was passionate about because they would have a smart remark that (I was passionate about) chocolate.”
But for whatever reason, that evening she told Oscar that her passion was chocolate.
Soon after, he gifted her a chocolate making class where she earned her master chocolatier certification from Ecole Chocolat and later attended Lake Michigan college where she earned her master chocolatier certificate.
Sanaa Chocolates began with a booth at a farmer’s market. However, the couple soon decided to find a brick and mortar location that offered a commercial temperature-controlled kitchen. They found the perfect spot in a former Dairy Queen in Town & Country Mall.
Being a minority business owner, Yvonne and Oscar suspect their journey has had a few extra challenges and rewards.
“I wouldn’t know what non-minority people struggle with (when opening a business),” Yvonne explained in her gentle Kenyan accent. “We had to push more than the ordinary person would. That was the hardest part.”
She said having her credentials questioned repeatedly has been her largest frustration.
“If I go to a big company (with my chocolate) and I’m from Africa, they ask, ‘What would you know about chocolate?’,” she said. “That’s the reason why I have to display my (chocolatier certificates). Most people don’t understand that it takes a lot to learn the skill I have. I had to go to school, I had to practice for weeks with master chocolatiers.”
Oscar adds that they have been questioned by a few people about who “actually makes the chocolates” or who they “buy them from to resell” in their store. This is frustrating to both Yvonne and Oscar, but they have learned how to navigate through it.
Despite the skeptics, Yvonne and Oscar were also surprised by the support they received when starting their business.
“As much as we’ve had some challenges, we’ve also had support from places we didn’t expect,” Yvonne said. “We’ve had people support us from the beginning who are still supporting us. It’s great. We are very grateful.”
The support they have experienced has come in the form of advice on business and introductions to networking opportunities. They are also members of the Mishawaka Business Association (MBA) and Granger Rotary, groups they have found to be very supportive.
Emotional support is also essential to their success.
“Anyone who has done entrepreneurship knows things get hard and if you don’t have that emotional support it can be tough,” Yvonne said.
The couple agree that they have been fortunate to have the support of their family, in particular Ngina Muthusi who is Yvonne’s cousin. Muthusi has lent a hand during long production hours, especially during the holiday season.
Oscar agreed that networking is helpful to talk about challenges.
When asked if her love affair with chocolate has dimmed, Yvonne declared loudly: “NO! If it hasn’t worn off since I was five years old, it’s not going to wear off now.”
She hopes to help others discover their own love for chocolate and would love to have a customer who has never had chocolate and has no idea what is good or bad.
“Seeing them walk out knowing and being better educated about what’s good for them and what’s not is my dream,” she said.
Yvonne has a word of advice for other minority entrepreneurs: “Don’t give up.”
“Even when all odds are against you, you should not give up,” she said. “You should always put God first before everything else. Because without God you’ll be lot. It’s very important to breathe because when everything is just coming your way, you don’t have time to take a step back and just breathe. It gets overwhelming. And don’t be scared of what surrounds you. Focus on yourself and your dreams and God. Nothing else matters.”
Sanaa Chocolates (named for “work of art” in Swahili) is a love letter to the community. It was born from a young girl in Kenya’s love of an exotic treat, fostered by the new love of a spouse, and built upon a love and desire to educate the others on something as common and rich as chocolate.
Just like the chocolate they craft, Yvonne and Oscar’s journey as a minority-owned business is at times bitter but the endings show promise of being sweet.
Sanaa Chocolates is located in the Town and Country Shopping Plaza at 2454 Miracle Lane, Mishawaka, IN. Connect with Sanaa Chocolates on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Sanaa.Chocolates/