The Mystical Duo Behind The World's Healthiest Chocolate
On first impression, Bunni and Zen Nishimura don’t read as classic CEOs. Bunni has waves of dark hair parted down the center and a penchant for long, drapey dresses in florals and paisleys. Zen, a lanky two heads taller than Bunni, has a goatee with sideburns down to his jawline, a collection of chunky rings on his fingers, and often a light scarf around his neck. Their 5-year-old daughter has the fantastical name of Alchemy, in honor, Bunni says, of a wolf she once owned (Alchemy’s middle name is, in fact, Wolf).
But CEOs they are—accidental chocolatiers selling tiny $3 and $4 bars in a mud-lined supply closet. Selling many. Since 2007, the husband-and-wife duo have built their raw-chocolate-making hobby into ZenBunni, a brand of biodynamic chocolate that’s enormously popular among the L.A. types (including those who don’t live in L.A.). Prized for being a “superfood” in dessert form, the treats have garnered attention from the likes of Vanity Fair and Vogue and spawned collaborations with lifestyle blogger Shiva Rose and Amanda Chantal Bacon's juice shop Moon Juice. Now, in addition to a second shop in Santa Monica’s luxurious Fairmont Hotel, ZenBunni chocolates are on shelves in high-end shops in New York and Paris.
That mud-lined closet, which they call the Rabbit Hole, is their shop on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Zen and Bunni built its contoured, cavelike interior by hand with clay they carted in from their home in Topanga Canyon, L.A.’s picturesque bohemian enclave. There’s cacao powder in the clay, and healing crystals, and a tree sculpted by one of their friends.
Their 5-year-old daughter has the fantastical name of Alchemy, in honor, Bunni says, of a wolf she once owned.
But they are also worldly, multitalented artists: Bunni is a photographer, Zen a designer, and before they were chocolatiers, they made and sold jewelry, clothes, and art from the gallery/shop (also called ZenBunni) they ran in Topanga Canyon. They also do interior design, and having run a business together for about 16 years, they are undeniably business-savvy. The story of ZenBunni chocolate is long and full of happenstance, and its success almost seems like luck. But, of course, it’s not. You don’t get to be a nationally known chocolatier without a good amount of drive and hardheadedness.
The chocolate wasn’t meant to be more than a side project, a little corner of that gallery. Actually, at first it wasn’t meant to be more than a snack to brighten up Zen and Bunni’s own diet. The duo dove headfirst into a raw, vegan diet in 2007, after Bunni saw a flyer for a talk by raw food evangelist David Wolfe. Wolfe believes that cooking food robs it of most of its nutritional value, and that animals, being at the top of the food chain, are repositories for toxins. Eating only uncooked, plant-based foods, he maintains, can vastly improve health. Both Zen and Bunni had always eaten healthily enough, but Zen, the cook in the family, had been having digestive issues and was looking for a change. “I knew if he saw this,” Bunni says, “we would start to go raw.” So she showed him the flyer.
That lecture, Zen says, “was literally like a lightning bolt. We basically went home and threw away every single thing in our kitchen.” The next day they went completely raw and vegan, and “within like three weeks,” Zen enthuses, “we would go on walks and we started seeing better. We were literally seeing colors we’d never seen before.” That was great, but there were things they missed. “People say they have a sweet tooth,” Zen says, “we have, like, a sweet mouth.” And at that point, Bunni adds, “there just wasn’t anything fun in the raw world.” The pair loved chocolate in particular and thought it was an ingredient with untapped superfood potential.
On a raw diet, "we were literally seeing colors we'd never seen before."
Then, about six months into the diet, Zen found a vegan chef who offered to teach him how to make raw, vegan desserts, including chocolate bars. The resulting mass wasn’t “real” chocolate; it wasn’t like the smooth, snappy bars you’d buy from ZenBunni today (or from any other chocolatier, for that matter). A real chocolate bar is made by grinding cacao beans until friction inevitably warms the chocolate and liquefies the cocoa butter, so that the ground beans become melted chocolate. Most cacao beans are roasted to dry them out, then ground so fast and so hot that they can’t be considered raw. Raw chocolate, on the other hand, is air-dried, then ground at such slow speeds that it never gets much hotter than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But Zen’s first bars were a MacGyvered, no-heavy-machinery-required version of true chocolate bars, made by whizzing in a blender raw cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and agave into something “almost like a fudge bar,” Zen says.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a fudge bar. That same year, after some urging from friends, they tried selling the bars at the gallery, where they flew off the shelves. So in 2008, when the duo moved their business to a new space in Santa Monica, they decided to take the chocolate thing more seriously. They bought an old refrigerated display case and installed it in the gallery, rented out a production kitchen, and printed up 30,000 labels. A year later, after two years on the diet, they abandoned raw veganism—“it can be very unhealthy to do it for a long time,” Zen explains—but kept making the bars. And by 2010, about a year and a half after printing those labels, they’d already blown through all 30,000 of them.
But this was not the point at which ZenBunni the chocolate company took off. This was the point at which Bunni got pregnant with Alchemy. “Five months into the pregnancy, I could no longer focus,” she explains. “I was going into the office and just taking a nap. So Zen and I had a long talk, and he was like, ‘Let’s just close the store.’” And that was it. They shuttered their business to focus on raising their daughter for a few years. But then “so many emails and phone calls came in,” says Bunni. Everyone wanted to know where the chocolate had gone. The goading didn’t rally the couple into action, but it did plant the seed that maybe, eventually, they should get back into the chocolate business.
Around the same time, Zen and Bunni began chatting with a neighbor in Topanga Canyon, who happens to be the only biodynamic farmer in L.A. “We met him, and he blew our minds,” Zen reports. They toured his farm, which, to their surprise, looked simple, and not like some “utopian paradise.” Then they sampled a lettuce leaf. “It wasn’t even bright green or anything,” says Zen, “but we were like, ‘what is that flavor?’” Minerals, they were told, cultivated in the soil through compost blended with herbs and silica, and through careful rotation of crops.
Most people who’ve heard of biodynamic farming know it as something practiced by certain wine producers. Many probably also know it as a mystical pseudoscience: It involves planting by the astrological calendar, burying crystals in the ground, and using cow horns to collect the “cosmic forces” in the soil. But it’s also by definition organic and uses many simple, time-honored methods like crop rotation to maintain soil health and biodiversity. As Zen sees it, organic farming is just the baseline: “It’s just ‘Let’s not put poison on our food.’” Biodynamics, he says, is that, plus “How do you leave the land in a better state than it was?”
"We realized the more of our chocolate people could eat, the more we could recalibrate the Earth."
With this newfound devotion to biodynamics, which began as abruptly as their venture into raw veganism, Zen and Bunni returned to making chocolate. Zen, after “so much research on the internet,” discovered that only about five of the world’s 6 million cacao farmers were practicing biodynamics, and that only one company, a German producer called Rapunzel, was making biodynamic chocolate bars. He navigated international shipping and customs laws to get first a sample and then sacks of cacao beans from one of those farmers in the Dominican Republic. He tracked down the only farm in the world making biodynamic sugar, in Brazil. He bought the smallest stone grinder he could find and spent days grinding beans at different speeds and for different amounts of time to get the chocolate just right.
“We were just artists, kind of winging the whole thing,” Zen insists, but clearly chocolate was no longer a hobby or even a side gig. With biodynamics, Bunni says, “we realized the more of our chocolate people could eat, the more we could recalibrate the Earth. That’s an amazing mission, once we realized we were on it.”
When Zen and Bunni began selling their chocolate—now real chocolate, shiny and solid in its paper packaging—again, they decided it needed its own shop but one that was very small. About two years ago, through word of mouth and (they believe) the power of manifestation, they found that little supply closet on Abbot Kinney. And that was where things really took off. With that rabbit-hole look, “it turned into kind of a tourist attraction,” says Zen, drawing customers curious about the crystal-studded cave. Demand (no doubt boosted by current wellness trends) has soared, and four months ago Zen and Bunni set up shop in a full-fledged factory lined with copper, “the metal of love,” according to Zen, in a former bread bakery. Two months ago, they opened a shop in the Fairmont Hotel—still mud-lined, but a little sleeker, cleaner than the first. They now make thousands of chocolates a day in at least 14 different flavors, all from biodynamic ingredients, plus jars of “gheenache” (chocolate made soft and spoonable with the addition of ghee) and drinking cocoa.
ZenBunni’s success could be a lot of luck, or it could have to do with being the only raw, biodynamic chocolate maker in the United States (an Ecuadorean company, Pacari, now also makes biodynamic chocolate, some of it raw). But more likely it has to do with Zen and Bunni’s odd blend of fanaticism and unflappable ease. They are the sort of people who will pick up raw veganism overnight but happily return to meat and refined sugar when it starts to feel bad. They are the sort of people who can build a booming business together, then shut it down in favor of family. And this makes them the sort of people who will stumble into their chocolate business almost by accident, then devote themselves to making it using only the most expensive, hard-to-find ingredients in the most time-consuming way.
At this point, the period of just letting things happen is over. Next on the agenda is adding other biodynamic foods, like nut butters, to their catalog. And it’s time to stop relying on word of mouth and actually hire a sales team. Eventually, says Zen, “We want to have different versions of our rabbit hole all over the world.”