I know that there’s a really great story behind Addictive Wellness. I want to know how you found your way to each other and how you came to build Addictive Wellness.
AnnaBlanca: Addictive Wellness has an unbelievable story. When you ask, “How did you find your way to each other?”, I’d say it was nothing short of a miracle.
I came from behind the Iron Curtain and grew up in Hungary with communism. My upbringing couldn’t be farther from Sage, who grew up in a meditation center in Thousand Oaks, California. I grew up marching in the streets, singing the Russian anthem. And Sage grew up to be this young, beautiful surfer with a very spiritual upbringing.
And the minute we met, we had a connection. We were immediately friends. No dating app could have ever matched us up. No question about that! (laughs) We couldn’t be happier. Ten years we’ve been together and everyday just keeps getting better and better.
Sage Dammers: It was in 2011. I just moved back from living in Western Australia for almost a year. There was a big health event happening in Erewhon. I walked in and I saw Annablanca looking spectacular—
AnnaBlanca: Hello! (laughs)
Sage Dammers: —and said “Hello”.
AnnaBlanca: He had so much confidence. He was a young gentleman. I had some friends who actually knew him, and I said, “How old are you?” And he replied,
Sage Dammers: “I’m ageless.”
AnnaBlanca: And I said, “Come on.” So there’s a bit of an age difference.
Sage Dammers: So, we became friends over our shared passion for health and wellness. Then, we graduated into a little bit more than friends, and, after, a little bit more than that.
AnnaBlanca: Oh, he got me with the chocolate. It wasn’t the blue eyes. Nor was it the surfer thing. Not the spirituality and all the knowledge and all the fantastic books.
He got me with the chocolate. It was fantastic, even when we were friends: we couldn’t stop talking and enjoying each other’s company. Sage learned how to make chocolate in the jungles of Costa Rica. He was on a surfing trip with his friends when he was younger and thought, “Hmm, this is going to be a great way to meet girls.”
He definitely met you.
Sage Dammers: Yeah, it always helps when you can say, “Hey, let’s hang out and make chocolate together.” Little did I know that AnnaBlanca and I would be making chocolate together nine years later.
So, walk me through it. You met at Erewhon, you struck up a conversation, and Annablanca was won over by Sage’s chocolate making. How did that personal relationship evolve into Addictive Wellness?
Sage Dammers: So, we were finally dating. I was making chocolate, sharing it with Annablanca and some of our friends. Then, more and more people kept asking for it, saying, “Hey can we buy some?” And we said, of course! We can always do with a bit of extra money, and we always love sharing something that we’re passionate about.
Over the years, going through my own health challenges, I had to develop a chocolate that would suit my dietary needs. I was on antibiotics for a number of years and it totally destroyed my gut health. So, I could only have the kind of chocolate that was totally sugar-free.
And I also had a great passion for these traditional herbal systems from indigenous cultures. I wanted to incorporate these herbs into the chocolate because, on their own, they could have very intense flavors.
In what way?
Sage Dammers: Their bitter flavor notes combine nicely with the bitterness of chocolate.
Chocolate can camouflage that earthy bitter flavor. It becomes the ultimate delivery vehicle for these herbs. Not only flavor-wise but also because chocolate is a great dilator. It improves the absorption of these herbs. It acts as an MAO inhibitor, effectively allowing the herbs to stay in your body and keep working for longer, magnifying their effects.
So, over the years, I was trying to fine-tune this chocolate. By the time AnnaBlanca and I got together, I still hadn’t cracked the code of making it sugar-free. I was still sweetening it with honey, which was great. But it wasn’t fully aligned with what I needed.
And AnnaBlanca really encouraged me to meet that challenge. We have fun setting ourselves food challenges. We do the impossible, in so far as preparing and eating something in an ultra-healthy way. So, eventually, we were able to get it dialed in.
AnnaBlanca: Then, I had this amazing doctor who was a geneticist and a hardcore sugar-free individual. We made her some of our chocolate as a gift. And she told me, “I want to sell this at my practice. Package it for me and I will sell it for you guys.” We delivered her the first batch. Then, she called us two days later—
Sage Dammers: And she says, “We need to pay you with a check. But we need to address it to your business for tax purposes.” But we didn’t have a business set-up yet! So, we said, “Okay, quickly – get on online! Let’s get registered for an LLC, let’s set up a website and set up a bank account so we can get paid.” And that was how Addictive Wellness got started.
AnnaBlanca: And my friend re-ordered very quickly. She said, “I ate it all. Can we get some more?” (laughs)
Now, I want to talk a little bit more about your chocolate recipe. On your website, you talk about heirloom arriba nacional cacao. Can you talk a little bit about this particular type of cacao, the process of using it, and how it fits into your wellness mission as a company?
Sage Dammers: So, there is plenty of varieties of cacao. The most common kinds you find in commercial cacao production are the trinitario and forastero. There’s another one called CCN 51, which has the highest yield in terms of the quantity of cacao it can produce. But it has the flavor of acid dirt. It’s not great.
AnnaBlanca: Imagine how much sugar you have to add to that cacao to make it consumable.
Sage Dammers: The heirloom variety means that the cacao is not yet hybridized. It’s the original kind, grown in the wild. It’s called arriba nacional. There are a few places that have it. We source ours from Ecuador.
This cacao has a lot going on. Most cacao can be grown on a plantation. This cacao doesn’t grow like that. It has to grow in an intact rainforest environment. That on its own is amazing for a number of reasons. From a sustainability standpoint, it incentivizes the local people to be an environmental steward of the rainforest. They can make money by harvesting cacao, but they also have to make sure that no logging and deforestation comes and take it all down because then, the whole town is out of a job. And when the environment is winning, we’re all winning.
This cacao grows in volcanic soil that is incredibly minerally rich. It’s not like what you would have in a mono-crop farm where the soil is depleted. Anything that grows in the wild is going to be more genetically robust than anything that grows on a mono-crop farm with fences around it. It’s the survival of the fittest out there in the wild. If you’re not a strong tree with strong genetics, you’re not going to make it. So, what you’re getting with heirloom arriba nacional is superior cacao.
In addition, our cacao is also processed without exceeding 118 degrees. Some sensitive compounds and enzymes in cacao are destroyed when it gets too hot during a conventional roasting process.
AnnaBlanca: And this cacao does not contain mycotoxins.
Sage Dammers: That’s another thing that makes it really different. Most cacao products are contaminated with mycotoxins. They are metabolic byproducts of mold growing on cacao. Because of a variety of factors—from the genetics to the soil to the way that it is grown and processed—the cacao we use at Addictive Wellness is completely mycotoxin-free, as confirmed by multiple third-party laboratories. Mycotoxins are probably going to be the gluten of the 2020s, in terms of the extremely negative effects that they have on people’s health and how much people don’t even know when they’re consuming them.
It’s very interesting to learn about all of this. You name your flavors after wellness ideas, how did you come up with that? Do the different herbs that you use play a specific function in determining the flavors that you have?
AnnaBlanca: Chocolate companies have flavors. We decided to be more functional with our flavors. We incorporate these herbs from various cultures—Ayurvedic, Chinese, Thai, and South America—into the Addictive Wellness chocolates. They are fantastic adaptogens. Sage is dedicated to his research of finding the purest and most potent sources for each of the herbs.
The herbs certainly play a functional role beyond taste.
- The Immunity chocolate contains one of the most potent herbs to enhance your natural defenses.
- The Tranquility chocolate has herbs that are unbelievably powerful in quieting the heart and the mind, reducing your stress responses.
- The Energy chocolate has adaptogens that give you more stamina, more power, more focus, but without giving you jittery extra energy that would actually just crash you.
- The Focus chocolate has herbs that help with your memory, they actually help rebuild damaged neurons in the brain.
- The Love chocolate has nice aphrodisiacs. But also we’ve added extra herbs that help generate more self-love, love for the world, and help with being present, feeling calm, and loved.
- The Recharge chocolate is something I personally asked Sage to make. We were running the company all on our own, burning the candle at both ends, crushing our adrenals. This chocolate contains the most powerful herbs to rebuild and strengthen your adrenal glands, and your core energy reserves.
Between the Energy and Recharge chocolates, we say that the Energy chocolate is like putting energy into your checking account, and the Recharge chocolate is putting energy into your savings account.
That’s very clever.
AnnaBlanca: The Addictive Wellness Beauty chocolate contains herbs that help make you beautiful from inside out. It helps clear your skin, it acts like hyaluronic acid, it prevents wrinkling. There are great herbs that work and work quite fast. This was one of the flavors that people didn’t understand, “How can I eat chocolate and be more beautiful?”
The concept catches on as more and more people understand how adaptogens work. Which took a while. But we’re really, really proud of these formulations. Whenever we hear back from our customers about their experiences, we are just overjoyed. And whenever I feel sad, I would just sit on our website and read the reviews because they could cheer anybody up.
You guys are making chocolate more purposeful. It’s not just a treat, it becomes something else. For people who don’t know, can you explain what adaptogens are?
Sage Dammers: Sure, adaptogens are an elite class of herbs. This was first coined by a Russian scientist who was working during the World Wars on drugs that would be given to soldiers to enhance their performance. But after wartime, he was able to focus on his primary interest and find natural ways to achieve performance enhancement without negative effects. Basically, adaptogens enable your body to better respond to external stressors.
A great example would be reishi mushrooms, which we use in our Tranquility and Love chocolates. It is one of the greatest herbs for dealing with stress and anxiety. It doesn’t act as a sedative and it will not force you to fall asleep. Rather, it will bring you more into a state of balance, allowing your body’s self-regulating capabilities to operate more effectively.
It’s clear that you put in a lot of thought and research into creating these chocolates. As recipe creators, what would you say is the most important step in designing these formulations?
Sage Dammers: The most important part for me is to think back on my childhood when I used to have the unhealthy version. You know when you think about certain foods and you can almost sense the taste in your mouth. I would imagine the taste, the flavors, how they made me feel, the setting that I would have it in. That’s my starting point. I imagine how I can recreate that experience without missing out on any of the joy, but in the healthiest way possible.
So, for example—the Addictive Wellness elixir blend is basically an adaptogen-enhanced hot chocolate mix. For that, I thought back to my childhood experience of hot chocolate.
I remember skiing with my dad. At the end of the day, I would be cold and tired but happy, and my hands would be freezing, and we would go into the lodge and I would get a hot chocolate. It would come out of the hot chocolate machine so hot that I couldn’t drink it for half an hour. So, I would sit there with my little hands wrapped around my mug, the heat warming up my fingers. Slowly, I would take little sips, and they’d bring this incredible array of flavor notes. It would be warm and comforting, and I would feel the warmth percolate out through the whole body.
I try to channel that experience in the formulation of the recipe and dialing. So, now, when I drink one of our elixirs now, instantly, it brings me back to those memories.
AnnaBlanca: As Sage mentioned, we have these elixir blends and they come in four flavors—cacao, matcha, caramel, and chai. In total, Addictive Wellness offers 24 different products, including individual adaptogens. On our social media, we teach people how to incorporate adaptogens into your ice cream, or cake, or whip cream, and other ways that you can use adaptogens that are really delicious. My favorite way to enjoy it is in chocolate, but of course, I’m biased.
If Sage thinks of skiing, what are your fond memories of chocolate, AnnaBlanca?
AnnaBlanca: I was a chocolate maniac. I grew up in the Hungarian countryside. Most of the things we had, my mom made from scratch. And when I moved to the city, I was introduced to Milka chocolate, which came from Austria [sic]. Nutella was my second favorite. We don’t use nuts in Addictive Wellness because we have a nut-free facility. But I always loved Nutella.
There are childhood memories that remind you just how much you love your treats, and how they could mean the world to you. To me it’s chocolate. It’s delicious and I can sit down and share it with somebody I really loved. If somebody told me back then, “Don’t worry, honey. You’re going to have a chocolate company.” Either I would have been ecstatic or I would have thought they were crazy. But here I am now, running a chocolate company, and I can have any version of my favorite treat in the healthiest way possible. It’s a dream come true.
I really like that you guys focus on joy. You’re not denying the joy of enjoying something that tastes good and that’s good for you.
Sage Dammers: That’s at the core of what we do. We do not want people to give up the epic food area of the human experience just to be healthy. You should be able to have incredible food experiences over the course of your life, and, at the same time, have incredible health.
Annablanca: Some people don’t even try to get healthy because they don’t have the tools to take the first step. People generally go on strict diets. And that’s why it doesn’t last. If somebody’s helping you do it step-by-step, then you can make wonderful and very powerful changes that will serve you in the long run.
Sage: If you’re relying on willpower to get healthy and stay healthy, eventually that willpower is going to run out. But if you have something that’s just as good as the bad stuff but in a healthy formulation, then, you don’t have to deplete your willpower with every health decision that you make.
One of the things that people will experience when they check out your product is the golden unicorn. The usual packaging for chocolate doesn’t even come close to what you guys have. What’s the story behind the golden unicorn?
AnnaBlanca: It’s two different stories, actually. Well, we started from completely nothing. We weren’t able to hire someone to do our branding. We were constantly thinking and trying to come up with ideas. “Maybe we should just place a nice picture of delicious chocolate right on the box?” and so on. Eventually, I said, “That’s it. We need to take a break from this.”
And we went on this famous Venice house tour. You can buy a ticket and go on tour. People just open up their houses in Venice. Some of them are magnificent. We were enjoying ourselves and checking out the houses for new ideas. And then we ran into this dear friend of ours, a creative artist-slash-wild man traveling around the world all the time.
After catching up with him, he told us, “You know what, don’t do that Godiva shit.”—Sorry! Pardon my language. But he said, “What you do is clean and pure and it’s alive. Why don’t you do something white and something magical? Like the unicorn at the end of Bladerunner, it can be pretty masculine, too.” So, we started playing around with the idea of white packaging with the image of a unicorn. We got on this website and designed our unicorn step by step, and the rest is history. But, as it turns out, our decision for choosing the unicorn had an extra layer after all.
Sage: So, in medieval times, there was a myth about the horn of the unicorn. It was said that they had the magical abilities to detect poison and turn it into healing elixirs. Which is basically what we do as a business. We pick up something out there—not necessarily poisonous, but not always good for you—put our magic spin to it, and turn into something good for you. So, the lore lined up perfectly with our business ethos.
Anna Blanca: And if you look at how people regarded unicorns throughout history, they look at them as a symbol of longevity, purity, protection, and magic.
What would you say is the biggest strength as a brand and what is one thing you want to improve on?
AnnaBlanca: Addictive Wellness‘s biggest strength as a brand is our integrity, our trust factor, and our customer service.
Sage: We like to go over the top with our customer service. And I know you asked for just one biggest strength, but I would like to throw a few more out there—the purity of our ingredients and our sourcing, our work ethics between me, AnnaBlanca, and our team, and our open and clear and transparent communication.
Within the company, there’s no such thing as too much communication. We would rather have something be said unnecessarily than have something not communicated when it could have really helped. If something goes wrong, it’s never a problem as long as you tell me. And then, we can figure out the perfect solution. The key is communication.
And then for the second part of your question about areas to improve on: neither of us is a marketing specialist. We are constantly trying to improve how we communicate what makes our creations unique and beneficial. Not only are they healthy, but they actually taste amazing. So, we’ve got the internal communication dialed in, and we’re constantly improving our external communication so people can get a really good understanding of our product.
AnnaBlanca: We still write and create all of our own ads. We shoot the videos, we edit—I do things on Canva. We keep figuring out how to communicate all the benefits and the fact that our chocolates are so damn delicious in just a couple of seconds. I think that’s a challenge for any company whenever they try to communicate who they are and what they’re about.
Sustainability seems to come naturally to you guys. While building this brand, did you encounter moments that really deepened your understanding of how to create a brand that’s not just good for you, but also good for the environment, good for the community, and good for the world in many other ways?
Sage: Sustainability has always been a major focus for us, well before we started our business. As a surfer, the well-being of the environment has always been at the forefront of my awareness. In the summer, afternoons at the beach, you see people leave mountains of trash behind. You’re aware of the death of the coral reefs, plastic in the ocean, overfishing. The idea of sustainability is not by any means new to us. And it has been a functional part of Addictive Wellness since Day 1.
Right from when we started, we’ve been donating a minimum of 5% of our profits to environmental organizations. For example, The Ocean Clean-Up, which is doing incredible work to get the trash out of the ocean. We’re also now part of The Conservation Circle of the Rainforest Trust, which is also doing incredible work.
For either of you guys, do you have advice for consumers or entrepreneurs who grew up in the city and don’t have access to this kind of insight on the environment? Is there advice that you would give companies that want to walk that sustainable path?
AnnaBlanca: For us, we wanted to align with what our products were. First, we thought of things that were part of who we were and how we grew up. Sage was very passionate about the ocean, so we supported The Ocean Cleanup. And I was passionate about the beach. So, we supported organizations in that area.
Then, we looked into which cause aligned the most with our company. And it was the rainforest because that’s where our cacao and our chocolate come from. So, it was a natural fit to fall into that.
So, I think those are two approaches: one is to find something that is close to you and something you’re really passionate about. Two would be to find something that aligns with your brand culture or product.
Sage: I would also say that businesses should encourage their staff and employees to spend time in nature. People will naturally want to protect what they love. It’s one thing to protect nature from a distance. But you have a different relationship with it, the more time you spend with nature than inside a building.
If you could ask any entrepreneur a question, who would that be and what would the question be?
AnnaBlanca: We really admire Jean Paul deJoria. He is a wonderful man. His life, his soul—he is the absolute epitome of showing that you can be an incredible human being and still be successful. The question would be, “Can we please invite you for lunch or for a delicious raw chocolate and a sugar-free ice cream sundae?”
What are you guys looking forward to the most in 2021? Where do you see Addictive Wellness in a year’s time?
Sage Dammers: The events of 2020 naturally left the world in a place that people can no longer take their health for granted. You can’t just cruise through life being somewhat unhealthy and having vitamin D levels, or having diabetes.
In the past, we’ve cruised through life in situations like this propped up by over-the-counter drugs until people give out. It’s no longer a safe way to go. We need to get proactive about establishing our own wellness and having a powerful strong defense and true vitality.
We love being able to help people in this space, by giving them the tools to live healthier lives, without giving up on the treats that they love the most. As we said, we don’t want people to rely on sheer willpower to get healthier. We want to give them the tools to get to a healthier place and have them do it sustainably.
AnnaBlanca: We really hope that people realize that they can live a supremely healthy lifestyle and still enjoy the food experience. The healthier you get, the healthier brain you have, the healthier your body gets, the more fantastic life you get to live.
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