The Cocoa Asante moment: have you had yours?

This chocolate is step-back Caitlin Clark good. (And it's changing the world, from Ghana to Chattanooga.)

The Cocoa Asante moment:  have you had yours?
Midnight Cherry bonbons, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

"This is a journey of rediscovering who I am."

There is always a moment.

Ella Livingston's story could start with that moment – her moment – in Japan. Before Cocoa Asante became Chattanooga's luxury chocolate brand known across the world, Livingston was studying in Tokyo, 2013, when her entire perspective turned.

She'd walked into a chocolate shop which sold Nama chocolate, a type of Japanese cocoa so sweet, it unfurls like miles of rich, brown softness in your mouth.

The shop, she remembers, was "super glam, super ritzy." Employees bowed; Livingston bowed back. The Nama chocolate came in a gorgeously prepared box which she clutched back to her dorm room, then opened up and peered in at the delicate accents of gold, the luxury chocolate, the tiny little fork inside.

It took her breath away. What intentionality. What beauty. This was something worthy of a bow.

Sure, she'd eaten chocolate before. Kit-Kats at Halloween. A Hershey kiss here or there.

But never like this.

Cocoa Asante bonbons, Chattanooga, Tenn.

"You know when you're watching a comedy and the screen zooms in on the main character's eyes and they're all lit up? And all this stuff happens?" she said. "That's what it was like."

So, yes, that was her moment. And without that moment, there would be no Cocoa Asante.

After Japan, Livingston poured over one thing: chocolate. A high school math teacher, she spent nights and weekends in two self-taught courses – Chocolate 101 and Entrepreneurism 101 – while enrolling in every accelerator, incubator, grant program or launch pitch Hamilton County offered matched with every chocolatier Youtube tutorial she could find.

"Online, Youtube, blogs, Google, trial and error," she said. "Year after year after year, I learned and perfected the craft."

In 2018, she formally launched Cocoa Asante out of the Business Development Center. That first year?

"I made $660," she said. "As a teacher, I was like: whoa, that's a lot."

Symphony of Tea bonbons, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Then, the second big moment.

Livingston, 31, is radiant, big-hearted and warmly, contagiously kind. But she's also a formidable businesswoman, a no-rest, all-hustle entrepreneur who spent years – years! – and sleepless nights, last dollars, worrying, praying, grinding.

So, when Keith Lee did what he did, she was ready.

On March 17, 2023, TikTok influencer and food critic Keith Lee opened up a package of six Cocoa Asante bonbons, took a bite, then declared to his 15 million followers:


It seems Lee, too, had his own moment: biting into the pecan caramel bonbon, his eyes kind of roll back, he sways and appears to get a little dizzy, then says: "I'm about to eat this whole box."

Lee ranks food on a scale of 1 to 10.

For Cocoa Asante, he gave a 9.5.

Overnight, everything changed. Cocoa Asante did $24,000 of orders in 24 hours. Over $100k in one month. An Instagram follow-up post with 6 million views. In two weeks, Livingston earned more than she did in all of 2022.

"That was a Friday," Livingston said. "On Monday, I turned in my resignation."

Her husband Rudy found out, ironically, on TikTok. ("I thought I told him," Livingston says with a huge laugh.) If it seems spontaneous or just wickedly good luck, remember: for years, she had prepared the ground for such a moment to happen.

"I knew exactly what I was waiting for," she said.

Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Look closely and you'll see these moments are part of a long string of moments, dating back generations and 5,000 miles away. Livingston's real story doesn't begin in Japan or on TikTok.

It begins in Ghana.

The west African nation is the second largest chocolate supplier in the world.

It's also home.

"We desire to leave the world a better place than we found it."

Born in Ghana and raised in the US, Livingston connects to chocolate in the deepest way; her family owns cacao farms in Ghana. Naming her business, she named herself.

"I’m from the Asante tribe," she said. "The Asante tribe is a huge tribe and we are part of that."

Food as a Verb thanks Lupi's, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

For more than 25 years, Lupi's has served locally-sourced, creatively made and award-winningly delicious pizza pies from five nearby locations.

Many African Americans are moving to Ghana in a Year of Return. DuBois did just that. Marcus Garvey called for it. Livingston, who's traveling there later this year, wants to marry Ghana into Chattanooga through Cocoa Asante in the most ethical of ways.

"Up to 90 percent of Ghanaian cocoa farmers do not earn a living income," Oxfam reports. "Many of the 800,000 farmers in the country survive on just $2 a day."

CBS found Ghanian children as young as 5 working in fields that produce chocolate for Mars. While Ghana is a top global producer, the nation only receives approximately $2 billion of the "chocolate industry’s estimated annual worth of $130 billion," Oxfam continues.

Livingston can interrupt this. For her, chocolate becomes social, economic, spiritual and personal. Chocolate resurrects and reconnects a lost part of her while lifting up others. Cocoa Asante reintroduces chocolate to others and Livingston back to herself.

"This is a journey of rediscovering who I am," she said. "I am paying homage to Ghana."

Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Cocoa Asante becomes her new classroom of sorts, promoting a triple bottom line: sourcing ethically, supporting local, minority businesses and offering her own employees – Chattanooga, she's hiring – respect, freedom and collaboration. (Plus, health insurance and other benefits.)

She encourages other entrepreneurs because she knows this road well. Keith Lee doesn't – and can't – TikTok everyone.

"I had a unicorn moment. If that hadn't happened, I might still be waiting. What happens if you're not a unicorn? What kind of shot do you get?" she said. "I know entrepreneurs right now who deserve a shot and we are all scrambling and jumping through hoops to get these opportunities."

These are her lessons.

"I never stopped teaching," she said.

Currently, Cocoa Asante's cacao beans are grown in Ghana, processed in Belgium then imported here. Thanks to a Kickstarter and the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, Livingston's purchased processing machines that will allow the circle to close.

This year, Cocoa Asante will become a bean-to-bar producer. Livingston will import beans directly from Ghana which will be transformed into Cocoa Asante bonbons.

Once Ghanian infrastructure is fully developed, she'll then begin importing beans directly from her family's farm to Chattanooga.

"Two or three years down the line," she said.

Cacao beans, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Using ingredients from Black-owned, veteran-owned and female-owned businesses – like Chattanooga's veteran-owned Prehistoric Perk Coffee or Mount Gay Rum, with its first female master blender in Barbados – Cocoa Asante offers a dozen or so recipes each year.

Mount Gay rum, Barbados, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Like: Boozy Almonds bonbons with a dash of Uncle Nearest Whiskey.

Or, Midnight Cherry bonbons, using nearby Muddy Pond Sorghum molasses.

Midnight Cherry bonbons, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

And Symphony of Tea Bonbons, sourced from Symphony of Leaves, a Black-owned, female-owned, ethically-sourced tea producer. Livingston specifically uses a tea named after four Black writers – Gloria Naylor, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.

Symphony of Tea bonbons, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

"Immerse yourself in the richness of Indian black tea, harmonized with kipp dagga, mulberries, cinnamon, ginger, orange, and bourbon vanilla, encased in a decadent dark chocolate shell adorned with an elegant black and pink stripe design," the description reads.

Who talks this way about chocolate? It seems wrong to use "chocolate" to describe this and, say, a Mounds bar. They're two completely separate experiences.

Cocoa Asante sells milk, white and dark chocolate, variety packs and the Breakable Chocolate Heart for Valentine's Day which comes with a tiny hammer. (Remember Tokyo?)

"The whole experience of breaking the heart and finding chocolate inside," Livingston said.

Breakable Chocolate Heart, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Some bonbons are kept secret until hours before their release. Online, folks go mad.

"A frenzy," said Livingston. "An absolute frenzy. Sometimes, it sold out in minutes."

All of them packaged and prepared with her form of gorgeous intentionality. (Take another bow, Japan.)

During Christmas, she does 40% of her annual sales. Valentine's Day is second.

"It allows people to enjoy chocolate in a way that they never have before," said Sarah McCallie.

In 2022, McCallie joined Cocoa Asante after a career as a chef in Chattanooga and Nashville. Recipe development became her forte; McCallie transformed a yellow sticky pad collection of recipes into a legit white board and formalized library.

Today, their bonbons are sold online and locally at Sleepyhead Coffee, Pruett's Market and more. They've also seen an increase in corporate gifts.

"That is what we are trying to do here, give people new flavors and let them experience something new," McCallie said. "It allows people to enjoy chocolate in a way that they never have before."

"It makes you smile," she continued. "This is chocolate?"

In Switzerland and Netherlands, folks are begging for orders. Because of regulations, Cocoa Asante can't ship overseas.

"Not yet," Livingston said.

Near the back wall of its new production space on North Access Road, there's a bean-to-bar machine that cracks and winnows the whole beans, separating the outer shell and the inner papery shell. "Like a peanut," Livingston says.

Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Then, she wheels out a melanger, a machine like a massively-large mixer with two circular stones inside.

Melanger, Ella Livingston, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

"The stones will grind the beans down to super fine cocoa butter," she said. "The longer your grind, the finer you get."

It grinds for up to 72 hours, then, they sieve out any larger particles from the fine powder, which is measured in microns. Hershey's, Livingston said, clocks in around 30 microns.

Cocoa Asante's chocolate?

"15 to 18 microns," she said.

Ella Livingston, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

In the spray room her brother, Kofi Bonah, adds the polished mold as, nearby, Said Botello removes the bonbons from their molds. There's packaging and fulfillment, where order fluctuate between 200 per day to more than 1,000.

Kofi Bonah, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Then, the tempering, which heats and cools the chocolate, infusing it with all these shiny, glossy, tempt-tantalizing affects.

It adds a double pleasure: before your mouth gets its turn, your eyes feast, too.

"Almost too pretty to eat," Cocoa Asante declares.

Cocoa Asante bonbons, Chattanooga, Tenn.

And honestly, I'd explain more of the production here, but, during the tour, Livingston offered us bonbons – no, no, we can't, really, twist our arm – which have this crazy shelf life in my mouth. Minutes go by ... and the taste still echoes and seeps and soaks. (They're so damn good. How good? Step-back Caitlin Clark good. Lemonade good.)

So while we're touring these machines and production, I really need to be listening, but my mouth is still dancing from this boozy almond chocolate roadtrip.

Forgive me. But I get a moment, too.

"Cocoa Asante is so much more than just a small business that sells chocolates almost too pretty to eat," Livingston said. "We have huge aspirations for our future and we desire to leave the world a better place than we found it."

Ella Livingston, Cocoa Asante, Chattanooga, Tenn.

All photography by Sarah Unger.

All design by Alex DeHart.

All words by David Cook. This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

Story ideas, questions, feedback? Interested in sponsorship or advertising opportunities? Email us: and

Food as a Verb thanks our sustaining partners for their generous support.

Dig in. (It's free)