Illustration: by Samantha Hahn

Lagusta Yearwood has been having trouble with the butt-plug chocolates. They were supposed to be a one-off for a sex educator’s book launch, but she couldn’t resist making a few more of them for Valentine’s Day, and now the $30 boxes sell out as soon as she puts them on the website. But it’s impossible to keep up with the demand, and now she’s frustrated with herself that she ever offered them for sale at all. “We could have done it if we’d had them at the warehouse two months ago. But that would have been so labor intensive … and not, I guess, as chaotic and fun?”

It’s one of the busiest times of the year for Lagusta’s Luscious, the company Yearwood shares her name with. While 20 years ago Lagusta’s was just Lagusta, a single artisanal vegan chocolatier, she now employs as many as 30 staff. In recent years, Yearwood has dabbled in side projects like vegan boxed mac and cheese and a café in New Paltz that lasted several years until, though beloved, it shuttered due to lack of profitability. Now, she is about to collaborate on a THC edible company that will be an offshoot of her CBD caramel line, Softer Power Sweets. Yearwood herself has mixed feelings about THC — she personally isn’t a fan. “I’m not working on the THC side because I fucking hate it, which everyone says I shouldn’t say to the media.” She hastens to say that one of her co-owners is a “serious pothead.” Regardless of her personal tastes, though, she is a fan of making more money and paying her workers more.

It’s taken Yearwood some time to come to terms with the idea that, as one of the owners of her company, she no longer makes chocolates all day long. At 44, she’s happy not to be standing up for eight-hour shifts every day, as she did when she founded the business in 2003. And she finds a lot of satisfaction in being involved in every aspect of the business, from fixing sinks and toilets to shipping out Valentine’s Day packages, which was what she’d been doing right before we talked. “I love shipping out orders because it’s very tangible and you’re like, ‘Here’s this box. Now it’s gone. I actually did something,’ instead of answering an email.” She still does a few special chocolate projects, which she mentions almost shyly. She always makes the dreidels they sell in December, as well as a latke bonbon that’s almost as labor intensive as latkes are. “It’s like a chocolate-covered potato chip, but with latkes. It’s so great, but it’s very annoying to make.”

Finding the balance between fiddly perfectionism and smooth production is one of Yearwood’s struggles. Part of the problem is that she just doesn’t like selling anything that she personally thinks is subpar, no matter how popular it is. The other part is that she’s been in the business long enough to know a fleeting moment of popularity doesn’t always translate into cash — at least not enough to counterbalance the headaches that ensue. In the autumn of 2020, a Lagusta’s drinking-chocolate sphere — a chocolate ball filled with marshmallows, meant to be blended with hot milk — had a viral moment thanks to an offhand tweet from a fan. “Overnight, we got like 1,000 orders for it or something crazy, and we were like, This is terrible. We don’t even make a good profit on this.” (It’s pricey to ship a delicate sphere.) Then they ran out. “So then we were answering so many emails like, ‘Why don’t you have these things? I came here for the thing.’ And we were like, ‘What about this turtle bar that is better?’” In part because of this kerfuffle, Lagusta’s now has a two-person social-media team, which Yearwood values greatly even as she finds the whole virality enterprise to be “weird.”

Yearwood allows that she has a couple of superpowers. She has a knack, she says, for reengineering a recipe that’s somehow fallen out of alignment. “There’s this weird thing where you’ll make a recipe for forever and then it just will not work. No one knows why.” Yearwood compares confectionery work to alchemy — “Everything’s so dependent on the air quality and the humidity.” She also likes to do the “use-ups”: On Saturdays, when no one else is in the kitchen, she messes around with end pieces and caramel that’s crystallized, making one-off new candies. When these turn out well, customers are often disappointed that there’s not more coming. “They ask for it and then we’re like, ‘We’re never going to make that again because it was made from trash, I’m sorry.’”

When she feels regretful about how little she has in savings, Yearwood says, she reminds herself that for the business’s first 20 years, she was spending valuable time teaching herself how to run it. Now, her goal is increasing profits without abandoning what she calls her “ridiculous old-school punk-DIY aesthetic.” Outsourcing some aspects of the production could bring down costs, but that’s the one thing Yearwood resists more than any other: “If we’re not making it, what’s the point?” Recently, she considered using an outside kitchen to make the vegan mac-and-cheese boxes that Lagusta’s sometimes sells for around $18. “The problem we found with it was that when you go into the kitchens, you don’t really have any say over the ingredients. Whatever cashews they get, those are the cashews. What if it’s super shitty?” Yearwood often declares herself open to making a “little compromise,” but as we talk through all the potential compromises, none seem quite little enough. She calls their in-house shipping policy “so insanely dumb,” but in the next breath justifies it by pointing out that it makes it possible for Lagusta’s to have wonderful, personalized customer service. It seems like it might not be possible, at least right now, to change anything about how the business works without changing the kind of business it is entirely.