Diana Lovett is an unlikely brownie baker. After attending Yale and then Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship, she says her volunteer work (and deep love of chocolate) led to the launch of her own baking and cake-mix start-up.
"I started Cisse Cocoa Co. out of my passion for chocolate and sustainable development," says Lovett, the company's CEO and founder. "As a graduate of Yale and Cambridge, I was lucky enough to do international development work. I lived in Africa. I worked for Doctors Without Borders. I kept trying to find a way to address the social needs I was seeing through a business," she tells CNBC.
Pronounced "see-say," the name of Lovett's company is an African girl's name. According to the founder, the word reminded her of her first visit to a fair trade–certified cocoa plantation in Ghana, the experience that inspired her to start her own company.
The company sells brownie, cookie and muffin-baking mixes from $6.99 to $8.99, as well as a variety of hot cocoa mixes for $5.99. Last year, Cisse launched Super Thins — snackable "brownie thins" with superfood toppings, which retail for $4.99 a bag.
"We source all of our cocoa from a cooperative in the Dominican Republic and reinvest into the community we source from," Lovett explains.
The cocoa serves as the base for all Cisse products. In addition, each box of baking mix comes with what the founder calls a traceability infographic, which shows consumers the journey of their cocoa from bean to box.
"For us, we believe the best way to drive supply chain responsibility is through transparency."
To combat competition from major brands like Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and Duncan Hines, who offer lower-priced "premium" baking mixes, the start-up has been out in stores demoing Cisse products for customers.
"We found the best way to introduce people to our brand is through their [stomachs]. That's really important to us. Offering consumers a bite is such a great way to introduce the product, and for them to sample the quality."
The founder would not disclose its sales numbers, but she did say she expects sales to "more than double" next year.
According to market research firm Mintel, which tracks the baking and dessert-mix industry in the U.S., a recent report found that 47 percent of consumers bought a brownie mix in the past three months, 29 percent a muffin or cupcake mix and 27 percent a cookie mix.
Mintel also projects that by 2019, industry sales are expected to decline to $2.5 billion, down from $2.7 billion in 2014. Analysts cite ongoing health concerns associated with consuming too many baked goods. The report also points to growing consumer confidence, which translates to more people dining out rather than cooking and baking at home.
Venture capitalist Nir Liberboim, founder of Uprise Ventures, raises the issue that a lot of consumers automatically assume that organic and fair trade mean healthy. But, he points out, Cisse's products still have a relatively high amount of sugar.
"We certainly don't pretend our brownies are healthy — they're a treat," Lovett explains. "I eat them in my household, along with our kale smoothies. It's all about balance."
Launched in 2011, Cisse is headquartered in Mamaroneck, NY, just outside of New York City. In under four years, the company has grown from 30 retail locations to more than 2,000, including Whole Foods, Target, Stop&Shop, Wegmans and others.