One of Lafaza's Malagasy farmers holds a bottle of vanilla beans. Photo: Lafaza Vanillas
One of Lafaza’s Malagasy farmers holds a bottle of vanilla beans. The Oakland company has a crowdfunding campaign to certify 1,000 Madagascar farmers as USDA organic, fair-trade, and non-GMO. Photo: Lafaza Vanillas
One of Lafaza’s Malagasy farmers holds a bottle of vanilla beans. The Oakland company has a crowdfunding campaign to certify 1,000 Madagascar farmers as USDA organic, fair-trade, and non-GMO. Photo: Lafaza Vanillas

Oakland company Lafaza Vanillas is a prime example of how to manage the intersection of local food practices and a global market. An environmentally conscious enterprise connecting vanilla farmers in Madagascar to buyers in Northern California, Lafaza, which operates out of a warehouse near Jack London Square, has launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to guide the company closer to its central tenets: forests, farmers, and flavors.

The idea for the Kickstarter “has been boiling for a while,” said James Delafield, president and co-founder of Lafaza. “We were trying to figure out what the ask would be.”

The resulting campaign, which began on April 30, has a goal of certifying Lafaza’s Madagascar farmers as fair-trade, non-GMO, and organic so that all-organic companies in the U.S. will be able to use Lafaza vanilla.

“The people we work with are mostly smallholder farms, people who are growing an acre or less of vanilla, so we work with hundreds of people” in Madagascar, Delafield said.

A bundle of unprocessed vanilla beans. Photo: Lafaza Vanillas
A bundle of unprocessed vanilla beans. Photo: Lafaza Vanillas

The lack of official organic and non-GMO certification has not stopped the spread of Lafaza vanilla across the Bay Area. Batter Bakery, Nuttyness marzipan, Encuentro café and wine bar, and Tcho chocolate all use Lafaza vanilla in their products, though due to its lack of certification, Tcho uses Lafaza only in its conventional bars. Due to an employee’s personal connection, Delafield said, there’s also a Lafaza vanilla gelato flavor at Sweet Peaks Ice Cream in western Montana.

Moriah VanVleet, who runs local food blog butter, sugar, flowers and is a Berkeleyside Nosh contributor, loves Lafaza vanilla. She found the company while perusing the aisles at Rockridge Market Hall. She is “addicted” to the flavor and appreciates their trade practices and sustainability philosophy, she said.

“There are many different vanilla companies out there, but I can feel good about choosing Lafaza,” VanVleet said.

The Kickstarter is a step in a new direction for Lafaza. They’re hoping it will act as “a bit of a microphone” to get their vanilla into more kitchens, in addition to achieving certification for their suppliers. In the past, the company’s main marketing techniques have been food shows, where they connect with national distributors, and word of mouth.

Since the campaign began, on April 30, the project has raised about a third of its $30,000 goal. The deadline for fundraising is Thursday, June 4.

“It’s going a little slower than we would like,” Delafield said of the campaign. “We need to see a groundswell come in in this last week.”

Lafaza vanilla. Photo: Eden Teller
Lafaza vanilla. Photo: Eden Teller

Lafaza’s roots stretch back to 2006, when Nathaniel Delafield, James Delafield’s brother and co-founder and CEO of Lafaza, travelled with his wife Sarah to Madagascar with the Peace Corps.

“They were there trying to coordinate linking up the growers from that town and region with U.S. buyers,” said James Delafield.

The first batch of Lafaza vanilla was a sample shipment that Nathaniel Delafield sent to his brother as a test of whether buyers would pick Lafaza over other brands. The shipment, which took three months to get from Madagascar to Oakland, arrived just days before a blind taste test of vanillas that James Delafield had heard about through a friend.

“The sample arrived on Friday and they had set up on Monday to do the test,” James Delafield said. “We put it in front of that panel and they unanimously chose our vanilla.”

Since that first shipment, Lafaza has moved several times but has stayed in Oakland for all of its nine years. Despite rising rents and changing neighborhoods – the warehouse district, where Lafaza is currently located, is now predominantly apartments – the benefits of being in the Bay Area outweigh the negatives, the owners said. Besides the ease of having the Port of Oakland nearby to receive vanilla shipments, James Delafield cited the character of the city as a reason for staying local.

Nathaniel and James Delafield (l and r) explain the thoughts behind their company in their Kickstarter video. Photo: The Food Guru
Nathaniel and James Delafield (l and r) in a still from their Kickstarter video. Photo: The Food Guru

“I love the energy in Oakland and in the whole Bay Area,” he said. “There’s a lot of good food and a diversity of people and cultures, all very proud of where they come from and what they have to offer. I feel like the people who are in the Bay Area for the most part are energized by that.”

For its first few years, Lafaza operated as a product source for other vanilla brands. Then, three years ago, the company began selling Lafaza vanilla as a brand of its own. Lafaza’s particular traits – a focus on community support and environmentally sound practices that are absent in many larger wholesalers – merited their own place in the market, the Delafields decided.

“When it comes to eating locally, vanilla isn’t something you can grow in California,” Delafield said. “Sometimes it’s hard to say ‘we support local’ and have a product that’s not local.”

By working closely with its suppliers and ensuring the quality of its products, Lafaza Vanillas is attempting to span the ideals of local, all-natural food across oceans.

In a global market, “this is how you act locally, this is how you buy locally,” Delafield said.

Eden Teller, a junior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a Berkeleyside summer intern. She is majoring in media and cultural studies and minoring in geology.

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Eden Teller is a freelance reporter, writer and amateur gardener. She began reporting for Berkeleyside as an intern in 2013 and continued her career with a B.A. in Media Studies from Macalester College...