Culinary Precision Powers Flavor-First Innovation at Black Dahlia
Chef Greg Bernhardt develops innovative gelées, bonbons, and lollipops, making a different kind of CBD edible that prioritizes flavor through relentless trial and error.
“I hit a day where my daughter was five years old and I realized I missed this giant portion of her life,” Chef Greg Bernhardt told me, calling from his production kitchen in Los Angeles, California, to discuss innovation and growth at the luxury CBD company Black Dahlia. A chef and artist, Bernhardt has been a part of the L.A. culinary scene for more than 15 years, competing on Iron Chef and opening multiple acclaimed restaurants, including the Beverly Hills favorite Paley.
“I was working endlessly. I was travelling a lot,” Bernhardt continued, explaining how he came to lead production and R&D at the artisanal wellness brand. “I decided that I just needed something seismic from the ground up to change who I was and where I was going, and I stepped away from fine dining.”
Biology researcher and entrepreneur Daniel Young launched Black Dahlia in 2018, inspired in part by the dark grandeur of Lloyd Wright’s Sowden House, an L.A. landmark. When Young approached Bernhardt to start the company’s confections line, it was a “no-brainer.”
“Somewhere along the way, my wife gave me CBD,” Bernhardt explained. “Within a month of taking it, I noticed a whole host of changes.”
He slept better. He was happier. His right knee improved. “After all the years of nonstop standing for 16 hour days, I thought it at least would need to be operated on. There was really no place in my life CBD didn’t touch,” he told me.
Bernhardt has been with Black Dahlia since its infancy, but “had I not had such an honest and direct response to CBD, I don’t think I would have done it,” he said.
Bitters, Bonbons and Two-Thousand Lollipops
“I started as an artist, before I was a chef,” Bernhardt told me, describing his creative process. “I’d have to say that for me, personally, inspiration can come from anywhere. It can come from a coffee shop in Joshua Tree. It can come from music… Essentially I just find something that I absolutely love, and then I chase it as far as I can to make it to the best of my ability.”
Black Dahlia has released an array of great-tasting gelées, bonbons, and lollipops, differentiating itself from traditional edibles. One of the Bernhardt’s most successful products so far is the brand’s salted caramel bonbon, a browned butter caramel ganache with a “touch of sea salt” enveloped in a dark chocolate shell. Consumers might be surprised that the bite-sized chocolate contains 20 milligrams of CBD.
When making an edible, the odds are against you a little bit.
“When making an edible, the odds are against you a little bit,” Bernhardt explained. CBD contains “incredibly bitter compounds,” but “through years of understanding how to fight bitters, like chicory, in food,” he knew there were “a lot of really incredible culinary loopholes” he could use to “completely mask the flavor without any trickery or any chemicals.”
Burnt caramel is a “great way to reduce bitterness,” Bernhardt shared. “You can really make the entire experience more enjoyable simply by doing this culinary sleight of hand. You can maintain the best possible ingredients without inundating the product with tons of sweeteners.”
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Bernhardt’s artistic philosophy and commitment to culinary precision have helped to set Black Dahlia apart in the crowded California cannabis industry. Bringing a new and innovative product to market comes with a tremendous amount of trial and error, however, especially at a luxury price point. “It can get really long and incredibly laborious chasing obscure flavor profiles as far as possible,” he said. “Sometimes it lands in the first couple of tries, but more often than not, it takes a really long time to reach what I consider a successful product.”
The brand’s popular sugar-free lollipops exemplify the long R&D process. “In the very beginning, we were working on lollipops with sugar, which worked and was fine,” Bernhardt said. “But we made the choice to transition to sugar free to create more inclusivity in the line and create a product that works for everybody… I probably threw away no fewer than 2000 formulations during that period.”
Bernhardt is humble. He doesn’t claim to be a perfectionist, or to have all the answers. What he does have is a tenacity that has powered flavor-first innovation at Black Dahlia since the beginning. It’s been key to the brand’s growth, helping establish a strong connection between consumer and brand. “As long as we feel comfortable that it’s an opportunity that’s worthwhile and people will respond well to, we’ll take as long as necessary to get to a place where a new item makes sense,” he said.
Growth with a Personal Touch
Translating success in the kitchen to success in the store has required the same meticulous care in marketing as Bernhardt brings to R&D, and like many other cannabis and CBD brands, digital advertising is incredibly difficult for Black Dahlia. “The algorithms are absolutely brutal and borderline draconian,” Bernhardt expressed.
“That's created a path for us where the obstacle has now kind of become the way,” he continued, creating “pressure and opportunity around how we’ve interfaced with people on a more personal level.”
Everything that we do is made with care. It's artisanal.
“Our North Star has always been about delivering inspirational wellness,” Bernhardt told me. It’s a mission that prioritizes thoughtfulness and connection. “Everything that we do is made with care. It's artisanal. You can see I'm in my kitchen right now. There is not one thing that comes out of this place that's not touched by me or my very small team.”
Through years in high-end L.A. restaurants Bernhardt built close relationships with growers and suppliers he can rely on to source excellent ingredients. “All of our products come through the same vendors that I've been using for decades at this point,” he explained. Because marketing is so difficult in CBD, the backbone of a luxury brand is the ability to share a story of transparency and care. “We make it. We package it, and we send it out. So we literally go from raw product in some cases all the way to fulfillment. Everything’s traceable,” he said.
This personal touch, both in production and sales, has been key to Black Dahlia’s growth and success. “It's been a huge component, I would say, of our outreach and how we've been able to get the brand identity out into the world,” Bernhardt told me. In the early days of the brand, the Black Dahlia team would host “inspirational” events at the neo-Mayan Sowden House. Gatherings aimed to help move the needle on progressive causes, and created intimate touchpoints with the brand’s first customers.
“Aside from doing in-person events, we've had a really great sales team that's been creating new relationships with brick and mortar stores,” Bernhardt continued. Black Dahlia’s products are now sold by more than 200 unique stockists across more than 300 locations in California and beyond.
Bernhardt and Young are eager to build on their success and “further evolve the lifestyle and wellness aspect of Black Dahlia,” Bernhardt told me. “There are other things we’d love to do,” he said, including exploring opportunities for medicinal applications of psychedelics. “I just can't imagine us slowing down or stopping.”