The Middle East’s chocolate industry is maturing, with large ex-pat populations and a growing number of locals demanding more and more chocolate products.
Ben Watts talks to the suppliers who are benefiting from the region’s sweet tooth.
Chocolate is by most accounts one of the world’s best-loved food items and is fast turning into an ingredient adored by more than just specialist chefs.
The diverse nature of the chocolate industry is now starting to impact the Middle East market, with new recipes, ingredients and varieties becoming more commonplace.
Swiss International Chocolates managing director Daniel Hutmacher points out: “The sky is the limit when it comes to chocolate, it goes with anything.
“Chocolate fits very well with cigar tasting, whisky, wine or cheese; it is a very versatile product and it’s just a matter of letting yourself go when it comes to involving it.”
Hutmacher cites the example of one Dubai-based restaurant requesting Mediterranean flavours to demonstrate the increasing creativity employed in chocolate production in the Middle East.
“We were talking to them about using unique flavours like olive oil and basil, rosemary, thyme and rosewater,” he explains.
“The market is evolving, looking for new ideas, more novelty and trying out new things, because the existing brands are starting to wear a bit thin.”
Giles and Posner operations director Darren Giles adds: “Chocolate is an affordable luxury that creates the feel-good factor. Everybody likes to indulge and with chocolate not as expensive in comparison to other products, it often seems like the perfect choice.
“We research the best chocolate manufacturers, paying specific attention to the ingredients to ensure the perfect blend for our chocolates.
“We believe that over the coming months, this industry will grow and adapt; our predicted forecasts for chocolate and chocolate fountains are fantastic — the recession hasn’t affected our business, or changed the consumer’s love for it,” he asserts.
Confiserie Sprüngli maître confiseur Sepp Fässler, a chef based at the Swiss chocolate maker’s factory in Zurich, says that chocolate is more than a novelty confectionary product.
“Everyone thinks positively about chocolate — it is like a soul massage for everybody, especially when it comes to dark chocolate, which is good for your health,” ” Fässler asserts.
“It opens up the circulation of the blood and is much like a glass of good red wine; it’s not a pill or a chemical, it’s a natural product.”
As a chef who has dedicated 25 years of his life to creating new chocolate recipes, Fässler is aware that some people might be envious of his job.
“Chocolate is my life,” he exclaims. “I’m interested in all things chocolate and that’s not a job, it’s a hobby; my life is a challenge to find out new things about chocolate and to make new products with chocolate.
“I’m a chocolate chef — a creator. I create new chocolate products, beginning with new chocolate and what we can make from it — whether it’s a simple chocolate bar, to a truffle, a praline, a tart or an ice cream.”
Despite the innovative recipes described by Hutmacher and the dark chocolate prescribed by Sprüngli chef Fässler, the majority of suppliers say that traditionally, the Middle East was a haven for milk chocolate fans.
EMF Emirates general manager Pierre Feghali notes: “When I arrived here six years ago the market was 80% milk chocolate and 20% dark chocolate.
“That 20% was almost exclusively for hotels as chocolatiers wouldn’t buy dark chocolate, but today that is changing as a lot more chocolatiers have opened up, especially in Dubai.
“With so many new chocolatiers coming into the region, some of them really good ones, they have started changing people’s tastes.”
As tastes change, Bruyerre export sales manager Bruno Lescut suggests that the tough economic climate is having an effect on the higher end of the chocolate market.
“Luxurious products are the first to suffer,” he says.
Lescut explains that Bruyerre has had to adapt its offering as a result — a tack which has so far proven successful.
“Our key trend is to stay unique and innovative; we have in our range different chocolate products to take up the challenge, like chocolate roses or chocolate cigars,” he adds.
The cost of raw ingredients has also had a knock-on effect for suppliers, as Giles and Posner’s Giles points out.
“The price of chocolate and chocolate items has increased; the main reason behind this is that a lot of the individual raw ingredients are more expensive, in particular sugar and cocoa.
“Sales have slowed down slightly in the Middle East, but it still contributes a lucrative aspect of our business,” he notes.
According to Bruyerre’s Lescut, one growing trend in the market is the demand for designer chocolates, as the confectionary moves into a realm more commonly associated with food trends like nouvelle cuisine.
“Coloured chocolate products are very fashionable from a decorative point of view and fillings such as those with a fruity taste or a high percentage of cocoa from a tasting point of view,” he asserts. “I think that the chocolate manufacturers able to adapt their offerings quickly in terms of taste, packaging and price will be very successful.”
With regards to the Middle East’s standing as a recognised destination in the chocolate world, the consensus appears to be that it is lagging somewhat behind the established chocolate nations.
Swiss International Chocolates’ Hutmacher notes: “The European market has many more established chocolatiers — so many Europeans have grown up with a good knowledge of chocolate. So Europeans in this region look for the same quality and products.”
But companies looking to be successful in the region also have to cater to the preferences of the local population. Swiss International Chocolates, for example, has devised a range to cater to local tastes, as it aims to capitalise on the growing awareness of quality chocolate in the region.
“We have tailored the Taste of Arabia range for this clientele,” he explains. “We have taken local products and transformed them, using the Swiss way, to make them fit into the local market.
“We are intent on using local products — we have a chocolate that uses a date specifically from Ras Al Khaimah and the coffee chocolate piece is made using Yemeni Arabica coffee beans and cardamom.”
Alongside designer chocolates and region-specific confectionary products, healthy chocolate is beginning to take off in the region, as consumers look to indulge without the side-effects.
EMF’s Feghali explains: “It seems there are a lot of people, relatively speaking, in the UAE with diabetes.
“As a result, a lot of consumers and hoteliers are requesting sugar-free chocolate and it’s doing well.”
One sticking point appears to be price.
According to Feghali, sugar-free chocolate is 20-25% more expensive than normal chocolate because it is often sweetened with a sugar substitute called Maltitol.
But despite being hampered by rising ingredient costs, chocolate suppliers remain positive about the Middle East market, saying the sector continues
to perform well.
Feghali claims EMF, which attributes 60% of its business to chocolate, has actually enjoyed a small amount of growth in commercial activity over the last 12 months.
“During these days of a very harsh recession people are tending to eat more chocolate, because you want something you can spend on yourself and makes you feel good,” he notes.
“Some people are shifting from quality to quantity, because of food costs, but in general we haven’t felt much of a change due to the recession.”
The key to making and selling quality chocolate products, according to Swiss International Chocolates’ Hutmacher, is to ensure that you always remain close to your product.
“I still work ‘hands on’, even though I have a chocolatier,” asserts Hutmacher. “You need to stay in touch, otherwise you lose the taste and the feel; if you stay close to your product you will be able to relate to the product and keep ownership of it.”
As long as suppliers keep their focus firmly on the quality of their chocolate offerings and continue to diversify their products, the Middle East will continue to grow as a recognised contibutor to the chocolate industry.