The rise of Filipino-made pure chocolate

Of the local chocolate confectionery industry’s 3% retail value growth for 2013, as forecasted by Euromonitor International, nothing yet can be said of the niche market.

But few Filipinos have been doing it in the last 5 years, garnering their respective cult followings via word of mouth and strategic product placement.

Theo & Philo Artisan chocolate bars, for example, can be found in an art gallery, a T-shirt shop, and a ukulele store.

Owner Philo Chua said he wants them in cafés and specialty outlets rather than in supermarkets.

Curiosity in gourmet-quality single-origin chocolates, then a newfound baking ingredient for Chua, had got him studying the history and process of chocolate making. He would then leave his work in the United States and go home, setting up a business in 2010 that started to not only use, but also promote Philippine cacao from bean to bar.

Flash forward to 2015, sales have grown 5-fold compared to sales in the first year. The company has grown to 9 employees.

Yet catering to a very specific market means that the artisan chocolate store is known only to a small number of consumers who do not mind spending more and who give his bars and bonbons to balikbayans and foreigner friends.

In the next 3 to 5 years, Chua said he is inclined to believe that the industry will still be driven mainly by sales coming from compound chocolates and cocoa powder, which are cheaper.

But change-makers are now “hungry to find local products” of the highest quality.

Risa Chocolate: Constantly evolving

South of Manila, Risa Chocolate is making the rounds within the vicinity of BF Almanza and weekly across Metro Manila. Kitayama Meatshop in Makati, one of the best local beef sellers in the metro, also carries the company’s constantly evolving product line-up.

“I always say I get in the way of our business sometimes,” said owner Pam Cinco. The limited distribution coverage is due to her insistence that the chocolates be stored and handled according to specifications.

She and her husband acquire the best ingredients from like-minded suppliers, whom they treat as partners. The couple promotes the origin on the label, calling one of their bars 70% South Cotabato dark chocolate, for example.

They are also hands-on in the creation of their barks, bars, pralines, and seasonal products, alongside two employees, at the Risa Chocolate Kitchen.

Starting as an avenue for Cinco’s creative culinary inclination in 2008, Risa derives its name from the Spanish word sonrisa (smile) and Italian word risata (laughter).

The company’s total gross sales have been constantly increasing by at least 20% plus year-on-year, although there was a decline in 2014 when they started experimenting with their business strategy.

Cinco, who had spent 14 years of brand management in various fast moving consumer goods companies, said that it is the role of chocolate makers like her to help customers change their lifestyle of eating candy and compound into tasting excellent and real chocolate.

Kablon Farms: From tableas to chocolates

Although Kablon Farms’ first commercial hit was the pure tablea in the ‘90s, it only ventured into selling chocolates in 2014.

Cacao features in the 60-hectare, family-owned plantation in South Cotabato, but Ernesto Pantua Jr, director for operations, said he used to have no clue on how their beans fared in the world market.

Until he made an announcement on Clay Gordon’s "The Chocolate Life," a community of chocolate lovers and experts the world over: “I’m willing to send at least 5 kilograms of dried beans to the chosen chocolatier anywhere in the world.”

Responses came from Africa, Australia, and Northern America. Pantua decided to pick Dr. Thomas Avery of South Australia, who said in a letter that the beans’ preparation was “practically perfect” and fermentation was “immaculate.”

Since then, he was hooked and has leveraged the farm’s fermented cacao of the 3 varieties.

The local response to the end products has been positive as reflected by the 10% annual market growth, 90% of whom are from Southern Mindanao, and the rest from Metro Manila with a minuscule from Hong Kong.

Yet to Pantua, the agricultural engineer with tropical tree growing experience of more than two decades, the work has just begun. Much is still left to do to revive the historical and cultural significance of the Spanish-era-famous Criollo and the interest in Jose Rizal’s “Tsokolate eh!” story.

Finding connoisseurs

Connoisseurs are absolutely the market,” said Lyss Bärtl, the social entrepreneur behind the famous “single bean virgin chocolate” shop in Europe, BLYSS.

In the country for a two-week visit, Bärtl met with industry representatives to share how chocolate lovers can become connoisseurs, harvesting from her years of manufacturing and marketing Arriba Nacional cacao, which originates in Ecuador.

She said connoisseurs do not have to be rich and experts, but are rather discerning people. They know what they like, and they are not dependent on ubiquitous brands in the market.

They want to know somebody has worked hard for a single bar or bean, she added.

Fusing passion and enterprise

Before the actual foundation of an individual’s success is laid, one has to spend years in obscurity — studying, designing, gathering resources.

Expect a lot of trials and errors, setbacks, and a steep learning curve in between, Chua said.

Chua sold his first bar 3 years after he came back in 2007.

Cinco was quick to admit that entrepreneurship is not an easy feat. But she continues to do it, crafting chocolate with unadulterated passion and the desire to enrich her customers’ lives.

By selling their “lifework,” artisan chocolate makers seek to educate Filipino consumers about the true taste, health benefits, and value of pure chocolate. Hint: chocolate does not make people fat – sugar and milk in the concoction do.

The endeavor is at times bittersweet. But there are days it bursts with flavors as interesting as the spicy, fruity, floral, and earthy notes of Philippine cacao.

Patience, perseverance, and a lot of Internet time can do wonders. And chocolate.

“Chocolate will “make you feel good – whether you like it or not,” Pantua said. – Rappler.com

A freelance business writer, Shadz Loresco follows stories on entrepreneurs, technology, and finance. Her background includes 5 years of writing and editing for online business-to-business (B2B) marketing and reputation management.