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Bilal Kurjieh, general manager of Patchi factory at the Patchi store in Dubai Mall in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Bilal Kurjieh, general manager of Patchi factory at the Patchi store in Dubai Mall in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Patchi sweet essential for Ramadan

The Life: The chocolate is as essential a part of the UAE's Ramadan experience as dates, given the expansion of chocolate outlets over the past few years. And for Patchi, the UAE's love of chocolate has proved fruitful.

A strong smell of cocoa hits as you descend the stairs to the ground floor of the Patchi factory in Al Quoz, Dubai.

Despite visitors and staff being required to wear masks to keep the products safe from contamination, the smell is ubiquitous at the kitchen of the luxury chocolatier.

Watch the chocolate-making process on the factory floor and what starts out as a fountain of chocolate gets solidified, sized up into squares or rectangles and then wrapped.

Upstairs in the packaging rooms, 140 factory staff, from across the Middle East and South East Asia, stack and pack the chocolate nuggets while listening to Bollywood music.

"Patchi used to specialise in wedding souvenirs, or bomboniere, which in Italian means 'kiss'," says Bilal Kurjieh, the general manager of the Patchi factory.

Now it appears the chocolate is as essential a part of the UAE's Ramadan experience as dates, given the expansion of chocolate outlets over the past few years. According to Euromonitor International, the chocolate confectionery market will reach US$292.4 million in 2017 in the UAE, up from $225.7m last year. The market grew 7 per cent last year in terms of value, but the UAE market is still the fourth largest after Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco in terms of its appetite for chocolate.

For Patchi, a Lebanese company, the UAE's love of chocolate has proved fruitful.

The company, set to celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, was launched in 1974 by Nizar Choucair and entered the UAE a decade later.

It now has 26 branches in the UAE and is present in 27 countries with plans to enter Russia, Kazakhstan, Libya and Turkey.

There are also plans to expand by four more stores in the Emirates by early next year, with two of those outlets set for Abu Dhabi. But before that it needs to ensure that it is on schedule for the Ramadan rush, a time when Muslims stock up on chocolates for iftar or as gifts for Eid Al Fitr. One of its storage rooms currently houses 4,000 pieces of chocolate, but thousands have already been shipped out to meet the Holy Month demand elsewhere.

And it's not just the chocolate that is important but also how it is presented. Patchi chocolates are always elegantly packaged, sometimes in boxes or on silver and leather trays; others flow out of crystal vases or come wrapped in fine gauze, hand-made flowers and Swarovski crystals.

The chocolates, which come in 83 flavours including cheesecake and halawa, sell from Dh50 to Dh500 for bars, with those for children starting at Dh15. But customised creations, such as those for Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha, can sell for hundreds of thousands of dirhams.

For the man overseeing the Ramadan demand, it's a case of forward planning and getting extra staff in to handle the surge in orders.

The peak time is the last two weeks of Ramadan, when customers are stocking up on gifts for Eid. But Mr Kurjieh, headhunted by Patchi UAE a year ago, says they have been preparing for the past six months.

A family business background in retail means Mr Kurjieh, 38, took to Patchi, also a family-owned business, with ease. And one of his biggest priorities is getting the flavours right. "With every season we customise the collection," he explains.

Christmas, for instance, is a season for dark chocolates, while at Ramadan there are more dates and malban, or traditional items. In December, Patchi underwent a rebranding with vibrant lime green as its signature colour replacing more neutral ones.

"We wanted to attract the young and the newly married," Mr Kurjieh says. Young adults are the new drivers of the chocolate market, according to Euromonitor Intenational.

"As parents grow increasingly reluctant to allow younger children to eat confectionery products and older consumers try to limit their sugar intake as well, young adults will prove essential to volume growth," the market research company said in a report this year.

But Patchi is not turning its back on the luxury sector any time soon.

The brand has always been associated with expensive chocolates, and Mr Kurjieh says it will remain so despite growing competition from smaller brands.

"Patchi is a high end luxury brand and so is positioned in high end malls in the UAE," he says, referring to its flagship store in The Dubai Mall. There, the staff are busy as shoppers stock up ahead of the religious festival.

But when the month is over, design teams from Patchi's Beirut headquarters will scour the globe for ingredients to decide on the flavours for next Ramadan.



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