x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Putting your money where your mouth is

How he did it A Swiss pastry chef-turned-chocolatier wants to win the battle between taste buds and tightening budgets.

Daniel Hutmacher makes a few 'test' chocolates in a dipping machine at his home in Dubai.
Daniel Hutmacher makes a few 'test' chocolates in a dipping machine at his home in Dubai.

Swiss pastry chef Daniel Hutmacher has a dream: making handmade pralines in the desert. After two main investors in July pulled out their promised US$2.5 million (Dh9.2m), he is left with a fraction to invest. His downscaled business plan "contradicts all textbook rules for entrepreneurs," the pastry chef says. He is still optimistic that his chocolates will become a staple in Emirati and Saudi palaces. Today, Mr Hutmacher is a happy man. His first customer ever, Dubai Duty Free (DDF), just ordered 4,000 boxes of handmade chocolates to be sold under private label at the Dubai Airport. The exclusive Spring Series includes pralines with ganache fillings such as Crème Brulée, Rooibos Earl Grey and almond and apricot pastes. Initially, the experienced pastry chef, cook and hotelier proposed to individually pack the 16 pralines in an intricate box-in-box system including "tweezers" to lift them out. "In the end that became too elaborate," he said.

The downsizing of the praline box tells the story of Mr Hutmacher's business. In February, after 15 years of managing hotels, one, among others, in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, the 41-year-old quit his job as regional food and beverage manager for Moevenpick Middle East. By summer he had lined up an Indian and an Emirati investor who planned to invest about US$1.25m each. Mr Hutmacher and his two siblings planned to throw in the remaining US$500,000.

"It was a dreamlike investor make-up in ethnical terms, bringing in different views and tastes from three areas of the world." But by the end of July his dream was shattered. "Both investors were told by their banks to consolidate their funds. I am sleeping less ever since," said Mr Hutmacher, a father of three. But the patissier's spirit remains unbroken. With the remaining US$500,000, half of which has already been spent on renting a warehouse in Ras al Khaimah, luring a well-known chocolatier from New York, and equipment, Mr Hutmacher is determined to win airlines, private banks, and exclusive fashion and accessory shops as customers. "It is going to be a walk on the volcano, not a cushy job."

For his business to survive he must break even in the first year. "That is a tall order. Every textbook would advise you against this." Under his initial US$3m investment plan, Mr Hutmacher had hoped to break even at the end of his second year and pay his investors a 500 per cent return on investment after five years. Instead, he is worried about how he is going to bridge January and February before the first payment from Dubai Duty Free comes in.

In the absence of cash flow or other reserves, "any major glitch will have me file for bankruptcy", Mr Hutmacher says matter-of-factly. But he is determined to succeed. He will not touch the chocolate money to pay himself a salary and only takes what he needs for food, rent and school fees. In order not to put the family at risk, his brother set up a private backup account for him. A big smile returns to his face. Mr Hutmacher is hopeful that talks with a new Saudi-Lebanese investor will pan out. "Before long I could be selling my chocolate in Medina."

This is the moment to pull the joker out of his hat: "Did you know that with 16 kilograms annually the Saudis consume more chocolate than we, the Swiss, supposed champions of chocolate consumption?" There is more to the secret of Mr Hutmacher's pralines than his boyish smile. Made solely with the best Swiss couvertures such as Lindt, Spruengli, Carma and Läderach, the pralines will be very fresh when they melt on customers' tongues. Exceptions aside, even fine chocolate and pralines tend to arrive here by ship and make it to the customer three months after production. But the true connoisseur wants his chocolate a week after it is created. Mr Hutmacher has the scientific explanation. "That is the ideal moment when pralines homogeneously diffuse their taste within the microclimate of the chocolate coating." Because it combines artisanal, creative and seasonal aspects, the patissier calls his business "Chocolature," a cross between chocolate and haute couture.

In addition to being an artisan - Mr Hutmacher is now thinking of summer chocolate flavours using lemon, orange and rose water - he is successfully adjusting his own financial limitations to those of his customers. To keep the bank's base costs and financial commitments low, but still pamper select customers, he proposed to stock the wine refrigerator of a private bank with his handmade pralines. "In this economic climate it is crucial to scale the business toward the customer." Mr Hutmacher pictures himself driving around to refill his clients' fridges according to their demand.

On the grand scale, Mr Hutmacher must win the battle of the taste buds versus tightening budgets in a tough economic climate. On a day-to-day basis, the fight between an extremely temperature-sensitive product and devilish desert weather seems just as difficult. For his female clients, Mr Hutmacher has already designed a suede clutch bag with insulated storage for chocolates. For the male chocolate lover he has created insulated cigar holders filled with pralines.

He also had to convince Ras al Khaimah authorities to allow his pralines to be stored at 16°C, instead of the 10°C outlined in the nationwide hygiene regulation. "Only over my dead body will I have my chocolate cooled to 10°. It would pull water. I invited the health inspectors to come and make some chocolate and see for themselves." Once ultra-sanitary floors and ceilings, temperature controls and insulation have been put in place, production will start in early January. On Jan 8, Mr Hutmacher will offer his first pralines to 100 select guests a part of Dubai Duty Free's 25th-anniversary celebrations.

If past experience is any indication, business could be brisk. For the first chocolate tasting a few weeks ago a top DDF manager allotted 10 minutes but ended up staying 30. "In the end he took his time to let the chocolate melt on his tongue and take in all the flavours," Mr Hutmacher said.