Sweet times for Dubai chocolatier ChoCo'a
Assem Hamzeh and his wife, Dina, love chocolates so much they send each other emails about different varieties when they are relaxing at home in their sitting room.
But it is not simply because they like the taste. Together they own ChoCo'a, a Dubai business that makes chocolates, pastries and cakes, which it sells in two boutiques.
"We never really switch off in the pursuit of chocolate perfection," says Mr Hamzeh, the managing director, who was in the chocolate industry in his native Lebanon and then Saudi Arabia for 10 years before moving to Dubai.
ChoCo'a, which employs about 50 people, is just one of about 78,000 small and medium enterprises in Dubai, according to official data. It started with a state-of-the-art factory in Al Quoz and a boutique in Al Barsha, then a branch in the Dubai Mall in 2009, which it was forced to close in 2010.
"It was working very well as a marketing tool. But ChoCo'a works best as a stand-alone boutique," says Reem Bsat, the business development manager, a Swiss-Lebanese national who has been in the UAE for three years.
"People choose to come to our store. It's a destination. In a mall, people are just passing by on their way to another shop and don't really buy a lot," she says.
In 2010, ChoCo'a opened a boutique in Abu Dhabi on Muroor Road and has plans to expand further this year, launching franchises in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Although Mr Hamzeh declined to reveal turnover figures, the chocolate industry in the Emirates was worth about Dh817 million (US$222.41m) last year, according to statistics from Euromonitor.
"Today, the brand remains a boutique company, as we did not adopt the style of large corporate businesses," says Mr Hamzeh.
So what is it like running a small business here? The National spent a day in the ChoCo'a office, factory and nearby Al Barsha boutique to see how the business operates.
The office is quiet aside from the chime of a computer coming to life, but next door the factory is already a hive of activity. "Today we will make 35 to 40 cakes," says Raymonda Saadeh, the master decorator, who wears a Lebanese flag on the sleeve of her chef whites. Dozens of order forms are tacked up on the wall behind her. One includes an appeal from a client. "Please make it very nice. There's a lot of important people who will come to the party," it shouts in capital letters.
Over in the pastry department, cakes are defrosting on the stainless steel worktop, while two pastry sous chefs dance around each other decorating them with white strips, milk chocolate dots and edible gold leaf. Once the finishing touches have been applied, the cakes are placed in boxes by Giancarlo Cruz, an employee in charge of logistics who has been with the company since 2008. He stacks them on a trolley and wheels them out to transport them to the boutique in Al Barsha in time for the 10am opening.
Only Ms Saadeh is still working in the speciality-cake area. "They're taking a break. I like to work in one stretch," she says, rolling pink fondant, a thick paste made of sugar and water, between her fingers to make the first of 19 faces for a cake in the shape of a family tree. Michaeal Angelo, an assistant, is applying the finishing touches to one covered in fondant daisy shapes, while sous chef Piyal Edirisuriya is cutting green fondant into ribbons for a Hawaiian hula skirt. After they finish, both record the weight of their cakes and take a picture with a digital camera, which they will use as a reference in case of a complaint.
On the production line, small almond squares start their journey on the conveyor belt, being first coated in chocolate and passing through a cooling tunnel to help them set. Helper Dinesh Lakmal waits at the other side to scoop up the finished chocolates and place them on a tray piled with sweets to transfer to the wrapping area. There they file into a machine and emerge at the other side neatly wrapped, dropping from the conveyor belt into a cardboard box. At the same time, employees sort sweets into boxes so they can be shipped off to a major Middle East brand as part of a tender bid.
The noise of a hammer reverberates around the factory as pastry sous chef Ravindra Parana attacks a 5-kilogram bar of chocolate in the kitchen. He empties the packet into a box before wheeling it over to a pot, where he melts it down, using a giant, handheld liquidiser to break up any stubborn chunks. In the office, graphic designer Nedaa Safa is in the middle of finalising a booklet for the big Middle East tender. "I'm waiting for the information from the production manager," says Ms Safa, who has been with the company a little more than two years.
In the boutique, designer Fayrouz Said wraps a box in pink paper with a white bow for a potential client. "It is a sample for a client," she says. A customer collects a large chocolate arrangement and a bag full of money pots to give away as gifts to visitors of their new baby boy. A sales assistant takes an order from a mother with two children for a cake with crayons on top as another assistant takes a call from someone wanting to cancel theirs. "Can I have your name?" asks another sales assistant as she picks up the phone.
Back in the pastry kitchen, Mr Parana is laying out silicone mats on the long stainless steel worktop. He uses a spatula to scoop chocolate sponge mixture out of an oversized spoon and spreads it with a contraption he uses to level the mixture. In the speciality cakes section, Ms Edirisuriya is finishing off one in the shape of three stacked pillows. There are four on the go now, but there are still quite a few order sheets tacked to the wall. "I probably won't get away until about 8pm," says Ms Saadeh, smiling.
In the office at the official end of working hours, the HR and finance departments are empty, but three employees sit around a circular table discussing the final details of the tender bid. "The contract would be pretty big," says Ms Bsat, who is checking that everything is in place for the launch of a Facebook application to promote the company's new online shop.
The final light in the office is switched off, leaving only the speciality cakes section working on behind the scenes. They will be there for at least another 15 minutes before hanging up their chef-white uniforms.
Updated: March 28, 2012 04:00 AM