Five years ago, business information company Datamonitor predicted that chocolate would be the new coffee. It also suggested that it would be the food to watch out for in times to come. We've watched and waited and can confidently say that chocolate has moved on from supermarket shelves and gift packs into a decadent new retail category: chocolate cafes.
Chocolate lounges have mushroomed all over the country, presenting themselves as a glitzy and intimate alternative to coffee shops. The ladies who lunch have enjoyed the allure of traditional recipes at Galler for some time now, while the more intrepid have avidly sought out dedicated bolt-holes in five-star hotels and in malls off the beaten track, such as at The Chocolate Gallery at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr.
Joan Steuer, President of Chocolate Marketing, a Los Angeles-based industry trendspotter, likens these sweet spots to indulgent experiences such as bubble baths. "The whole concept of a place to go and just be with your chocolate and celebrate the experience of chocolate is wonderful," she says.
Michelle McBride, Retail Director, Butlers Chocolate Cafes, aims to engender just such a feeling at her new outlets in the UAE. "I think that the chocolate cafe experience is a little more indulgent and a little more luxurious that the average cafe experience. There is a nice feeling of self-gratification too as the chocolate cafe often feels like a small and affordable self-treat."
The Irish manufacturer, better known in the region for its truffles retailed at the country's duty-free outlets, is only the latest brand to unwrap a cafe concept in the UAE. With franchise partners Prime Hospitality, who have a significant presence in the region, Butlers has announced the opening of two UAE cafes over the next quarter, with more likely to follow.
"There has been a steady growth in hot and cold chocolate drinks over the past five years and chocolate cafes are the ideal way to exploit this trend. Cafe culture is also still on a growth curve and people are looking for new and interesting ways to consume their beverages," explains McBride.
Butlers is only one of several manufacturers to seek ownership of its own retail channels, driven in part by the learning that chocolate cafes allow frequent and direct engagement with customers.
Galler was the first mover here, serving up a veritable sociological lesson on a tray when it first launched three years ago. One memorable menu item offered a trio of chocolate drinks, each from a different century.
Since then, other international players such as Spanish brand Cacao Sampaka and Alison Nelson's Chocolate Bar, from the United States, have competed for punters' dirhams. The former, a partnership with the Bin Hendi group, is a Dubai Mall hotspot for cocoa aficionados, while the latter is a hot favourite from the Big Apple.
But home-grown players have been doing equally good business. Attesting to the success of the trend and the opportunities available is ChocoMelt at Ibn Battuta Mall, started about a year ago by UAE-based entrepreneur Lamees AlAbudi. "We are doing increasingly well," says AlAbudi, who serves Belgian chocolate with its signature waffle and crepe mixes with a selection of toppings, catering to shoppers and children's parties alike.
AlAbudi says cafes like hers appeal because of the opportunity for customisation. "What most customers like is the freedom to choose from fresh fruits and nuts, marshmallows, M&Ms, biscuits, cookies, gelato and more."
Customisation is something very much in vogue at The Chocolate Gallery at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi, which plays host to everything from baby showers to corporate high teas. Gilded cocoon chairs and low lighting encourage tete-a-tetes over sips and nibbles of the best chocolate produced worldwide. It is one of a new breed of chocolate lounges that, in contrast to traditional shops, extend the experience far beyond the candy counter. Like others of its kind, it's a place to see and be seen, says Dragan Rucnov, the hotel's Executive Pastry Chef.
"Chocolate boutiques are laid out almost like high-end jewellery stores, where the chocolates are the gems displayed in mouth-watering and breathtaking creations that are not just a treat for the taste buds but allude to the fact that you eat with your eyes first," he says.
Rucnov's patrons swear by the Emirates Spiced Tea, a black tea-infused dark chocolate truffle. On request, he will source vintage chocolate for customers like fine beverages, chocolate manufacturers often produce premium batches crafted from a single harvest of beans, creating a product that can never be replicated ever again.
Rucnov puts the popularity of chocolate cafes and lounges, which he calls mature coffee shops, down to two critical factors: a desire to seek out more sophisticated products and an increasing demand for healthier products.
"Customers are looking for high-quality chocolate and are willing to pay for the best their money can buy and also when it comes to being conscious of their health, people are beginning to understand that gourmet chocolates are higher in chocolate content, so less sugar, less preservative and less of all the bad stuff," he says.
Customisation is key
Increasingly, he says, manufacturers are inviting chefs into their ateliers to create products that suit their clients' tastes, manipulating the chocolate mix to make it darker, sweeter, fruitier, nuttier, anything they like. "The supplier that we use, Valrhona, asked us to come in and use the beans we wanted to make a mix that would suit our customer base," says Rucnov.
"I believe this customisation is a big trend for the future." Appropriately, his new line of instant hot chocolate drinks, to be available from September, will feature different flavours to cater to the UAE's discerning taste profile but he's coy with the details on this particular front.
Clearly, our love affair with chocolate has only just begun.