Kathy Johnston, chief chocolate officer at Mirzam Chocolate, Al Quoz, Dubai. Image Credit: Antonin Kélian Kallouche/Gulf News

Dubai: Emirati-owned chocolate start-up Mirzam will create two new lines of craft chocolate for Expo 2020 Dubai.

The 18-month-old chocolate maker has already created several lines of chocolate inspired by Emirati and Middle Eastern culture — its Monsters & Maps line inspired by the Spice Route, its Monsoon collection by the ingredients brought from India and Sri Lanka during the Monsoon trading season.

Now Kathy Johnston, who holds the title of Chief Chocolate Officer, is developing special Expo lines based around urban flavours — the hip and trendy — and traditional Emirati culture.

“We’re an Emirati business,” Johnston said at an interview at Mirzam’s factory and retail outlet at Al Serkal Avenue, Dubai. “This is one of the biggest, most momentous moments in the history of the UAE. We cannot not be at that party. We want to be there.”

Mirzam’s unit is more than just a factory. When I arrive to meet Johnston, there is a party of schoolchildren touring the place to see chocolate being made — the sealed chocolate-making area has clear windows to visitors can see the process. Delighted squeals and shouts of “Chocolate!” reverberate.

I mention the rich smell of chocolate pervading the unit — from the entrance, to the viewing area, to the small coffee shop. Johnston can no longer smell it.

Mirzam opened in September 2016, with the intention of making chocolate of the highest quality. It sources fine ingredients, creating its products in batches just 30 kilograms at a time. It has won awards from the International Chocolate Authority in Italy, and the Academy of Chocolate in London.

It has not always been a smooth journey.

“One of the big challenges before we opened was finding the right machinery,” Johnston said. “If you’re making chocolate at a commercial scale, it’s really easy to find machinery that can take 2, 3 or 4 tonnes at a time. But if you’re making chocolate in batches of 30 kilograms at a time, all of the machinery that you can use has to be adapted from something else.”

Long history

Beyond that, there’s sourcing the beans and other ingredients, and creating and testing recipes.

Johnston — a 30-year UAE resident — points out there is no long history of Arabian chocolate-making, that the gifting of chocolate, while “massive”, is a relatively modern development.

“When I was growing up here there was a big culture of finding brands and products that were made outside of the UAE,” she said. “In the last 5 years I’ve seen the approach of people who live here really change to appreciate and encourage local businesses and small businesses, and being able to see that the quality of products that can be manufactured here, and the quality of companies that develop, is making the local community and the people who live here extremely proud.”

Mirzam’s challenge now is expanding to fill demand. Already it has faced shortages on some of its lines — a batch takes around 6 weeks to prepare.

“We are certainly at a point in our business, after being open for a year and a half, where we feel that what was in the business plan, what was in the projections, we need to reassess all of those things and put it to what we now know to be true,” Johnston said.

“Our main objective in growing — and working with Expo 2020 is part of that — is finding ways to increase the volume of how much chocolate we make and to be able to do more projects, and to be able to export and things like that, which at the moment in our scale is quite difficult.”

Factbox: Expo 2020 Dubai

Mirzam will initially create six lines of chocolate for Expo 2020 Dubai as its official artisanal chocolate licensee. Its Expo products will be sold through Expo’s multiple sales channels and through licensed outlets in the UAE.

Expo 2020 Dubai expects to authorise around 70 licensees to create Expo products in 40 categories, with a total of around 5,000 products.

Gillian Hamburger, Senior Vice President — Commercial, Expo 2020 Dubai, said, “Through our licensing programme, we look to collaborate with home-grown Emirati brands that exemplify ‘made in the UAE’, particularly SMEs that are creating unique cultural products and now have the chance through Expo to launch them to a massive new global audience.

“Not only is Mirzam locally owned and operated, its hand-crafted artisan chocolate is heavily influenced by the heritage and history of the UAE. They have also collaborated with local artists who have designed their wrappers.”

Factbox: Company Profile

Name: Mirzam

Sector: Food manufacturing

Founded: 2016

Founders: Private

Funding: Seed capital

Employees: 21