For Vietnam-based boutique chocolate producer Maison Marou, success has left a sweet taste in the mouths of a growing number of fans in search of their unique single-origin chocolate.
We look at some keys to the brand’s success.
Sweetness perfumes the air of boutique chocolate producer Maison Marou, as cacao beans grown in the nearby Mekong Delta are slowly passed through a heavy iron coffee grinder. The seemingly rudimentary piece of equipment houses the starting point for a successful exercise in value-added chocolate production – an exercise that has helped to propel the product of this humble start-up to the top shelves of premium chocolate lovers worldwide.
Launched in 2011 by Frenchmen Vincent Mourou and Samuel Maruta, Marou’s sales have grown impressively ever since. Drawn originally to what they saw as Vietnam’s untapped potential for high-quality raw materials for making quality chocolate, Mourou and Maruta say their business first began when they drove their unreliable 1965 Citroën La Dalat out on a fact-finding mission into the Vietnamese countryside. That first adventure was half a day’s drive to a cacao farm, where they purchased some sample cacao beans, and returned, intent on experimenting with them at home. A former advertising executive and banker respectively, neither Mourou or Maruta have a background in chocolate production.
Yet the pair was convinced that the global rise in popularity of single-origin chocolate represented a golden opportunity to market Vietnam chocolate to a quality-conscious audience. For chocolate connoisseurs, the appeal of single-origin beans (or those sourced from one sole country or region) is the ability to determine the unique character of the product — a combination of richness, acidity and aroma. Like wine lovers, fans of high-end chocolate enjoy the subtle differences that arise from variations in soil, climate and the local environment — and the personality that can be expressed through careful treatment of the precious raw material.
However, success did not come overnight for the good-natured business owners.
“Our first test batch was made using Sam’s oven and a blender – which we quickly burned out,” Mourou recalls, laughing.
Further refinement came after a travel mission to Singapore’s Little India precinct, where they purchased the one-tonne grinder that was originally purpose-built for lentils.
“That was our first business trip,” Mourou quips.
Fortunately, it would not be the last. After working out the early kinks in the production process, the pair created a few dark chocolate bars in cake pans, and began showcasing them to chocolate-buyers around at international conferences and conventions.
Meeting with initial interest, the producers set about sourcing cacao from other locations in Vietnam, a country whose distance from north to south provides ideal variations in conditions. The end result of this labour was a line of single-origin bars, each named after the Vietnam provinces the beans were sourced from.
Then the next crucial step involved the creation of award-winning wrapper designs — crafted by local design firm Rice Creative. This is turn helped catapult the brand forward.
Each bar received a natural colour-shift across a broad spectrum of hues: deep vermillion, ochre yellow, grass green, midnight blue, and peacock aqua. Then each also received an individual golden design, sourced from ceremonial papers still hand-made by artisans in Cho Lon, in Saigon’s old quarter. Featuring illustrated fruit, flowers and animals, the artwork, and traditional silk-screen printing, recalled a romantic Vietnam of a bygone era, in packaging that made a perfect companion to the hand-crafted chocolate.
“They put it in packaging that got their message across,” notes Brady Brelinski, a founding member of the Manhattan Chocolate Society and author of flavorofcacao.com which contains tasting reports on over 17,000 chocolate bars. Amidst such a crowded market for boutique products, being eye-catching is of utmost importance, he stresses. “If you have a good product but you can’t sell it, you have nothing,” notes Brelinski.
Mass Market Misses
The boutique brand’s success sits in stark contrast to that of high-end chocolate producers in Vietnam. Due to the higher yields and profitability of competing crops, several major actors have hit a wall trying to turn Vietnam into a major cacao supplier.
In the midst of the country’s post-embargo economic boom, Mars began dumping millions of dollars into the sector in 2004. A decade later, its partner Cargill reported that Vietnam represented a mere 0.1% of the global cacao supply, in spite of all the costly technical advice. Aid agencies likewise threw money at non-governmental organisations to train up cacao collectives, many of which later scrapped the crops for pepper or pomelo.
“All of these actors have quit,” laments Alexandre Parizel, Marou’s resident agronomist. He estimates that Vietnam contains roughly 2,000 hectares of cacao, barely more than it did a dozen years ago.
By contrast, Marou’s niche output fits nicely into this landscape. “A medium-sized chocolate company like Whittaker’s of New Zealand does 30 tons of chocolate a day,” says co-founder Maruta. “Right now Marou does just 30 tonnes per year.”
In the space of five years, Marou’s value-added formula has seen a breakthrough in demand for the boutique product. In the spring of 2016, the New York Times dubbed Marou chocolate “the most exquisite in the world” in an article that also lamented its obscurity.
Just six months ago, the company remained confined to one remote suburban factory in Ho Chi Minh, which principally exported bars to consumers in Japan, France and the US. Initially, Marou’s bars trickled into the Vietnamese market slowly, through a handful of high-end stores, specialty shops and finally airport kiosks. Then, the company opened a downtown factory cum patisserie, where customers could observe production and enjoy the end-product, amidst charming surroundings.
Critically, the chocolate continues to draw serious acclaim among high-end chefs and connoisseurs abroad. “I love the earth flavour in it,” notes Ghaya Olivieri, the executive pastry chef at Daniel — a legendary two-star Manhattan restaurant that now serves smoked Marou chocolate, moulded into a cacao pod.
“I want to taste everything that goes through the tree: the water the sun, the soil. That’s what I found in their chocolate.”