By Neil King
Cocosia Artisan Chocolate is a business built on passion. Founder Qudsia Karim explains how her love for chocolate has turned into a unique offering in the Dubai desserts sector
There’s an idiom which says if you could bottle passion, you could make millions.
Qudsia Karim has done the next best thing – she’s turned it into chocolate.
The confectioner launched her boutique chocolate shop, Cocosia Artisan Chocolate, earlier this year, building her business on pure passion for the delicacies she produces.
Each chocolate is handmade in the boutique which is based in Al Barsha, with a tantalizing array of aromas, flavours, hints and tones to tempt even the most under-developed taste-buds.
“There’s a growing niche in Dubai of people who want good quality chocolate,” says Karim.
“It takes a lot of time and effort to get it right – to make something really, really good and to develop the flavor – and people are starting to appreciate that more.”
It’s a good time to be in chocolate in the UAE, say the statistics. Retail chocolate sales in the Middle East and North Africa are expected to reach $5.8bn in 2016, according to a report by global audit firm KPMG.
Another report by AC Nielson estimated the UAE market at almost $150m in 2012, with a growth rate of 27 percent in terms of values of sales, and fourteen percent in terms of volume.
Encouraging figures for any newcomer to the market, especially one who has dedicated the past three years to the fine arts of chocolate making.
Having previously learnt the basics of chocolate, Karim’s journey began in earnest in December 2010 when she undertook the Master course a Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver.
Researching the origins of chocolate to the process of making it, and refining its presentation, she starting producing treats for her family, who’s positive responses encouraged to take her learning farther.
“Then I went to Barry Callaubaut Academy of Chicago,” she says. “I learnt how to formulate my own recipes, maintain the shelf life of the chocolates, and so on. Lots of the technical side of things.
“It really got me more and more interested, so I experimented even more at home and started to do some research about the Dubai market.”
But her chocolate education didn’t stop there. As well as taking a HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) course, Karim went deep into Europe’s chocolate heartland, studying in France, Germany and Switzerland.
“France really inspired me - the way they work is so interesting, and they loved every step of the process.
“I did an internship in Strasbourg, under French chocolatier Thierry Mulphaut, to learn the finer details in the making and presenting of chocolate. He told m that to have a good chocolate the person making it should have the right training along with the right equipment and the best of ingredients. This is the main principle to make fine chocolate.
“I explored the Baden-Baden in Germany and Schwyz in Switzerland, learning about the different types of patisseries and the techniques used in those regions, and after Schwyz I went to Tain l’Hermitage, a small town and renowned French institute of chocolate, near Valence.
“Their working concept and technique was so intriguing that it makes chocolate a treat of heaven. It was quite an experience.”
Karim explains it was during her time in France that she developed her concept. Visits to chocolate shops in Paris helped her distinguish each palate flavour, and she decided to open a French-style chocolate business in Dubai.
But, as she admits, “setting up in Dubai is a challenge.
“Here it’s about the moulding, the display, and having something ready-made. My concept is nothing like that. It’s unique to Dubai. Artisanal and hand-made is new here. We’re using the best techniques from France, but it means we have to educate people so they understand what we’re doing.”
She explains that helping people see the appeal of artisanal chocolate has been Cocosia’s main problem at the moment, citing differences in culture as a leading reason for people’s reluctance to try hand-made offerings.
“Educating people is definitely a big hurdle,” she says.
“Out chocolate is very different to what’s on the market here. People in this region have more of a mindset of wanting the traditional tastes they are used to - pistachio, hazelnut, and so on. These are very Arabic tastes. What we are doing is offering some very different tastes to these.
“Another thing is that people tend to eat with their eyes and go for the biggest plate of chocolates, no matter what they taste like. People here love to give gifts, for all sorts of occasions, so a lot of the time people are also looking for the most chocolates for the cheapest price.
“The reason this is difficult for us is that we make everything by hand, which requires a lot of time, knowledge and skill. The end product is a much higher quality, but unless you know what goes into it, you might not realise the quality that’s there.
“It means people sometimes don’t have a fair idea about the worth of the chocolates, and they argue about the price, but we’re are making high-quality, hand-made products, not your usual mass-produced chocolates.”
Karim says her task has been made easier by the number of European ex-pats in Dubai, expressing her happiness and gratitude that the shop has a number of repeat customers.
Gratitude that extends to the fact they have a shop at all.
She says: “It took time to get the unit in Barsha. About a year in total. We thought we’d look for something in a mall or in the Jumeirah area, but the landlords had several restrictions, and the rents were very high.
“We weren’t too sure what to do, but then we saw the shop in Barsha, so we went for it. We thought it would be a great location for deliveries, and it gives us the space we need to make it a boutique.
“Our workshop isn’t big but it doesn’t need to be - we don’t have any big machines, and only two or three tables to work on, and that’s it. So it works well for us. The only problem is footfall, as it’s a quieter area that other places.”
The challenge of offering something different to the norm has not just been in attracting customers and finding a location, but also in finding and training staff.
As Karim explains: “We’ve got a great chef but I had to educate him too, as well as all the staff. It took time because this style of chocolate is new to them - they had no experience of it all at.
“They had their own ideas about what chocolate should taste like and how it should be made, so it took time to convince them of my method, but they understand it now and appreciated it.”
It’s not just the taste which matters to Karim, but also the content. Her chocolates are free from harmful preservatives, use only natural fruit juices, and have a much lower sugar content than mass-produced chocolates.
And her hunger for doing more is evident.
“I’ve always been creative and I love to try out new flavours - I have so many ideas for what to introduce, and could having something new every day of the year, but we need to introduce things slowly.
“And there’s still so much to learn.”
Taking things slowly might be an exercise in patience for somebody with so many ideas, but she’s determined to give her business the best foundation possible.
“We need to see how things progress and take it from there.
“I don’t want to open stores everywhere because the brand would lose some of its value, but we may target certain locations if the opportunity is right. We might look for a small outlet in Jumeirah, and something in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, but that’s much further down the line.
“For now I want to make sure we do well here.
“I just want to educate people and be recognised in the market - that’s all.”