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Sun 19 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Quality street

The Middle East chocolate trade is driven by quality as the region's chefs demand first-rate products from European suppliers.

The Middle East chocolate trade is driven by quality as the region's chefs demand first-rate products from European suppliers.

Imported chocolate products from Europe are the backbone of the region's chocolate trade, as guaranteed quality drives the Middle Eastern market, according to the UAE's chefs and suppliers.

"Quality is our main focus and therefore the majority of our products are made of Valrhona chocolate from France," says Monarch Dubai executive pastry chef Renate Bruckner.

Raffles Dubai executive pastry chef Roland Eitzinger agrees that European chocolates are consistently superior in quality than local alternatives.

Quality is our main focus and the majority of our products are made of Valrhona chocolate from France. - Renate Bruckner, Monarch Dubai

As a result, local chocolate manufacturers are struggling to keep pace with superior European counterparts, although the trade is growing slowly says marketing and sales executive for Moka General Trading, supplier of Godiva chocolates, Helena Shpakovich.

"Local manufacturers are at the initial growing stage although they need time to develop their own traditions of chocolate making and to build their own history."

The Middle Eastern chocolate manufacturing trade also requires investment in technology and manpower to progress explains EMF Emirates general manager Pierre Feghali.

"To obtain the same quality [as European products] you need highly experienced personnel and a huge investment in equipment, which is not feasible in this region because the market is too small."

As a result, traditional chocolate-producing countries such as France, Belgium and Switzerland continue to dominate sales in the Middle East market, as consumers demand unique and luxurious products comments Shpakovich.

"Consumers in the Gulf and UAE in particular are very demanding. They have a specific taste and every customer wants something unique."

To provide for a more discerning clientele, suppliers to the region agree that exclusivity is the key to success in this market says Sprüngli Middle East managing director Ester Crameri.

"We prefer to grow in terms of quality and exclusivity, as this is our business philosophy."

The success of this strategy can be seen in the sales figures for Sprüngli's more exclusive ranges of chocolate products according to Crameri.

"Our most popular product is our famous Truffles Grand Cru, which is made using the finest cacao beans from the world's premier sources  in Madagascar, Venezuela, Cuba and Ecuador."

The concept of quality doesn't just relate to a product's ingredients, however.

"Chefs agree that reliable suppliers are completely essential to the process.

"Chocolate is a very sensitive product and things such as warm storage facilities or careless transportation will easily ruin its characteristics.

"For the product to be delivered in perfect condition it is vitally important to have a dedicated supplier," says Eitzinger.

Healthy chocolate

The increase in health-conscious consumers in the region has generated significant changes in chocolate consumption habits explains Feghali.

"Due to the increasing amount of diabetics in the UAE, in the last year we have seen an increase in sales of chocolates without added sugar."

In addition to sugar-free products, Crameri forecasts an increased demand for dark chocolate products."I am convinced that as the number of people with diabetes increases, dark chocolate will naturally become a more popular alternative to milk chocolate products," she says.

Manufacturers have also recognised this trend and are starting to offer chocolate products with healthier characteristics according to Moka's Shpakovich.

"Manufacturers are using more natural ingredients to improve the nutritional content of chocolates, as well as producing more environmentally-friendly products to give consumers greater choice."

Another new element in chocolate innovation are organic cocoa varieties, which are also starting to take off, although is still a very niche market as Feghali concedes.

The growth in the hospitality sector is expected to be the driving force behind the demand for chocolate products in the next year he explains.

"We expect a growth of 15-20% next year and this is mainly going to be from the large number of hotels opening soon."

In addition to delivering signature chocolate supplies to hotels, there is an increased demand for specialist products from other areas says Crameri.

"There is a strong demand for our chocolate products from the events catering market and especially for weddings.

"We have also had individual companies requesting our chocolates as branded corporate gifts for occasions such as Eid, Christmas and the other end-of-year celebrations."

In light of the current rate of growth in the chocolate industry, and the increased demand for quality products, Shpakovich concludes that the business will continue to grow in the years to come.

A moment on the lips...The region's chefs and suppliers comment on recent chocolate consumption figures:

Executive pastry chef at the Monarch Dubai, Renate Bruckner

We use around 250kg of chocolate and related products a month. This figure is definitely growing as business is increasing - especially for the festive season.

"However, we believe that the quality chocolate that we offer to our guests will create appreciation, and will show in our sales as well."

EMF Emirates general manager, Pierre Feghali

"Although we have had very tough times lately with the prices of materials and commodities - and added to that, the exchange rate of the Euro against the US Dollar - we still saw 14% growth in chocolate consumption in the first half of 2008 compared to [the same period in] 2007.

"Our monthly average sales have been approximately 65,000kg per month, but this figure might see a slight increase during Ramadan, Eid, Christmas and New Year."

Grand Hyatt Dubai's executive chef, Josef Miklavc

"On average, we use 400-500kg of dark chocolate, 200-300kg of white chocolate and 75-100kg of milk chocolate per month."

Executive pastry chef at Raffles Dubai, Roland Eitzinger

"We use 300kg of chocolate products per month.

"Trends such as chocolate fountains and chocolate buffets, as well as the continuous popularity of any good chocolate-flavoured desserts and cakes, have significantly increased the consumption of chocolate."

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