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Wholesaler eyes Cambodia-made chocolate

CHOCOLATE wholesaler Grand-Place plans to begin making its high-quality chocolate in Cambodia next year, managing director Adrien Restle said.

Selling its Belgian-inspired sweets to the Kingdom’s restaurants and bakeries as well as “all but two” of Phnom Penh’s leading hotels, the wholesaler imports about 70 percent of its chocolate from its production facility near Ho Chi Minh City and the rest from points further afield, notably Europe.

Chocolate is damaged at temperatures higher than 28 degrees, making transportation of the treat a challenging process under the Kingdom’s hot sun. Rather than continuing to ship products in temperature-controlled containers all the way from Vietnam, Restle said, the logical next step is production in the Kingdom itself.

“We plan to manufacture made-in-Cambodia chocolate,” he said. “Cambodia imports lots of its finished products. My idea is to lead a transformation, to have production [of high value-added goods] in Cambodia.”

The plan is part of Grand-Place’s vision to produce quality chocolate entirely in Asia, he said. A test batch of cocoa beans is presently growing in Vietnam. Once harvested, a separate firm will process the beans under contract, and then return the cocoa to Grand-Place to make chocolate.

Eventually, the firm would like to conduct a similar experiment in Cambodia, but Restle admits this is a longer term project. “There are no cocoa trees in Cambodia, but they can be planted here,” he said, and added that growing cocoa in the Kingdom would require working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture.

The firm plans to double its staff in Cambodia from four to eight in order to make the products, with an eye to employing 12 people once production gets rolling in a year. Restle credits his current Khmer staff with boosting the firm’s domestic sales to the mass market.

“I can work with five-star hotels, but it’s my colleagues who are driving sales with bakeries,” he said.

Grand-Place bills itself as a chocolate company from Belgium, rather than as a Belgian chocolate company, a distinction based on the origin of much of its chocolate.

To officially label the chocolate as “Belgian” would require its manufacture in the famously chocolate-friendly European country, but Restle contends that Grand-Place’s Vietnamese-made products are indistinguishable from its products in Europe. Grand-Place uses Belgian recipes, Belgian training, and is Belgian owned, he says.

Cambodians prefer sweet compound chocolate over more bitter couverture types popular in Europe, he added.

“In Asia, people are not used to couverture’s bitter taste. People here prefer sweeter products,” he said.

Sweet tooths throughout Asia may lead Vietnam-based Grand-Place to expand further afield. It already sells its products through an office in Japan, but is eyeing new locations, possibly in India or China. “There are over 1 billion people in China, of which maybe 1 percent eats chocolate. The potential is huge,” Restle said.

Expansion in the Kingdom is stymied for now by lack of demand, he said. The firm’s main office was in Phnom Penh, with a satellite office in Siem Reap, but Restle said the next domestic target, Sihanoukville, is some years away from supporting a Grand-Place outlet.

Chocolate is a plastic product that could be molded to meet patrons’ wishes, he said, and Grand-Place holds workshops every six months aimed at increasing chiefs’ knowledge.

“The first chocolate demo we held was in August 2009 at the Cambodiana Hotel. 80 people joined for training about how to use chocolate,” he said.

He declined to release sales figures, citing tight competition among chocolate manufacturers, but said its margins were crucial in the wholesale chocolate business.

“As we are a B to B supplier, our business works on volume, and works on the margin,” he said.

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