Looking much like the sketches from Charles Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle”, the wrapper illustrations on the chocolate bars made by Ecuador’s República del Cacao make much of the traditions and history of Ecuadorian chocolate, and of the adventures and journeys of discovery made by its pioneer chocolatiers.
Now República del Cacao is embarking from its own humble origins on a similar voyage of discovery.
But first the wrappers. “The idea is to make it a beautiful adventure as well as an adventure in taste,” says Gonzalo Chiriboga, chief executive.
República del Cacao’s big selling point is its “single origin” chocolate. Most of its beans are bought from small, family-run farms in the provinces of Los Ríos, Matabí, El Oro and Esmeraldas – producers, says the company, of “the most exquisite Fina Aroma Cocoa in the world”.
Each bar is made from beans grown at a single hacienda – and each wrapper is stamped with that hacienda’s GPS coordinates.
“You never know when a customer might like to experience the taste journey first-hand,” says Chiriboga.
Through its distinctive flavours and packaging, he says, “what the brand wants to sell you is the experience, a journey through the origins of that cocoa bean that you will soon be tasting. We want to indulge as many senses as we can.”
The plan seems to be working.
The company started selling chocolate through a third-party retailer in Guayaquil’s international airport in 2009. Last year, it began opening its own stores and now has six of them in Guayaquil and Quito. Chiriboga is about to open another in the country’s biggest tourist attraction — and the inspiration for Darwin’s theory of evolution — the Galápagos Islands. República del Cacao will soon cross the border to Peru and open outlets in Lima and, possibly, Cusco. It is also looking at sites in Chile.
The brand has already gone further afield. In the US, is can be seen in high-end supermarket chains like Food Emporium in New York City and is negotiating with Whole Foods. The next step will be to open República del Cacao’s own stores in the US and Europe.
To speed international expansion along, Chiriboga this year sold a 50 per cent stake in the company for an undisclosed sum to Soparind Development of France, the owners of La Maison du Chocolat with shops in Paris, New York, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong. The hope is that this will open opportunities in hotels and restaurants for catering products like cocoa powder and chocolate nibs, as well as for single-origin bars.
The other 50 per cent of the company remains with Chiriboga’s family, owners of Ecuador’s Confiteca group, a leading food processor that competes with Kraft and Nestlé in the Andean country.
Last year, Chiroboga says, retail sales were worth $1.7m and growing at a rate of 50 per cent a year, he is certain they will hit $3.5m in 2013. Following the deal with Soparind, he expects sales to reach $40m in the next five years.
If the company’s success depends only on connoisseurs, it will have an easy time. Chocolate fanciers generally agree that the best cocoas come from Ecuador, Trinidad, Venezuela and other plantations in Central America. Just 6 or 7 per cent of world production is described as Fina Aroma, aromatic varieties – and Ecuador provides 60 per cent of that with its Arriba variety. The industry hopes soon to establish an international Denomination of Origin for Ecuadorean beans.
Says Chiriboga: “We have a taste goldmine here.”
Ecuador was once the world’s biggest exporter of cocoa but its industry was devastated by disease in the 1930s. Since then, through ups and downs, it has recovered to become the second biggest producer in the Americas after Brazil and, since the middle of the last decade, its producers have begun developing their own brands.
Republica del Cacao claims to be the first Ecuadorean producer to take its brand international. Now that premium brands such as Green & Black’s in the UK have established a market for connoisseur chocolates, it may just find fertile ground.