Born out of a passion for food and discovering new flavours, small batch bean-to-bar craft chocolate company Conspiracy Chocolate has been busy educating Hong Kong on the delights of artisan chocolate since 2018 and hosts regular workshops where people can learn about bean to bar and make their own chocolate bars.
The artisan brand’s range of dark chocolate bars include everything from dark milk and salt & caramel to yuzu and strawberry basil. Made in a licensed chocolate lab in Wong Chuk Hang using cacao beans from Vietnam, the chocolate is available to purchase on their website and at more than 20 stockists in the city, including The Whisky Library, Bookazine and Spicebox Organics.
Retail in Asia met with founders Celine Herren and Amit Oz to discuss the burgeoning craft chocolate scene in Hong Kong, creating bespoke products for retailers and how they’re taking on the hotel industry.
RiA: Can you tell us what has happened with the brand so far in 2022?
Celine: We have been working with hotels and chefs – we are just about to launch our chef line now, a cooking chocolate to be used in the kitchen, as we feel like this is an area we can still expand into. We have more corporate orders now, and are doing more workshops, including whisky and beer tastings.
For one hotel, we will be supplying our chocolate as an amenity, and for another hotel it is more focused on supplying the chefs with chocolate for the kitchen. We have this dream of being a culinary chocolate, something that chefs can appreciate has more body. It is something that we have wanted to do for a long time, but kitchens need to manage cost. It is very exciting as the hotel kitchen we will be working with has a very famous restaurant. We see this as a core part of our business moving forward. I run a private kitchen, Otium, so we are very connected to F&B.
We are developing a coarse, ground chocolate that has a crunchy texture, which will give a different experience to the dish. We are working on a white chocolate too. Hong Kong loves its white chocolate, as it makes a good structural ingredient in a cake, and you can colour it. We will release these products into the kitchens first but also be available as a home chef range on our website for consumers to purchase.
RiA: What other new products have you been working on?
Celine: We are also working on a matcha and a miso chocolate, and we will be debuting some new eco-friendly packaging, which is compostable. In addition, we recently debuted some whisky chocolate bars with [Scottish distillers] Scallywag and Big Peat, which came about as we partnered with [spirits retailer] The Whisky Library. Going into winter, we hope to put our chocolate liqueur into more retail spaces.
RiA: Partnerships a big part of what you do. In addition to the whisky collaboration, what else has been happening there?
Celine: We have done a few workshops in our lab recently, and a chocolate and whisky pairing with Carbon Brews, plus whisky pairings at the Kee Club and Mandarin Oriental, and [Hong Kong mescal bar] Coa. We created four different chocolates to go with each mescal on a flight tray. They also have a cocktail on the menu that features a waste product of ours.
RiA: How is your retail strategy evolving?
Celine: The difference from when we started the business four years ago to now is that more people buy stuff online. Getting more stockists is not the biggest part of our strategy anymore. We are looking at our demographic more closely – where they hang out, what kind of products are they looking for – so rather than being in 50 shops like we were before, we are now in 26.
Nood Food, part of lifestyle brand the Pure group, is exactly our demographic and we created a special product for them. The packaging features their logo but it is also a healthy chocolate bar that people can eat after a gym session.
RiA: Have you created any other bespoke products?
Celine: Last winter, we worked with fashion label Marie France van Damme, which has stores in seven different countries. We created chocolate bars for them that represented the culinary tradition of each of the countries. One of their boutiques is in Beverly Hills and the government wanted us to create that flavour for them. It did not happen, but it was great to have that conversation.
RiA: Which retailers are you targeting right now?
Celine: Luxury retailers that are fine dining related and anything to do with health and fitness.
RiA: Has your customer evolved since you started the business?
Celine: In the beginning, it was very vegan focused, and we attracted some hard-core vegans, but now it’s more luxury. We’re now reaching out to people who like to cook at home, and frequent fine dining restaurants. That’s two very different customers, and we’ve started creating products that target them. In the beginning, we were targeting the expat crowd, but now we have more local customers.
RiA: Would you like to scale up?
Celiine: We would like to switch to a more automated process, but that is a dream right now. But we did manage to upgrade our production by purchasing some second-hand machines.
RiA: How is the craft chocolate market evolving in Hong Kong?
Celine: It used to be that no-one knew what craft chocolate was in Hong Kong but now it’s more common. When we started, there were three chocolate makers including us. Now there are around eight. There’s a lot more awareness around chocolate. People have heard about it, and customers will look for us and compare us to other craft chocolate brands on the market. That never would have happened two years ago. Some independent cafes are serving single origin hot chocolate, so there is a whole education going on. It was coffee five years ago, now it’s chocolate.
RiA: Would you like to open a retail store in Hong Kong?
Celine: I don’t think so – pop-ups work better for us. Last winter, we did a pop-up in Sai Ying Pun. We popped up for two weeks and would love to do it for a month this year, as we have found that it takes people two weeks to tell their friends about it. It allows you to put some crazy flavours out there, and people are willing to try different things at a pop-up. Hopefully, we will do something later in the year.
RiA: How ambitious are you – would you like your chocolate to be available globally?
Celine: We are concentrating on Asia for now and will be reaching out to the shops directly. We are exploring Singapore and Vietnam and hope to be on sale there next year. We are also in talks with people in Japan.
Having ships going round the world is not ideal for the planet. If we are producing in Hong Kong, then we would like to sell within a reasonable radius from here.
RiA: What are your hopes for the craft chocolate market?
Celine: My dream is that chocolate will return to how it was viewed before the Industrial Revolution and hold a similar status to wine. We’d like to see people to a chocolate shop before dinner and buy craft chocolate for their hosts. We think that’s plausible as the younger generation is choosing to drink less alcohol.