Wed | Oct 18, 2017

Chocolate Dreams creates sweet success

Published:Tuesday | January 12, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Chocolate Dreams CEO Michelle Smith (centre) with Devon House outlet staff Maria Nichols (left) and Tamara Vassell.
Smith explains how she grew Chocolate Dreams from a small, apartment-based business, to having two retail outlets while also supplying various restaurants and hotels.
Smith bites into her favourite creation, Pineapple Paradise. The Chocolate Dreams boss says she tastes all the products.
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Ever been to a party or social event and seen patrons or guests flocking to the chocolate fountain?

That's the allure of chocolate, and arguably no one does it better locally than Chocolate Dreams. The company is the sweet creation of Michelle Smith in 2004. She started the business as a sole trader, from her apartment. The business became a limited liability company in 2010. Her operations bloomed into a factory on Roosevelt Avenue (which has expanded to about 1,700 square feet), and two retail outlets, the first opened at Devon House in 2009. The second was opened early December 2015, inside the Loshusan Shopping Centre, in Barbican. Chocolate Dreams is also available in the Sweet Surrender store at Sangster International Airport and Progressive Supermarket in Montego Bay. The company also services hotels such as Royalton, Half Moon and Secrets.

"Our baked items are in a lot of restaurants in Kingston, mostly our white chocolate cheesecake which is very popular and has been a flagship seller for us," she said. "It is consistent, it is delicious. We pre-slice our cakes so that the restaurants can easily serve it. And we are consistent with our delivery which is our mission - to be consistent and of good quality." Smith said she had dabbled in chocolate before starting Chocolate Dreams.

"I made chocolates for occasions like Valentine's Day so it was something I knew," she said. "But then I went online and did some research on chocolate and saw that it was a billion-dollar industry. I went and did some explorations on mom-and-pop businesses in the United States." Smith has used chocolate from various suppliers, and transformed them into every pastry creation you can think of. That has transformed Chocolate Dreams into the premier chocolate brand in Jamaica.

"It's very difficult to make chocolate in Jamaica because of our climate, it's very difficult to make such a variety. It's very difficult to make them handmade," she said, with no hint of arrogance. "We make some things that people wouldn't normally see, like chocolate-covered tamarind balls. So we try things all the time." She jokes that the only thing she hasn't had the guts to try is chocolate-covered ackee.

"I just cannot put ackee and chocolate together," she laughed. "It just doesn't sound right. But then, chocolate-covered bacon is big in the States." Smith estimates the brand started taking off about 2008. But as popular as Chocolate Dreams has become, Smith said in the early days, things were tough. She credits her spouse Michael, who is also a director of the company, for his efforts.

"He was very instrumental in pushing me into areas that I really didn't think of," she said. "We used a lot of cash flow from the business, to put into the business and we couldn't find a lot of people who believed in the dream. It was hard to get money." But Smith has kept going, and uses social media heavily to promote Chocolate Dreams.

"Social media is the key to the future, whether you like to be on it or not," she said. "I use it to connect to my customer, who is my friend. If I am off Facebook for a while, my sales go down. I have to have a presence there." Smith said there are new products every year and the public feedback plays a major role in deciding on those products.

"I have friends who call me, send me recipes, who see things that they like, especially in our cake line," she said, recounting some of the 'interesting' combinations people ask for. "So when they come in with those weird requests, we try all the time. People like that. They don't like to be the same like everybody else, they like to know they can come in here and not just pick something off the shelf."

At the Devon House location, new products are unveiled and the ones the people gravitate towards, are added to the line-up. Smith is also proud that he clientele is varied, including a number of corporate entities. Despite the successes and popularity, Smith admits there have been times when she is frustrated with the many obstacles to doing business in Jamaica.

 

recognition growing

 

But the recognition is growing. Chocolate Dreams was the winner of the inaugural National Commercial Bank's Strength Award in 2008 and Smith was also the winner of the Heart Trust/NTA Female Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2009. The company was also one of the original companies in the Bold Ones competition, organised by National boss Gary Hendrickson. Always thinking ahead, she is eyeing an automated future.

"The chocolates that we do for the hotel are hand-wrapped, so we need to automate but we have to be up to a level to make the automation viable," she said. Smith said the aim is to double the sales for 2016, readying the company for its imminent initial public offering.

"We are now streamlined and I'm going to work on putting some more structure into the organisation," she said. "I'm going to work on two new locations (a retail outlet in MoBay and the Cayman Islands). I'll be working on my own personal skills, and I'll be working on my succession planning."

By the way, what's her favourite product? It's Pineapple Paradise, another product that was suggested by a friend.

"It's actually a very quiet seller. It's pineapple with coconut rum, dipped in white chocolate, and coated with coconut. But it's not the coconut I like, it's the rum," she laughed.