Sweet World Hong Kong banks on craft chocolate breakthrough

Sometimes the best retail concepts happen by chance, a mix of passion and imagination rather than spreadsheets and Swot analyses. Such was the case with Sweet World Hong Kong, a confectionery store created by Bookazine’s directors, sisters Shonee and Arti Mirchandani.

“Through our travels, we discovered craft chocolate and we loved it,” says Arti. “This was something that wasn’t happening in Hong Kong, just like with the craft beer movement and good wine, and we really wanted to bring it to Hong Kong.

“As we did more research we travelled the world, meeting a lot of craft chocolate makers, and we were amazed at just how nice they are. Chocolate people are happy, friendly, really passionate people.”

And that’s how the idea of Sweet World was born.

Just one year after the first store opened in Prince’s Building in Central, a second one has opened trading at Pacific Place after a successful pop-up there in December. Many mall landlords across the territory are now approaching the Mirchandanis, encouraging them to open stores.

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Whole different level

“There’s a story behind each maker we work with,” says Shonee. “We find if we tell our customers this is a family business, it’s a father and son making it, it just takes eating chocolate to a whole different level.”

Arti: “We wanted to bring it to Hong Kong, we wanted to share it with our customers, our friends and our family…”

“…and we were looking for just better-quality chocolate, because eating dark chocolate and good chocolate is actually good for you,” takes up Shonee. “So having a sweet tooth, we thought there must be something better out there.”

Arti: “And there is so much out there, the whole bean-to-bar movement.”

Fate was sealed when the sisters visited Pond Street Bakery in the UK. “They actually run a bakery, but they started to close their bakery every Tuesday to make chocolate. They experimented with putting things like sour dough in their chocolate, or rye crumbs. It’s just divine.

“That probably was the eureka moment in terms of tasting the chocolate.”

Shonee: “We just thought, this is so good we need to share this with everybody.”

Arti: “Then we discovered many others… all of them equally good.”

Shonee: “We met them through each other because they all know each other and they all kind of recommend each other. If you like this, or you’re looking for more… “

Arti: “There isn’t that sense of competition… I remember calling on one of them and they said, ‘Yes, we’ve heard of you – you’ve been doing the rounds’.

“Since we started our research two years ago, we feel the industry has just grown. I don’t think it’s reached a tipping point yet – I don’t think enough people know about craft chocolate or why it is better, but it’s getting there.”

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Candy as balance

Realising the craft chocolate movement is still in the early stages of its growth cycle, the sisters decided to balance the Sweet World Hong Kong chocolate offer by selling candy. But not just any candy.

“We source from artisanal candy makers, trying to bring something special to Hong Kong.”

Some lines might be retro by nature, such as “old-school candy” like flying saucers, and the sisters create mixes, such as an Aussie mix or an American Road Trip mix. “We’ll mix Twizzlers or Champagne gummy bears, spicy mangoes, or lemon-blueberry shortbread,” says Arti.

Shonee: “Whenever we find something different that tastes good, we try to bring it in. With this part of the business we get a lot of corporate orders or bulk orders from people having parties or celebrations. Craft chocolate is more our passion, but we also love the candy, and that is what keeps the shop going.”

The sisters source product from all over the world, primarily the US, UK and Australia and parts of Europe. They have chocolate suppliers in Singapore, Greece, Vietnam, South America, candies from Sweden, artisanal popcorn from New York.

“Suppliers find us now,” says Shonee. “Initially, we were looking for good-quality products and artisanal items, and we’d go to fairs to find it. Now we get messages on Facebook from people asking if they can send us samples.”Sweet World Hong Kong 2

No gimmicks

Arti says when they conceived the Sweet World concept, they didn’t want it to be too gimmicky or too colourful. “We didn’t look at other sweet shops at all.

“We thought OK, we are getting sweets from all over the world, we want to create an almost dockyard feel where you have bags of sweets coming in. Then we were influenced by upmarket wine cellars or gourmet cafes, and we tried to create around that idea.

“We wanted to avoid the traditional bright and colourful sweet-shop look. We knew what we didn’t want, more than what we did want.”

The travel theme is reflected in their bags with imagery suggesting the product has been freshly delivered by plane.

Which brings this story to logistics, probably the hardest part of the Sweet World concept. Chocolate needs to be temperature controlled, so it is not so easy to bring products in from certain places. All the shop’s stock is flown in, yet to date only part of one chocolate shipment has been lost after melting en route from the UK.

“We suspect it happened on the Hong Kong side and in the terminal or the truck, when the sun was shining on some boxes.”

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Price points

“Our price points are quite low,” says Shonee. “Our candy starts at HK$25 for a bag, and our highest price point would be $60 a jar for something with nuts or alcohol in it. Our fruit juice gummy bears would be as low as $25 a bag and $40 a jar.

“Craft chocolate is expensive because it is made in small batches, not produced mass-market or in factories. So our costs are high.”

Arti: “Our chocolate ranges anywhere from $50 to $100 for a bar of about 80g. And I think that is one of the reasons the tipping point has not yet been reached for the whole craft chocolate movement, because a lot of people think that is quite a lot for a chocolate. But when you try it and you realise you only need a small piece to satisfy you…”

Shonee confesses to having loved chocolate for many years. “I used to be a milk chocolate eater and I was looking to kick my sugar habit, but I still needed something sweet. After discovering bean to bar, where you could actually taste the cacao and how good it is, I was able to switch to 70 per cent cacao or 75 per cent. Now I can go up to 85 per cent and feel very satisfied.” (Sweet World sells bars as high as 100 per cent.)

“Now she won’t touch milk chocolate,” says Arti. “Your tastes really do get more refined the more you eat good-quality chocolate.”

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Fiddly business

The sisters say the secret to craft chocolate’s superior flavour and texture is the manufacturing process. “What they do with supermarket chocolate is they take out the cacao butter and they put in vegetable oil or some type of fat, then they add sugar – quite a lot of sugar – which makes up the taste qualities, whereas with craft chocolate they put back the cacao butter so you taste the smoothness of it and you don’t need that much sugar to make it palatable.”

The sisters are convinced the Sweet World Hong Kong concept has potential, perhaps beyond the city.

“It is an extremely fiddly business that takes up a lot of our time,” says Shonee. “Luckily we are driven by the passion of the chocolate makers and the sweet makers, but I believe it could become bigger than the bookstore business because it translates across cultures and languages.

“When we did the pop-up we were right in the open at Pacific Place. People would see us and they’d start to smile. Their eyes would light up as soon as they saw the candy. It’s instinctive, impulsive. As soon as you see chocolate or you see candy, you feel happy. We inspire this happiness in people.

“So because of this I think it can travel. It can get bigger.”

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