Filming for Wonka, the star-studded prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is well under way. However, if you can’t wait until December for your sweet fix, then Dubai’s very own chocolate factory in the desert could be just the golden ticket.
Filipina sisters Iman and Luchie Suguitan have made 1.5 tonnes of bean-to-bar chocolate every month from their factory in Al Warsan 3 since opening in November — specialising in healthy varieties made using ingredients such as turmeric, matcha and moringa.
Last month, they opened the gates for factory tours, allowing chocolate lovers to sample fresh cacao fruit and create their own flavours before moulding and packaging their sweet masterpieces. The first farm-to-table chocolate factory in the Middle East, Co Chocolat offers everything from a shop and subscription service to an on-site cafe, which opened this month.
“Not many people know that chocolate actually comes from a fruit, and we were shocked to discover that the cacao plant grows in the Philippines,” says Iman, as she leads the factory's 90-minute Pod Tour, one of several options available for the public to book.
“The more research we did, the more we realised we could make a difference, not just to our community in Dubai, but also to the farmers back home in the Philippines.”
After their mother was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, Iman and Luchie embarked on a mission to find quality low-sugar chocolate to satiate her cravings. However, they struggled to find any premium options to suit her tastes, so they decided to roll up their sleeves and start farming their own.
In 2016, the family flew to the island of Mindanao, which is locally regarded as the “breadbasket” of the Philippines due to its richness in coffee, bananas and pineapples. It was here where Iman and Luchie learnt how to plant, prune and harvest from cacao trees before a chance conversation with an NGO worker changed the course — and scale — of their plans.
“We discovered that farmers in the mountains were learning how to farm cacao in the hope of increasing their income to 1,500 pesos a month — that’s equivalent to Dh100,” says Iman.
“I couldn’t believe it. In Dubai, we spend Dh100 on fast food and these families were aiming to survive on that for 30 days. We felt compelled to do something and within months we had grown a full-blown social enterprise.”
By mid-2016, the OFW para sa Magsasaka, or the Overseas Filipinos Supporting Filipino Farmers, was rolled out in support of 20 hectares of farmland.
Today, the Co Chocolat farm covers five hectares and trades with its neighbours as well as other farms around the Philippines.
“We trained more than 300 farmers to produce quality cacao,” says Iman. “It was important for us to do something for them that’s not charity. We wanted to empower them to make a better living, but they do all the hard work themselves and they can continue to do so for years to come.
“We're very strict about who we trade with and we only buy from farmers or farming cooperatives. We don’t deal with traders or people who exploit agricultural workers.”
Since launching a pop-up from their kitchen table six years ago, the sisters have developed more than 60 flavours across 150 products and now employ 14 full-time workers.
After shipments arrive from the farms, all the production is taken care of on site, covering everything from grinding the cocoa nibs and tempering the melted chocolate to moulding the bars and sampling the finished product.
“Before becoming a chocolatier, I worked in the hotel industry and Luchie was in digital telecoms, so it’s a big change for us,” says Iman. “We’ve just learnt everything on the job and we’re still learning every day.”
During the factory tour, Luchie gives guests a wave from the kitchen as she tips mounds of silky chocolate into a grinder, where it will churn away round-the-clock for four days.
The factory covers 550 square metres and is a hive of activity with machines whirring and enough melted cocoa to fill Wonka’s chocolate river, with maitre chocolatier Luchie calling the shots.
After learning everything there was to know about farming, Luchie went on to train at the Professional School of Chocolate Arts in the US and later graduated from the chocolate bonbons programme at Ecole du Grand Chocolat Valrhona in Tain-I’Hermitage, France.
By 2017, harvesting had started and in 2018, Co Chocolat had its first pop-up at Ripe Market in Dubai, followed by stints in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah. In 2021, the sisters opened a counter at Candylicious at Dubai Mall where their confectionery caught the attention of a sweet-toothed investor.
A mere 10 months later, the team opened the doors to the Co Chocolat factory, selling everything from cane sugar-free gianduja spreads to sugar-free chocolate bars sweetened with organic dates. “We decided as a family we would not just be professional chocolate makers, but also focus on health with our products,” says Iman.
Co Chocolat’s creations mainly use fruit, coconut sugar and dates as natural sweeteners. “When we cannot avoid the use of refined sugar, we use it minimally,” she adds. “We are committed to ensuring that each bite either relieves stress, enhances mood, boosts energy, improves the immune system, enhances vitality or improves gut flora. We are hardcore fans of antioxidants, fibres, grains, dates, moringa, oleic acid and other ancient healing ingredients, and this is reflected in our recipes.”
Now, with word beginning to spread, Co Chocolat has started supplying Oman’s five-star Six Senses Zighy Bay Hotel, as well as cafes closer to home including Seva Table and Honest Kitchen.
“We’re so happy it’s come this far and we’re able to empower so many people in the Philippines,” says Iman. “It’s a big responsibility on our shoulders. We have to be successful not just for us, but for them, too.”
Prices, timings and dates for factory tours vary. More information is available at cochocolat.com