Opulent delights that have the huge power to make us all smile from ear to ear. When chocolate encounters other ingredients, a treasure is born.
‘Fairy Chocolates’ is a chocolate company that originated in 2015 from a dynamic idea by Ann Van Acker that garnered national and international fame. Her philosophy was to introduce a complete and innovative concept in the chocolate market. This introduction was announced with the luxurious and artisanal Cho’Clair.
The company’s visually evocative ideas feature fashion prints and a luxurious packaging. For the past four years, ‘Fairy Chocolates’ has been able to export their product to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Ukraine, Morocco, Russia, France and Germany. And now, the UAE! Their secret lies in the quality, creativity, innovative ideas and amazing packaging designs.
In this issue, we are meeting ‘The Woman – Ann’, entrepreneur, chocolatier, designer, marketer, strategist and most importantly a mother of three. With the Belgian pride running through her veins, Ann wants people to understand her chocolates are fine food, artisan and curated (without sounding condescending, of course). Her customers follow and find her, no matter where she is.
For Ann, every day is a pleasure to go to work, for she listens to her clients and the people that she connects with (let me add here, she makes connections instantly). Her ‘product’ and the ‘love of chocolate’ will always be the most important thing. Her mantra – if you love chocolate you must “LOVE” chocolate and treat it right…make the best you can, and stay humble.
…And we get talking.
- Is this your first trip to Dubai?
Oh no! I have been here before. In fact, I was here in September to train the team in the Belgian pavilion at Expo. My products are displayed and sold there. I had only planned to be here for a month, and then I extended for a little longer and returned in March. Expo launched my foray into Dubai, and I have been exploring to expand in the local market.
- How has the experience been so far?
Well, it feels good! I reckon my products have been received well, sales have been good and the demand seems to be consistently increasing. The local people have been buying my products displayed at the Expo; in fact, they come asking for it.
The first order shipped from Belgium exhausted in a month’s time – all sold out. A fresh lot was shipped; I had definitely not expected this. People sometimes order in bulk, like 70 or 100 boxes in one go. So many were bought during the festivities! What more could an entrepreneur want?
- And beyond Expo – what lies beyond that?
I have been making various connections and marketing my product around. Dubai has been amazing; the success has been beyond my expectations. I have been working round the clock, meeting people, showing (off) my products, using different strategies to keep going. You see, the climatic conditions make a lot of difference. When I came here in September, it used to be challenging to take my chocolates around; they had to be stored in temperature-controlled boxes to take for meetings.
“It is very important to focus on safety and provide packaging solutions that deliver on the experience. It is important to focus on smaller celebrations and in being transparent. I have learnt a lot and am only surging forward”, she says.
- So tell us more about this ‘delicious business’ of yours.
I started in 2015 with this project, when I first participated in an event akin to ‘Gulf Foods’ at Cologne. The event unites traders dealing only in sweets and savories from around the world. In a space that creates the stomping ground of great agents of change and trend-makers, I got recognition for my innovative ideas. I won the 2nd place in the prestigious Cologne Candy Fair in 2015, and returned home with an Innovation Award for Cho’Clair. That was the first step for me to realize I had something more to offer than the rest.
- A chocolate is a chocolate…for a layperson like me; it is only different flavours, shapes or sizes. How innovative can one get?
(I can see the excitement in Ann’s eyes as she takes out her paraphernalia. Her portfolio of various designs, flavours, packaging is on display as we talk).
My first innovation was Cho’Clair, a chocolate product with the look of an eclair, a typical sweet and Belgian pastry, combined with a pure, strong, delicious and seductive taste.
Using different moulds, like clay, I experimented a lot. As much as I dug deeper, I got better at creating something that does not exist and that people will love. I am constantly designing in my mind, my brain just cannot stop thinking of the alternatives that exist and are at my disposal to explore. The prints on our chocolates are special and often tailor-made. We can change everything, put logos or flowers – anything is possible.
Look at this box (shows me an exquisite packaging, nothing short of a premium jewellery box) – this has a classical assortment with six different kinds of flavours. I have a special assortment for the Middle East, which I like to call the ‘Gold’ collection (shows the picture, and it looks divine). I have also developed mini versions, if the customer chooses to have something smaller. I was inspired by the Japanese culture, and we created the Sakura flowers on this product which was a hit in Japan.
“My creations are more than the best chocolates! I create magic in every bite!”
- Growing up, did you always want to be a chocolatier?
I was an independent nurse prior running a bakery in Belgium. Already in the world of chocolates, sweets and pastries, the craving was always to give something new to my customers. Back home, the customers would not only come looking for fresh bread, but also other products that we would keep giving a twist to. I love making connections with people, especially my customers. When you create something with your own hands passionately and people keep coming back asking for more – that is what success tastes like. It was overwhelming to be loved for the food you create and reach people’s hearts through their stomachs.
In fact, when I wanted to participate in the food trade fair, my family thought I was crazy. Just look at where the craze got me (says with a wink).
- Are you saying the recognition at the international trade fair was your stepping-stone?
In a way, yes. It opened many avenues, Middle East, Japan, UK, Morocco – suddenly I was gaining entry into many countries. I am not saying it was easy, the struggle has been there, but so have the opportunities to expand. Even the UAE, it is a very competitive market here – there are big names amidst whom I am trying to gain a foothold. The invitation for the Expo is a proud moment. It is a lovely shop, and it feels even prouder because I am not so big. I consider myself small, as there are giants out there. It could have been anyone else, why me? Every step leads to that one big leap I took in 2015.
- Have you started manufacturing / making your products here, in the UAE?
No, the products are made in Belgium. As I mentioned earlier, the climatic conditions, even the water makes a lot of difference and would thereby affect the quality of the end-product. I have a team working round the clock. Some of them factory made, while others are handmade. It needs the expertise.
- What according to you sets you apart from the rest?
My value system. I would never compromise with quality, precisely why I am into everything that goes with my product. The branding, packaging, designing, marketing, advertising, display, demonstration, social media – I am at the helm of affairs. This is what worries chocolatiers the most: the non-creative side of the business. Bureaucracy, marketing, forecasting orders, inventory, shipping, there is so much and it is not easy at all.
I am confident, not shrouded with arrogance, but engulfed with optimism. You can make the best chocolate in the world, but if no one knows about it, then no one will buy it; or if you do not know how to run a business, you will not be able to make a living.
The success at Expo made me delve deeper and I started visiting the malls to market my products. Within one week, I realized my niche lay elsewhere. I reworked upon my strategies. Briefly, I see myself as a package – the one stop shop for the best chocolates in the world. Each day I wake up because of my passion, because I love what I do.
- Have you ever felt like giving up?
(Scoffs with in a muffled tone)…what do you think? I am not a superwoman. I do have my bad days. But what I don’t do is to hang on to those feelings for long. My children look up to me, my team looks up to me. I have to stay strong, fight out the battles and focus on the positives. Your energy is meant for something larger; that is where the better part of life lays. Once you start awakening awareness, you can make change.
- What next?
I have been invited on an economic mission with the Princess of Belgium to display my products in the UK. As soon as I go back to Belgium, it is a short vacation with my children while I work on my next project simultaneously.
After Corona and its effects, I realize I do not want to think small and get caught unawares. One should be prepared for unforeseen circumstances at all points in time. During the lockdown period, I developed my website and started selling online, locally in Belgium. This was a sector I had never focused upon, but Covid19 helped me discover it. I learnt to engage with customers through online platforms, even if they do not arrive physically in the store. To be a successful chocolatier in business, the most important thing is knowing about business.
London’s Mamounia and Dolce Lounge has debuted at DIFC for the first time and my chocolates have found their space there.
My Ramadan collection, custom-made for the UAE will be out in the markets by next year. I am being patient and calm as I get future-ready. An eye for detail and the patience to attend those details is important.
(As the meeting unravels itself, I realize this woman, Ann has much to offer than just chocolates. Her energy is palpable as is the vision for her enterprise. Grace personified, the twinkle in her eyes only gets brighter as the conversation continues. She calls herself a self-made woman, we know why. For now, my parting message for the readers will be to visit the Dolce Lounge at DIFC and tantalize your taste buds with the most delectable chocolates I got to taste.)