While Lebanon does not have the conditions or climate to produce its own cacao trees, like the Amazon River Basin or West Africa, and it does not boast the long and storied cultural history with chocolate that many European countries enjoy, it is nonetheless the owner of a unique chocolate story; one of innovation and East-West cultural navigation, as well as its own minor but not insignificant influence on various other parts of the world, including the US itself. As a person of Lebanese descent, I believe it is a worthy story to tell, and in my own small way, with limited research capacity or industry knowledge, I offer this essay as a small token to that effect.
Lebanon has been referred to as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” for many reasons since the 1940s, due mainly to its uniqueness among its neighboring countries. For some, the connection to Switzerland was based on Lebanon’s mountainous regions and accessible ski resorts, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. For others, it was the banking secrecy laws and the gold reserves of Lebanon that most closely reminded Europeans of Switzerland. But for many, it was the openness that Lebanon attained and promoted after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1. Lebanon gained independence in 1943, and established confessionalism, a unique form of democracy which promoted cooperation among the rival religious groups. This set Lebanon apart in the Middle Eastern region, and the country enjoyed three decades of prosperity under a free-market economy, taking advantage its connections with Europe and marketing itself as a unique tourist attraction to the European and Middle Eastern elite alike. And within this era of prosperity and growth, Lebanon found a particular niche: the art of chocolate making.
The Lebanese produce chocolate both for their local communities and to export to the surrounding Middle Eastern countries, and the chocolate making industry has grown and adapted to its audiences over the years in many ways.
Chocolate exports from Lebanon account for over $51 million and are expected to continue rising, according to Blominvest Bank. As seen in the chart below, chocolate exports from Lebanon have followed an upward trend in recent years. (Mikhael 2016)
Chocolate has become part of the cultural fabric in Lebanon over the last fifty years or so. Salon du Chocolat, the world’s largest event dedicated to chocolate, takes place in Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut each year. A tribute to everything chocolate, the event showcases the products of more than 60 exhibitors and holds events such as competitions, workshops, domonstrations, and a fashion show, as part of Gourmet Week.
Only a few months ago, a museum dedicated to chocolate was opened in Beirut. The Middle East’s very first chocolate museum, Choco-Story is dedicated to “telling the story of the transformation of cocoa into chocolate and to promote the health and quality aspects of Belgian chocolate. (Chocolate: Experience the Ride, 2018) This museum not only establishes Lebanon as an important player on the global chocolate stage, but also reasserts its connection with European chocolate styles, namely that of Belgium. This connection and cooperation between Lebanon and Europe is a common thread in the story of chocolate as well as many other aspects of culture, taste and industry in Lebanon.
While the Lebanese chocolate industry faces many challenges, the Phoenicians of Lebanon are an enterprising and adaptable people, and they have found ways to ride the waves of a competitive and changing industry and grow to establish their own reputation as expert luxury chocolate makers.
One major challenge that Lebanese chocolate manufacturers face is the high cost of electricity in the country. Based on a recent study, Lebanese manufacturers can pay as much as 14% of their total budgets for electricity, one of the highest per capita. (Mikhael 2016) This is true also of the cost of diesel in the country, which manufacturers need to run their generators. The chocolate making process requires a considerable amount of electricity, as this video of a Lebanese chocolatier making Easter chocolate eggs demonstrates.
The cost of importing high quality chocolate from Europe is also a challenge for manufacturers in Lebanon. Some companies get around this by importing lower quality chocolate from China, but most insist on working with the highest quality European chocolate and balance this by producing equally high quality (i.e. expensive) chocolate for sale in the luxury market. (Mikhael 2016)
Another challenge for Lebanese chocolate makers is the high cost of labor in the country. As one can see from the video above, the chocolate making process is very labor intensive, and as a democratic and diverse country with a relatively thriving economy, Lebanese labor costs are double those of some of the surrounding countries, including neighboring Syria and Iraq. Lebanon actually a minimum wage mandated by its government, which prohibits employers such as chocolate manufacturers from employing anyone anything below $30,000 pounds per day or $675,000 pounds per month (Lebanon Minimum Wage 2019). This means that companies are legally prohibited from using any form of coercion, slave labor, or child labor in their manufacturing practices.
At the same time however, there is anecdotal evidence that companies often employ Iraqi or Syrian laborers instead, as they can legally pay them less than Lebanese citizens. There is limited research on the existence of these under-the-table or unethical employment practices in the Lebanese chocolate industry, but it is hoped that researchers and concerned parties will continue to seek it out until it can be confidently eliminated as a threat. As is the case at all levels of the cacao-to-chocolate chain, it is an industry rife with ethical and moral employment practices such as these; even in a country which cannot produce its own cacao trees and must import the raw materials from other countries, eliminating the local extortion of agricultural laborers, the possibility of unequal and unfair treatment of laborers still remains.
Another challenge for the chocolate industry in Lebanon, as shared by Mohammad Taha, owner of La Roche Chocolate factory in Beirut, Lebanon, is the lack of an established industrial zone. (Halawi 2011) These are generally specialized zones located away from residential areas and dedicated to the purpose of manufacturing or other industrial development. The establishment of such an area often provides companies with lower rental costs than residential areas, as well as reliable electricity service and smoother shipping processes. Since Lebanese chocolate makers are forced to do all their manufacturing in residential areas, they are faced with the location-based challenges that many other countries do not need to navigate.
In order to navigate and overcome these challenges, Lebanese chocolate makers have employed a number of strategies, including diversifying their products and gearing their products and their images towards the high-end and luxury markets, producing a higher yield.
Leaning into their strong connection with Europe, in particular with France, Belgium and Switzerland, and the unique East-West blend that this connection has generated, Lebanon has managed to establish a reputation for itself as a high quality chocolate producer. Owning and capitalizing on the influence of the French on the country as a whole, a remnant of the mandate that lasted from 1920 to 1943, as well as the free passage between these countries and the consequential diversity of its cities, has placed Lebanon in a unique cultural situation. While the official language of Lebanon is arabic, its second language is French, and the french influence, especially in its cities, has informed its unique sense of culture and style, and the local chocolate manufacturing industry has clearly been influenced by this.
As chocolate is not a traditional Arabic treat but was introduced to the region by Europeans, Lebanon has embraced the European chocolate traditions as the height of chocolate making art, while adding local elements and innovations to make it uniquely their own. The Lebanese have always had a proud tradition of food as an art form, and they have also endeavored to export this on a global scale by way of chocolate.
A number of chocolate manufacturing companies exist in Lebanon, both small and large, from generic companies that produce more “standardized” chocolate for the masses to smaller, specialized companies that experiment with their offerings or appeal to consumers seeking organic, vegan, or unique small-batch products. A great many of these companies are family owned and operated, and they are frequently very proud to share their origin stories and enjoy speaking about local or international success.
The largest and most financially successful chocolate company in Lebanon is Patchi, founded in 1974. Today, Patchi produces over 4,000 tons of chocolate yearly. (Mikhael 2016) Its founder, Nizar Choucair, credits his company’s success to a focus on “finesse, quality, and innovation,” and credits his products with “raising the bar of chocolate elegance and success in the Middle East and in the rest of the world.” (All for the Love of Chocolate 2011) As he tells it, he discovered his love for chocolate as a young boy in Lebanon, and through war, financial hardships, and industry-specific challenges, his innovative spirit and passion for chocolate persevered and led him to “change the way Lebanon and the region perceived chocolate” by introducing the chocolate gifting concept on a commercial level. (Nizar Choucair: A Success Story 2016)
By taking the time to conduct thorough research on local and global markets, Patchi succeeded in diversifying their products beyond chocolate to items such as silverware and printing. They then expanded somewhat aggressively to other countries over the years, from neighboring Syria to the United Arab Emirates, establishing themselves as the go-to producer of fine gifting chocolate. Patchi imports organic cocoa from England, France, the Netherlands, and the Ivory coast, and makes a point of uses extra cocoa butter in their chocolate products. Their process is very similar to the Swiss chocolate making methods, and they are open about their use of “Swiss technology” in their factories. Through their focus on hand-made products on a large scale, as well as paying close attention to their branding strategies (including innovative and customizable wrapping techniques that set them apart from the competition), they are able to produce recognizable high quality luxury chocolate products in massive quantities. This ability has helped them to capture the market and become one of the most innovative businesses in the Middle East according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. (All for the Love of Chocolate 2011) Their products are now available in over 35 countries worldwide.
Another innovative Lebanese chocolate company is Gandour. The first chocolate factory in Lebanon, Gandour was established in 1857 by the Ghandour family, began its operations as a small factory-store in Beirut. Though headquartered in Saudi Arabia today, it maintains its facilities in Lebanon and maintains its identity as a Lebanese-founded organization. It is a testament to the quality of its products and the company’s shrewd business strategies that Gandour has survived the immense challenge of the 15-year war with such notoriety, as their general policy is to let their products speak for themselves rather than put as much emphasis on promotion as other similar companies. As co-owner Ali Ghandour puts it, “the product makes its own noise.” (Khatib 2003) One of the smart moves that established the company to a position of power was relocating their headquarters and main production plants to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s, where they could tap into a larger market with a higher purchasing power. They capitalized on both the Saudi Arabian sweet tooth and their disposable income, allowing them to grow their business enough to re-establish their plants in Lebanon. Today, the company has also diversified their offerings; they have expanded to serve a number of Asian markets, and they have employed hundreds of Asian consultants to help them adapt to the specific culture and tastes of that region. This theme of adaptation and cultural exchange appears to be a common theme among Lebanese chocolate manufacturers.
Lebanon can also boast a degree of influence over the US chocolate industry. Guy DeBas was the son of a Lebanese presidential nominee who survived captivity, assassination attempts, and no less than 22 bullet wounds during the Lebanese civil war. DeBas and the surviving members of his family escaped to Sweden to recover and then moved to California. When they discovered that his father had left a chocolate factory back in Lebanon, DeBas and his wife returned to try and salvage it, but it was soon destroyed by terrorists, so they returned to the US to develop their chocolate making craft in their own kitchen. After achieving mixed success as a small gourmet chocolate making business, DeBas won a contract with Trader Joe’s and became the first to introduce “chocolate truffles” to the US market. He was eventually voted “best chocolate innovator in the industry” in 2001, and “Chocolate Trend Setter” in 2005 by Candy Industry. (Executive Profile: Guy DeBas 2019)
In addition to the larger chocolate manufacturers, there are a number of smaller specialty chocolate companies who have pioneered the Lebanese emphasis on innovation and novelty goods in the country. While following international trends, these Lebanese chocolate companies are simultaneously inspired by European traditions and determined to make their products uniquely “Lebanese” through the use of local flavors and ingredients. Through their work, they personify the Phoenician spirit of invention and exploration, and their products appeal to the unique preferences of the local Lebanese palates.
These smaller chocolate boutiques, while following the European chocolate making traditions, add local ingredients to their creations to reflect the local culture and appeal to their local consumers. Some of these ingredients include arak (a translucent white anise-flavored beverage with an extremely high alcohol content traditionally enjoyed in Lebanon), pistachios and almonds (grown locally), thyme, rosewater, sesame, honey, cardamom, dates, fresh mint, and even tahini. Following in the European chocolate tradition and catering to the styles and tastes of the Lebanese well-to-do, there are even chocolate bars, similar to the original chocolate/coffee houses of Europe. The first of these was Elsa Chocolatier Boutique in Beirut.
The chocolate industry of Lebanon has not had a long history in comparison with other countries and regions of the world, but it is indeed an intricate and interesting one; a story of struggle and triumph, perseverance and adaptability, innovation and collaboration. The country’s chocolate manufacturers have taken what they have – a strong connection with Europe, a generally healthy economy, and a market with some discretionary income and a sweet tooth – and created a niche for themselves in the world chocolate conversation. I hope to do more research on this subject going forward and perhaps help to shed some more light and a deeper understanding of this unique slice of the world, and I look forward to learning more about this fascinating topic in the near future.
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