"I don’t really like chocolate," says Guan Yue, a volunteer at the World Chocolate Wonderland in Beijing. Craftsmen sculpting warm chocolate into displays of traditional Chinese artefacts and Western novelties have done little to convince the 23-year-old of the pleasures of the cocoa bean. Yue is representative of the theme park’s target segment – young Chinese consumers who will need to be persuaded before they swap a conventional snack for a bar of chocolate. Chocolate Wonderland’s sponsors are convinced it will be useful in educating a new consumer base. "This platform is a great opportunity for Lindt & Sprungli to promote true chocolate culture in China," says Thomas Meier, managing director of the Swiss brand’s China operations.
The average Chinese consumer eats just 90g of chocolate per year, according to Euromonitor. Consumers in Lindt’s home market munch their way through 12.4kg of chocolate annually. Most of that is inexpensive milk chocolate made by Mars or Nestle, not the premium chocolate marketed by brands like Lindt.
Chocolate in any form has never been part of the Chinese diet, but its popularity is rising along with an increased appreciation for coffee and wine. And just as with other foreign treats, discerning Chinese consumers want authentic European chocolate.
"People always ask where the ingredients are from," says Polly Lo, one of the founders of Beijing-based artisan chocolate-maker La Place Collection. "They want to check that the chocolate is really Belgian or French."
La Place does a brisk trade, mostly with Chinese companies offering chocolates as gifts to valued customers. When the business launched five years ago, many of its first sales were to IT companies, says Lo, probably because this industry was the most outward-looking. It often employed overseas Chinese who had developed a taste for chocolate. Now La Place’s clients include banks and energy firms, and business has become a barometer for economic health. "Whoever is making money comes to us," laughs Lo, adding that companies are buying bigger boxes these days.
‘Tis the season
Sales are busiest during mid-Autumn festival when the company offers chocolate mooncakes. Truffles for Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day are also increasingly sought after.
The emerging science that suggests dark chocolate has health benefits is also a major boost for chocolate makers in China. "Consumers here really follow the news about healthy foods," says Laurier Dubeau, Lo’s Canadian partner and the creative force in La Place. He likes to nurture this image, using other healthy ingredients including a variety of dried fruits, nuts and seeds in his truffles.
Lindt is also seeing growing interest in its dark chocolate products sold in high-end retail outlets and hotels in Beijing and Shanghai. The company recently launched a chocolate bar that is 99 percent cocoa in content, and has been surprised by the demand in China.
Still, the market for premium chocolate remains very small. Henri Langermann, Asia-Pacific business development manager for Barry Callebaut, the world’s biggest chocolate supplier, says the firm’s gourmet division caters mainly to hotels and restaurants in China, rather than chocolate shops, the mainstay of its European business.
But there is growing demand from entrepreneurial Chinese chocolatiers. Barry Callebaut’s chocolate academy in Suzhou trains professionals to create truffles and chocolate deserts and more of its students want to open their own chocolate shops.
The problem, however, is that Chinese customers often prefer to see a foreign chocolatier, says Langermann. That’s good news for foreign-invested businesses like La Place and established European brands like Lindt, which expects to become the leader in the premium segment here. However, domestic producers have their work cut out for them: Their survival will depend on whether they can cultivate a younger consumer base with a sweet tooth and less need to spend on lavish gifts.
Eyeing Lindt’s chilli-flavoured chocolate on display at Chocolate Wonderland, Guan Yue says: "For me, it’s really hard to see why you would want to put chilli and chocolate together."