No one believed the world’s best chocolate could emerge from Damascus. The confectionary traditions of the world’s oldest city pale next to relative striplings like Zurich, Brussels or Paris. But Bassam Ghraoui set out to topple the top tier of chocolatiers barely a decade ago with sweets that reflect their distinctly Syrian identity.
Ghraoui imports cocoa from West Africa, then draws upon Syria’s abundant nuts and fruits to create pieces like “Harmony,” which combines walnuts from Damascus and pistachios from Aleppo, a city in the north of Syria. “Although the company has foreign roots and origins, it has a local identity because it uses local ingredients and flavors,” says Ahmed Salkini, a spokesman at the Syrian embassy in Washington, who notes that Ghraoui chocolate is served at the embassy.
Ghraoui’s ambitions were realized in 2005 when the chocolates triumphed in competition against the Europeans at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. “I am proud of the fact that we are able to produce high quality chocolate in Syria that can compete on an international level with countries generally known for their chocolate creation and innovation,” says Ghraoui.
Its reputation made, the Ghraoui Group next set out to build a chocolate empire. Its products already fetch $50 a kilo on the domestic market. But the real growth is in exports, which already provide 60 percent of the company’s business and are expected to rise to 80 percent within a few years. Companies like the Four Seasons and British Airways buy the hand-decorated sweets for customers.
Winning access to that international following came with challenges particular to Syria. The region’s hot and dry weather meant Ghraoui had to develop special packaging to preserve the chocolate pieces when shipping. Then there were the politics. The Syrian government nationalized his family’s factory in the 1960s. It would be another 35 years before he opened another. “As a family business we have the flexibility of first looking to the quality and creativity and not always looking to the bottom line,” says Ghraoui.
The Ghraoui Group also relies on a high level of service, building modern boutiques staffed with trained chocolate ambassadors to win fans. Every facet of the stores, from constantly changing window displays to bright orange packaging, reflects the Ghraoui Group’s attention to detail. They opened in Dubai, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, with Qatar and Bahrain in the works. London, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo won’t be far behind.
For Bassam Ghraoui success is the culmination of a goal his father, Sadek, set in motion in the 1930’s when he brought chocolate back to Syria from a Paris fair. Now the Ghraouis’ chocolate evangelism has gained adherents not only at home but throughout the world.