Everyone has some special relationship with chocolate but Rizaini Mokhtar managed to turn hers into a business. She took her love affair with this cocoa-based delight to the next level when she began her entrepreneurial journey in 2014.
She attended baking and chocolate-making classes after leaving her previous job. “I was in the media and financial industry. So many things happened at that time and I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder. I had to stop working and became a stay-at-home mum. Being someone who used to work, I couldn’t just do nothing. After attending two classes, I felt like doing something more with my knowledge about chocolate,” Rizaini says.
She filled her time by experimenting with the Belgian variety. Friends and family benefited from her interest, as she would often share her homemade creations with them. “Somehow, I felt there was a special connection between me and chocolate. That’s why I continued making it.”
When Rizaini was confident enough to expand her client base, she reached out to corporations and began curating personalised gifts for them. For a long time, she was handling this alone. “I made the chocolate, I curated the boxes and I advertised them.”
In 2020, she was ready to grow the business beyond customised gifting. She partnered with Suri Daman, who came on board with skills in retail and branding. They met through a business platform group. “I talked to Suri about my desire to expand Chocolate Story and she helped me envision how the business should be run,” she says.
Suri proposed rebranding Chocolate Story as Cherita Chocolate, a local twist to the original name that the partners felt more connected to. A new concept was developed to tap into the retail market in addition to spotlighting topics such as women empowerment and mental health.
Like a breath of fresh air, new business components were introduced to improve the operation. Imported chocolate was replaced with locally sourced raw materials from Selangor, Melaka and Pahang. They also updated the whole look and feel of the brand by marrying authenticity with aesthetics through its flavours and package design. For instance, the graphics for Chinese New Year featured women of different races wearing traditional clothing, while the background was adorned with lanterns and cherry blossoms.
“We have had people ask us whether we were a local or international label because the look of our brand seems so fresh and innovative. They liked our choice of colours for the illustrations and the specialised packaging for different festivities in Malaysia,” says Rizaini, whose daughter Nadia is responsible for their engaging and well-received designs.
As the brand scaled up, it worked with local manufacturers and farmers to increase the efficiency of the tedious chocolate-making process. Rizaini witnessed this undertaking from scratch when she visited a cacao farm. “Different soils produce different notes of chocolate such as nutty, creamy or bitter. After harvesting and fermentation, the dried beans are sorted out to eliminate the imperfect ones. Upon learning about this, I understood why high quality chocolate is expensive,” Rizaini says.
Now, Cherita Chocolate boasts a stock of confections made using locally sourced cacao beans in the form of bars, cacao nibs, granola, spread, cookies and a chocolate drink.
Besides supporting local farmers, the brand wants to spread awareness of a healthier choice, which is dark chocolate. As such, it offers a wide range of flavours, such as gula merah, coconut crumbles, cornflakes and pumpkin seed, for the uninitiated to sample.
While milk-based options are also available, the partners want more people to know the health benefits of having it noir. “Before Cherita Chocolate, I did not know much about chocolate either,” Suri admits. “It is a learning opportunity for us and our customers. For example, when you incorporate cacao nibs into your breakfast daily, the health impact is great as it increases levels of serotonin and dopamine in your brain, which affect your mood throughout the day.”
As mental health is a matter close to Rizaini’s heart, Cherita Chocolate collaborated with the Mental Illness Awareness & Support Association last year for the brand’s hope, faith and love themed products. A portion of its sales went to the organisation.
The local enterprise does not have a bricks and mortar store yet but it takes a booth at Publika Shopping Gallery in Kuala Lumpur almost every month. This Ramadan, it is participating in the Finally! Beraya event at the shopping mall and launched a new look for its best-selling collection, Sooka-Series, focusing on the subject of self-love.
With every new collection, the duo make it a point to come up with themes that empower women. A memo filled with encouraging words is included in each box. “The core message we want to send across is that women are capable of anything despite the challenges they face. One of the things they can do to look after themselves is choose the right foods,” says Suri.
Catering for female audiences from different backgrounds, everything about the brand is infused with a touch of femininity. “As opposed to the traditional way of marketing chocolate, we want to be different as we speak directly to women. We model the packaging, flavours and graphics according to what they like,” Suri says. As fashion enthusiasts, the partners incorporate this passion into Cherita Chocolate by inventing new designs with each new collection and customised gifts.
“When we are able to open a franchise one day, we hope to employ women and make it a purely women-owned business — from manufacturing and production to marketing and distribution,” Rizaini says.
This article first appeared on Apr 18, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.