Before Cocova rolled out its tried-and-tested chocolatey treats, there was that moment when Euniece Quek and Chan Jinli decided, “Let’s do it!” Three months after a chance meeting, they became business partners, spurred by a common passion for chocolates and frustration over the lack of quality hot chocolate drinks at local cafés.
Planning took another six months and they opened in December 2019. In no time, they found themselves facing a bigger, unforeseen challenge — the coronavirus.
“Sometimes in life, you’ve got to take risks. We’re quite brave,” says Quek, when asked if she had any qualms going into business with a stranger. “There’s never a good time ... it’s just how you make use of [circumstances] and work on them.
“Having dived in, we have to keep swimming because we don’t want to drown. I believe if you don’t step into [something], you won’t know how it will turn out.” There is also the conviction that “if I don’t do it now, I’ll regret it”, she adds.
The pair met through Chan’s husband, who had asked Quek what she planned to do after quitting her job as a purchaser at Ben’s Independent Grocer. She told him she was looking to start something with chocolate. Chan was a content creator at Astro before Cocova, a name derived from “kakava”, which means cacao in Lithuanian. With export in mind, they wanted something catchy and easy to pronounce.
Covid-19 did not hit them as hard as they feared because their home-based operation had no overheads. In fact, it was a blessing in disguise because people had turned online to shop. By the time Cocova’s website went up last September, many wanted to know what products they had (there were only chocolate buttons then) and whether there would be more (chocolate drinks, chocolate-coated nuts, a chocolate spread and, just this month, raw cacao nibs, were added to the list).
They believe in being prepared and are using this lull period to think about taking “a bigger leap” forward, by way of space and products and going deeper into production. “If we set things up now, when people are ready to come back after the pandemic, we should be able to move faster.”
Initially, they had hoped to attract people to walk in for a chocolate drink at a rented lot in KEDAI at Jalan Ilmu, Kuala Lumpur. Low foot traffic put paid to that but, on the bright side, the space became a retail outlet-cum-store, as well as a place to pack or wrap orders before sending them out via courier.
But the dream of having a café where they can talk to customers about the health benefits of quality chocolate has not diminished. Malaysians prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate, which has a bitter taste and they cannot wait to explain how acidity, which comes from the fermentation of cacao, gives it that pinch of sourness — which is, in fact, good for the body. Now that they will never order a hot chocolate without knowing what goes into it, the pair are happy they have “converted quite a lot of customers” to read labels and go for quality.
No doubt the percentage of demand remains small compared with, say, coffee, but speaking from experience, they think a lot of people do not reach out for a chocolate drink more because they have not found a good one.
Malaysians’ growing awareness of natural or plant-based ingredients and the trend towards healthy eating has worked to their advantage. There is also the fact that local brands are coming up with products that meet stringent standards. “We are believing we can do it, compared with 20 years ago,” Chan says.
Besides the willingness to pay for quality, people are more inclined to give themselves a treat now and then too, to relieve stress and indulge in the finer things in life. This shift in consumer behaviour benefits them as well.
The seasonal nature of retail has kept the partners busy and they find the churn of demand interesting. Soon after they started out, Christmas orders had both on their feet. The Lunar New Year sprang a pleasant surprise — corporate orders. Going into Ramadan now, they are focused on Raya sets, after which it will be time to start planning for the year-end festivities again. Yes, it is exhausting, but they snatch short breaks in between each cycle.
Having no actual business experience does not daunt Quek and Chan because each leverages her skills and experience to make things work: They are in charge of the B2B and B2C aspects respectively. The former also handles product and packaging design and bulk orders, while the latter takes care of marketing, collaborations with cafés and the brand’s social media.
“We take baby steps and our confidence grows as we see response to our products,” says Chan. They were careful with money because the business is funded with their savings, not a bank loan. Positive feedback has helped them see the potential of their business and convinced them they are doing something right. It’s all about managing, adds Quek, who made and sold polymer clay earrings as a hobby-interest before Cocova.
Both come up with the recipes for their products, decide on taste profiles and have firm control over quality. Production is outsourced for now, but they want to be more hands-on and eventually manage that area themselves, and grow their sales channels.
As with every partnership, arguments do crop up. Dominant by nature, Quek and Chan have learnt to work out their differences and always agree on what is best for Cocova and customers. It is a good balance that works for their products and business model.
This article first appeared on Mar 22, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.