Sweet: This Award-Winning Philippine Brand Has Beaten Chocolatiers From Around the World
The Philippine chocolate industry is booming, with many local cacao processors creating their own brand of artisanal chocolates and capitalizing on the international spotlight on locally sourced cacao beans. However, this has not always been the case.
“Five years ago, we were ignored,” says Rex Puentespina, farmer and chocolate-maker at Malagos Agri-Ventures Corporation. “Back then people weren’t convinced that a local chocolate brand could be at par with their international favorites. We were one of the pioneers who dared to change that.”
Indeed, Malagos Chocolates has been aggressively sharpening its eye for quality and service, and a by-product of its efforts is the standards it has set for the rest of the industry in terms of product quality and business development.
Etching a name on the global chocolate map
Malagos is one of the pioneering brands that has made a global mark for Philippine chocolate products, especially Davao-sourced cacao beans.
“As a brand, our vision was to put the Philippines on the chocolate map of the world. For many years, commodity chocolates bombarded the Philippines, and this influenced the way we looked at cacao. However, today, we have varieties that are valued internationally. We’ve helped make the global chocolate industry notice our country. We’ve raised the bar and we hope to continue to do so,” says Puentespina.
As Malagos raises the quality of its products, the company continually rakes in global awards for cacao production and chocolate-making, catching the eye of the international market. In 2017, their cacao beans were selected as among the Top 50 Beans of the World. In the last three years, they have brought home 28 international awards.
Its four latest awards were from the 2018 International Chocolate Awards in Italy in October.
“We recently expanded our product line to include filled dark chocolates, and we wanted to know how these would compare with filled chocolates from around the world,” says Puentespina. “So, we entered the competition, and four of the five entries we sent won awards: Silver Awards for the 85 percent Dark Chocolate and the Rum-Flavored Ganache, and Bronze Awards for the Salted Caramel and the Unflavored 72 percent Dark Chocolate Ganache.”
Puentespina is particularly proud of the award in the unflavored category. “It’s difficult to win in this category. In the flavored category, inclusions improve the flavor, but in the unflavored category, the chocolate wins on its own merits.”
Pioneering business strategies
Puentespina’s company has also been a pioneer in business development for premium chocolate. As an artisanal product, Malagos Chocolates didn’t just rely on traditional approaches that wouldn’t differentiate the brand from the competition. One of Malagos’ key strategies is partnering with big brands. For example, Malagos Chocolates are available in-flight with Air Asia and at the counter of a large international coffee chain in the country. Malagos also partnered with Krispy Kreme for a regional donut campaign.
Big brands can rely on Malagos’ recognized brand and their fine quality and flavor. To accentuate how far its flavor stands apart from competitors, the company also came out with a recipe book. According to Puentespina, “The Malagos Book of Chocolate serves as a landmark of how far we’ve come, and we want people to be as excited as we are about chocolate and how it can be elevated into fine cuisine, while at the same time remaining an approachable product that brings joy to people.”
However, one of the most ambitious strategies of Malagos goes beyond tasting chocolate and towards experiencing it in full. In March of 2017, the Puentespina family opened the Malagos Chocolate Museum to educate people about chocolate and its history, culture and bean-to-bar processes. The museum has quickly turned into a tourist attraction in Davao City. “People walk away from the experience with a richer understanding of cacao and how the Philippines can become one of the world’s leading sources of chocolate. We can also educate their palates, teaching them how to distinguish between quality chocolate and commodity chocolate,” explains Puentespina.
Dreaming big for the industry
What is the source of inspiration for the Puentespina family to continually imagine unique ways to market Davao-made chocolates? “I can tell you that profit was never a driver. What we are doing at Malagos Chocolates has never been done before. There was no reference for the challenges we faced at the beginning, no case study on how to achieve what we wanted,” says Puentespina.
Simply, the business was taking many risks, but what kept it going was a desire to facilitate a sustainable way of producing local, quality chocolate and a chance to set a standard for cacao beans. According to Puentespina, “Once chocolate and cacao beans leave our country, we are only seen as ‘Philippines’, and not any one particular brand. Eventually, we [Malagos] realized that we were in a position to help other cacao farmers in our area, so we started training them in proper handling and preparation of beans to meet international standards.” So, Malagos provides training opportunities for farmers on good agricultural practices, fair trading practices, and quality beans standards.
“A rising tide lifts all boats. We want the cacao farmers to realize the earning potential of cacao, and how they can raise their game so that they, too, can produce world-class chocolates. When we raise the awareness of how valuable our cacao is, we are able to uplift the lives of farmers and encourage the growth of an entire industry,” says Puentespina.
With pioneering strategies driven by a vast vision for the local chocolate industry, Malagos Chocolates has had continuous growth since it began in 2012. From a team of three, the business now employs a full-time team of 50 people. It has invested in additional equipment to enhance quality control and increase capacity from two to six molds of chocolate per minute. Its client base has also expanded from local specialty shops to include chocolate processors and retailers in the U.S., the U.K., Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, and Japan. “We are clearly not a mom-and-pop company anymore,” says Puentespina.
The Philippine chocolate industry has gone a long way from when local products were treated as a commodity, but Puentespina has bigger dreams for its locally made cacao products. “We want to become a preferred ingredient for fine foods, a recognized brand in the streets of Switzerland, Paris, Sydney and London,” he shares. With a palpable passion for farming and chocolate making and an aptitude for setting the standard, Malagos might be close to turning this big dream into a reality.