Puerto Rico’s 1st ChocoBar opens in Old San Juan
A glittering ChocoBar, with a chocolate-based menu sure to melt a dieter’s firmest resolutions, has opened in Old San Juan as the first salvo in a strategy by the Cortés Group to project its brand, Cortés chocolate, internationally.
Set in a 2,500-square-foot space glowing with glass, marble, commissioned art and a hip style, ChocoBar — the first of its kind in Puerto Rico — occupies the ground floor of a three-story building on San Francisco St. that also houses the private art collection of Ignacio Cortés-Gelpi, president of the Cortés Group, and his wife Elaine Shehab-Cortés.
“Whoever comes here, obviously, is going to fall in love with this space (and) will remember the brand,” said Cortés-Gelpi in an interview at the single-themed restaurant that opened informally Sept. 17. “This is gastronomic leveraging: we are demonstrating the taste value and the possibilities of our brand.”
Together, the art collection on the third floor, open to the public three days a week, and its complementary ChocoBar are sure to make Casa Cortés a favorite stopover for locals and tourists alike.
The Cortés family paid $1.2 million for the property and plunked $1 million into its restoration, with $400,000 spent on the ChocoBar. Total investment: $2.2 million.
Wave of success
The restaurant is part of a series of steps the company has taken in the past couple of years as it rides the wave of success that chocolate is enjoying worldwide. According to Research and Markets, the global chocolate manufacturing industry has proved recession strong and its revenues are expected to grow at more than 2 percent yearly between now and 2017.
“Growth will be driven by sales from South East Asia, Latin America as well as Russia,” it said in a recent forecast.
The Cortés Group has added a second plant in the Dominican Republic, where it also bought a farm to grow new cacao varieties, and has launched a pilot project to cultivate cacao in Puerto Rico that could lay the groundwork for a potentially productive new sector within the island’s agricultural industry.
It’s all in the service of the company’s future growth.
“We want to expand as a brand beyond the shores of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic so that we will be known internationally,” said Cortés-Gelpi, adding that the company plans to introduce new products next year.
However, he said the company already enjoys somewhat of an international presence “at the level of products which are commodities, such as ingredients we sell to multinationals.”
These multinational clients, which he did not name, include some of the top chocolate brands in the market.
Cortés products are made with cacao grown in the Dominican Republic, the world’s seventh largest cacao producer. The company buys 14 percent of that country’s yearly production, or 7,000 tons of cacao.
Starting such an industry is not easy but Cortés has become interested in its potential here in Puerto Rico, especially in view of the growing demand for single origin chocolate, or chocolate made from beans harvested in a specific area or country. According to Food Navigator, single origin cacao is especially prized for “premium products where a distinct chocolate taste is an important differentiator.”
Said Cortés-Gelpi: “Cacao has developed into an exquisity. It always was but now the concept of single origin chocolate has taken hold and Puerto Rico has all the conditions to grow cacao. Of eight requirements needed by the soil, Puerto Rico has seven.
“There cannot be a more suitable terrain to grow cacao. Cacao was cultivated here until the beginning of the 20th century. It was abandoned, for what reasons, I don’t have the answers,” the executive added.
He said for the past two years his company has been working with some 15 farmers in the island’s central and western regions. The first harvest is expected in 2017.
“It’s a long-term project,” he said, noting that the beans from that initial harvest will have to be evaluated to make the necessary adjustments.
“This is a project that is planned, thought out, and not being done hastily. It is with the intention of planting specific varieties,” Cortés-Gelpi said. “We have all the conditions required to start a new agricultural industry based on the cultivation of a genuine Puerto Rican cacao under a series of controls, free of plagues, and with specific varieties.”
The two plants that the Cortés Group operates in the Dominican Republic (the second one came on stream late last year) partially process the chocolate for export to Puerto Rico where production is completed. The company employs 550 people in the neighboring island nation and 25 in Puerto Rico.
It used to have a larger local force when it ran its own distribution and sales office here but four years ago it hired Goya to be its distributor in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Cortés Group does its own distributing in the Dominican Republic through some 19,000 points of sale ranging from the smallest corner store to large supermarket chains.
“Demand for chocolate is growing exponentially,” said Cortés, who presides over the company that his Puerto Rican grandfather started in the Dominican Republic in 1929. The company next year will celebrate its 85th anniversary.
The Cortés Group has yearly sales of more than $40 million. The company produces 51 chocolate-related products, from chocolate bars and powdered chocolate to small, wrapped chocolate candies used in the Dominican Republic as informal currency. Instead of change, a store will give customers a “cacaito,” which is equivalent to one DR peso.
Chocolate in everything
ChocoBar is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The menu includes soups, sandwiches, salads, tapas, and desserts, everything either coupled, infused or made with chocolate to reflect the product’s variety and versatility in the kitchen. The restaurant seats 75 people and counts with a staff of 12 employees, of whom eight work in the kitchen, including guest master chocolatier Ricardo de Obaldía. A native of Panama, he trained in Spain.
Not counting liquor sales, the restaurant, which is available for private functions, is expected to generate some $35,000 monthly, by the company’s own estimates.
Plans are to open the restaurant for dinner Thursday through Saturday, possibly beginning at the end of October, according to Elaine Shehab-Cortés, who worked with architect Evelio Pina on the ChocoBar’s vibrant design, highlighted by the vivid use of color, photo collages on the wall, and chocolate-themed art. Two screens, at different spots in the restaurant, run a 19-minute video on Cortés’ chocolate-making operation.
“We’re in Old San Juan, as a tourism center it attracts people from all over the world, she said. “They are going to come here and they will learn of our brand.”