It’s Chocolate For The People! At Khanh-Linh Le And Gricha Safarian’s The Cocoa Project

The Cocoa Project and cofounder Khanh-Linh le

It was 4am, at a bus stop in Da Lat, when serendipity struck. Sitting next to Khanh-Linh Le was Belgian entrepreneur Gricha Safarian. To pass the time they struck up a conversation. Quickly, they realized they shared a love of chocolate. And, right there, the seed of an idea that would grow into The Cocoa Project, a company whose mission it is to “create a chocolate culture for Vietnamese people,” was planted.

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

Unbeknownst to Khanh-Linh Le when they sat down together, Gricha Safarian was nicknamed ‘the chocolate king of Vietnam.’ He’d been working in the chocolate industry since the early 1990s, for a company called Grand Palace, that would later be called Puratos Grand Palace. “I guess it was just a lucky day,” Khanh-Linh Le smiles.

Obsessed With Chocolate

Only a few years before, Khanh-Linh Le had come to Vietnam. Although both her parents are Vietnamese, she was born and raised in France. She’d always been kind of obsessed with chocolate, Khanh-Linh remembers. “But it wasn’t just that I liked to eat it. I think it was chocolate’s history, and the culture around it that fascinated me too,” she says. “And as you dig deeper, there’s the evolution of the industry, and lots of challenges along the way. And then there’s questions of sustainability and the social impact of the supply chain.”

She was aware that Vietnamese loved coffee and there’s a thriving cafe culture. “And I wondered if chocolate, and later The Cocoa Project, could become a habit too,” she remembers.

It’s an inward-looking approach that marks The Cocoa Project out from other local chocolate companies who focus, to different degrees, on the international market. 

The Cocoa Project frontage in what used to be a 1950s modernist mansion.
Originally, The Cocoa Project, at 143 Nguyen Dinh Chieu in Saigon, was going to be a museum.

In fact, The Cocoa Project wasn’t always envisioned as a cafe-store and chocolate retailer. Originally, Khanh-Linh Le and Gricha Safarian planned to open a chocolate museum, “to pay tribute to farmers and to tell the story, and promote, the sustainable approach to cacao production.” 

She had seen lots of small, creative museums. In Europe, there was a wine and spirits museum and some chocolate museums. The latter, called Choco Story, which has lots of visitors’ centers in European cities like Brussels, Bruges and Paris, was especially interesting.

“I got to learn the history of cacao – how it had been transported from Mexico to Europe, how it’s cultivated, and how it’s consumed.” There was the Starbucks New York Roastery, an experience-driven museum, with a theater and other elements. “The cup noodle museum, in Yokohama, Japan, was another inspiration at the time too,” she adds. She liked how a simple museum could convey deeper meaning. Take the cup noodle museum, a kitschy sounding excursion that, she remembers, also conveyed a bigger message about perseverance, unceasing determination, endless creativity, and winning against the odds.

French-born Khanh-Linh Le of The Cocoa Project
The Cocoa Project’s co-founder Khanh-Linh Le.

The Cocoa Project Remained The Same: Create A Culture Of Enjoying Chocolate In Vietnam

Despite all that, Khanh-Linh and Gricha’s museum plan never happened. Not quite like that anyway. “But although, in the end, our concept changed, the core idea remained the same,” Khanh-Linh explains, “to create a culture of enjoying chocolate in Vietnam.”

During that intervening time, Gricha Safarian would change the way Khanh-Linh looked at chocolate. “Up until then, I’d always viewed chocolate as a product or an ingredient. But, talking to him, I started to understand the complexity of cacao. For example, the process of making chocolate from cacao beans is akin to wine making in its complexity – fermentation processes in cacao could strongly affect the finished product’s taste.”

That was just one consideration to confront. Because besides that, domestic consumption of cacao was small. Like other valuable commodities, it gets exported. Plus, there’s not a lot of cacao grown, although production has been gradually increasing over the past few decades.

And All That Was Summed Up In The Name: The Cocoa Project

“It felt a bit contradictory to me,” Khanh-Linh nods. “Here is a product people have grown up with, but which they don’t consume. For most Vietnamese, their association to chocolate would be chocopies or chocolate coins!”

The objective then, was clear: “Change chocolate to suit the local market and redefine people’s perceptions of it.” And they summed it up in the name, The Cacao Project. “Because we wanted to talk about cacao and not just chocolate, and project because of the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of what we do, and because chocolate production, to us, involves an ethical supply chain to positively impact everyone from farmers to consumers.” They often host classes, talks and even exhibitions there too, to deepen guests’ experience and understanding of Vietnamese cacao.  

Upcycled furniture and art and recycled plastic at a Vietnamese coffee shop.
Art works, upcycled furniture, and recycled plastic at The Cocoa Project.

“Cacao beans in Vietnam are really special.”

There were some market conditions in their favor. Unlike in West Africa – another center for cacao production – where they cultivate the beans, but then transport them long distances to factories in Europe or America, in Vietnam cacao could be grown and prepared. 

The cacao tastes different here too. West African cacao tastes more fatty, Vietnamese cacao more fruity. “Cacao beans in Vietnam are really special,” she agrees. 

And so, with that uniquely local produce underpinning the project, they set about creating products Vietnamese would love, “things that had never existed before.” They made dark chocolate coated cashews. And a very special bar of chocolate made with mac khen, a pungent, pepper-like spice from Vietnam’s north-east. 

“We have a mini-factory on site,” Khanh-Linh says, pointing over to the back of the cavernous Cacao Project space, “so customers can also see how we make our chocolate products.”

Vietnamese dark chocolate covered cashews at The Cocoa Projects.
“The cacao tastes different here too.” The Cocoa Projects turning local consumers on to products like this, their cashew nuts in dark chocolate.

Converting A 1950s Modernist Mansion Into The Cocoa Project

The building, on Saigon’s Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, used to be a 1950s modernist mansion. The architects kept what they could while removing the roof and some of the walls allowing lots of light in, and creating a lush tropical garden out front.

There’s lots of art work on the walls and lots of the speckled material in the mirror frames and bars tops that comes from PLASTICPeople, the company giving a second life to used plastic. “I think we recycled almost half a ton of plastic,” Khanh-Linh smiles proudly.

Even most of the funky furnishings, the tables and chairs, were upcycled and the packaging sustainable. 

It’s because of all this, that The Cocoa Project has received glowing feedback from guests. “I think my favorite bit of feedback was that they could feel the love and care from our team flowing through the space,” she grins. 

And it’s true, you can.

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