FOUNDER of Bellevue Exotic Chocolate Makesi Paul does not see himself as a serial entrepreneur, though he has dipped his hands into many business ventures.
During the first covid19 lockdown in 2020, the chocolate-maker failed his way to making a product of which he is proud – a series of failures he can laugh about now.
After months of burning chocolate, adding too much salt to the coconut sea salt flavour, water and chocolate not mixing and random mishaps happening overnight, Paul has finally reached a point where he can say, "This is my first official business."
A civil/structural engineer, who studied at Johns Hopkins University after receiving a national open scholarship, he said, "What wrapped me into bringing this project home was the community of local farmers and agriculture enthusiasts."
Paul was inspired by local farmers and how they did what they did well, in novel and innovative ways.
Asked why he chose the business of chocolate, Paul said, "We have the best. TT is known for its cocoa, and it is important to help spread it throughout the world." Historically, TT had been known internationally to have some of the best chocolate there is – but the local chocolate industry, which had great potential, fell on the back burner as natural gas gained prominence as the country's main export.
But given recent prices and diminishing reserves, more conversation on diversifying the economy had brought TT full circle – agriculture, especially local chocolate, now being on the tip of the tongue as a lucrative industry.
Paul said the nudge also had to do with a friend of his owning a cocoa farm in Grenada, which he visited and gained experience in cocoa farming, fortifying his love for chocolate.
Paul, who did a week-long, immersive course in the art of chocolate-making at the Cocoa Research Centre (CRC) at UWI, St Augustine, said chocolate represents an economic opportunity for TT.
"At that centre we have some of the best chocolate research in the world, I believe. There is something called the cocoa bank, where there are strains of chocolate from around the world, and where we can genetically engineer them to withstand diseases and graft them for flavouring. TT is well poised within the international chocolate space."Paul said a prophet is not without honour except in his own country, comparing that principle to the chocolate from TT – the people of TT don't praise the quality of the country's chocolate.
He said opportunity exists for entrepreneurship in the industry, given the availability of government grants for businesses in agriculture.
After the course at UWI, he invested in equipment and a space, which he found in Macoya, to set up the business for production.
The slogan of the company – "This is what chocolate can do" – speaks to the exotic flavours of the product, which Paul said say much about organic cocoa from TT.
He said unlike cocoa from many parts of the world, TT's cocoa has not undergone genetic modification, but has rare flavours.
"Regis Bouet, a chocolatier from France who had over 30 years of experience, was recommended by the CRC to teach us. He gave us formulas, and shared ideas with us, such as how to get creative with the flavours. That's how we ended up using things such as the tonka bean and nutmeg."
Speaking of the brand he has since founded, Paul said, "The crowd favourite in Trinidad is coconut sea salt, while the favourite in Tobago is nutmeg."
Asked how he came up with the
flavours – coconut sea salt, spice melody, nutmeg mace and tonka bean – Paul said inspiration came from Salon du Chocolat, a TV show from France he encountered before launching his business.
"I later went to the salon with a group. We tasted chocolate from all over the world."
He said the event included chocolate in all possible forms, from dinosaurs to dresses made mostly of chocolate.
After that, Paul decided whatever chocolate he produced must be able to compete with the best of the best at le Salon.
He distinguished chocolate from chocolate-flavoured candy: the former has vastly more offerings of naturally sourced flavours.
"When you have a bar of chocolate that is 70 or 65 per cent chocolate – where the majority of its flavour comes straight from the plant – you have the difference from bulk products with low flavour profiles, which means there are natural flavour notes."
These are species, he said, that were not genetically modified, but over time, shared flavour notes, as a result of inter-cropping techniques, where two or more crops are grown nearby.
This is what happens in Trinidad – resulting in some of the flavours that can only be found here.
"What our cocoa in TT can do cannot be done with cocoa from other parts of the world."
Asked how he has set his company apart from other producers of premium local chocolate, Paul said his approach is pushing the limits of the local palate for chocolate, which he said has become more refined in recent years.
"As the world already acknowledged the greatness of our chocolate, we are getting to understand why it is so great."
He mentioned not only the rush of the happy hormone, dopamine, that comes from eating a block of dark chocolate, but the benefits of dark chocolate to heart health and blood flow.
And then there's the taste.
"Bellevue is set aside by the exquisite flavour combinations. For example, coconut sea salt is one of a kind. Eating it, at first you get the sweet flavour of the coconut. Then at the end, you get a gentle rush of sea salt like a blessing."
Paul said while some retailers selling his products have been closed under covid19 restrictions, his chocolate is still doing well.
While this is not the ideal environment for business, he will "use this time to see how I can take things to the next level. I welcome the pause."
He said he is inspired by a drive to help show that the region can produce things comparable to anywhere else in the world that exports premium products. He mentioned local brands such as local granola makers Rheem, for some of the best products on the market, maybe even in the world – made in TT.
Paul believes there is much opportunity for business in agriculture,
"If the government didn't see the value in it, there would not be so many grants for business ventures in the industry. So it is for people who can gather equipment and resources to take advantage of these opportunities."
He encourages young entrepreneurs to bring their skills and talent together to create opportunities. In reinforcing the message of collaboration he said he had to shout out local visual artist Nicholas Huggins, with whom he collaborated to create the visuals for the brand. He said collaborators helped him broaden his ideas and come up with the optimal and most creative ways of running a business in the era after covid19 appeared.
Asked what keeps him motivated, especially in trying economic times such as these, Paul said, "Bellevue Exotic Chocolate exists to help show that TT, and the region, can do things so well for the international market that the world will appreciate what we are doing. It will also show us that we do not have to look outside the region for what we want. We will realise we don't have to buy the imported brands to get what we want. Right here in TT, we can."
Bellevue Exotic Chocolate can be found in 20 stores across TT, including Full Bloom, Dianne's Tea Shop, Adam's, Peppercorns and Noir Cafe in the east, to name a few.
"Now, with the lockdown, there are no store sales, but I am using the time to get more creative and do some marketing for when stores reopen. Until then it can be found at QuikPharm on the avenue and on Frederick Street. It can also be found at Aioli Market."