ISABEL BRASH Building a chocolate empire

However, Isabel Brash’s hobby blossomed and her hard work has resulted in the chocolate maker and confectioner being a finalist in The Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce’s annual Champions of Business Induction Ceremony in the EY Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year category for her company, Cocobel Chocolate Limited.

Brash told Sunday Newsday that being nominated was an honour but being a finalist was an even greater pleasure. She said she was especially surprised because Cocobel did not advertise much so most of its marketing took place through word of mouth. “I don’t know who nominated Cocobel, but I think it’s really cool that someone thought of us. It’s nice to be on people’s mind in a positive way,” she said.

This is especially the case because of the many challenges - physical, personal, financial, and organisational - Brash had to face during the seven years since she started the company.

For example, Brash admitted that at first she knew nothing at all about chocolate and had no one to advise her. However, after overcoming her ignorance, she had to face the ignorance of the public, who did not understand why her chocolates were so expensive. She then had to educate the market on the processes, which she did herself, including roasting the cocoa, shelling it by hand, grinding it for days, making the chocolate, pureeing different fruits, etc. “That too was a challenge because I am not a very social person. I love designing and creating but it was a lot of pressure having to talk about it,” she said.

Also, all the hard work took a toll on her body. She said she did not get a full night’s sleep for about five years after she started the company, and would fall sick from exhaustion, and even had a few emotional breakdowns during that time.

In addition, she said she only started to make profit in 2011 when she moved out of her mother’s kitchen into Cocobel’s home on Fitt Street, which she designed.

She was supported by family and friends who believed in her and invested in the business and her capabilities.

She also did not know much about the financial and administrative aspects of running a business but thankfully, she now has Crista Morgan, who assists with Cocobel’s organisation.

However, Brash believes Cocobel survived because of a combination of stubbornness, determination, pride and passion. “I’m talking about the kind of fiery, love/hate kind of passion... When you are in something and you know how important it is but it’s very difficult,” she said.

As the company grew and became “enriched with people,” she received further motivation in the form of her staff and suppliers.

Now that so many people were dependant on the company’s success, she knew that, despite the difficulties, she could not give up on it.

Brash noted that she gets her beans already fermented and dried from the farmers at Rancho Quemado Estate, Siparia. She stressed that the farmers were very important to the process because fermentation is important to the taste of the chocolate.

“I never underestimate the value of the raw product. Farmers who do an excellent job should be rewarded.

The beans should be paid for properly.

They should not have to make chocolate to make money,” she said.

Therefore, Brash is focussed on making Cocobel Chocolate a high quality product that is well presented and that can compete anywhere in the world.

Her dream is for Cocobel to be synonymous with Trinidad and Tobago. “I realised that it is something I can do for my country, something that can tie me into giving back. I want people to say, ‘I’m going to Trinidad so I have to visit Cocobel,’” she said.

THE INCEPTION In 2005 Brash returned to Trinidad after finishing her Masters in Architecture in London, to work with a local architectural firm. She had worked there for three years when business started to slow down. “I am just the type of person that I need to have something to do. I love just making things but cocoa popped into my head,” she said.

Brash told Sunday Newsday that, a few years before, she visited a local food festival where she bought a chocolate bar made from Grand Couva cocoa but made in France. She found it strange that the chocolate was not made locally, and she had never tasted chocolate like it before, so she believed the idea stuck in her mind.

Therefore, in 2008, she began researching chocolate on the Internet, learning about the bean itself and the different processes and reactions that would convert the bean into chocolate and its various by-products. “It’s like architecture.

It’s problem solving.

I loved the idea of making something from scratch.

I like to challenge myself in that way,” she said.

She noted that her initial thought was to make “pretty chocolates” for exhibition openings at Medulla Art Gallery, the building she was designing at the time.

However, as she shared her chocolates with friends and family, they, in turn, shared it with others. She began to get chocolate job offers and she did that part time while still working as an architect.

In 2009, the World Cocoa Foundation had its international meeting in Trinidad and the man who pressed her cocoa butter encouraged her to do a display, which she did.

Her father named the chocolate Cocobel, which means “brown beauty” in patois. She liked the name because it was something to which Trinbagonians could relate and wanted people to feel as if they to owned Cocobel.

“The international chocolate experts were very encouraging and helpful, and from then I realised I was getting deeper in this and that I would stick with it,” she said.

Soon after she was invited to work with Ali Khan of Hilton Trinidad, to do a presentation for Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOG M), so that by the time she registered Cocobel later that year, she realised she was mostly done with the business of architecture.

TASTE THE MEMORIES Brash has created a wide selection of flavours from which to choose and most of them have a Trini flair. The idea, she said, is to invoke childhood memories.

Some of the flavours include Dark Sorrel with clove and cinnamon to evoke Trini Christmas; Mango Pepper because Trinis like to add spice to everything; Rum and Raisin because, while raisins are not from this country, the flavour is ingrained in our local culture; Ponche De Creme, which is white chocolate with nutmeg; a pineapple with chadon beni chocolate called “Mermaid’s Kiss” which reminded her of buying pineapple chow on the way to Maracas; and Felicity (cardamom and cashew), which evokes barfi and Divali.

She noted that she got the idea of her Guavas and Cream chocolate from a desert her mother told her about called guava stew with custard. “It wasn’t as if I was on this “go local” thing. I just thought it would be cool to use things from here. I thought, ‘I’ve never had a chocolate with guava in it before. I’d like to do that.

So I had to go look up how to make guava cheese,” she said.

“The brand just evolved that way. I realised I wanted to tell our story in a box - our culture and traditions. So that someone who eats it would relate it to a memory and experience,” she added.

The designs of the individual chocolates were also based on how she felt about the tastes she created.

She explained that the mango pepper flavour is “a bit wild” so she thought of Carnival, so the decoration is splashes of jab jab colours - blue, red, and yellow.

Recognising years of careful thought and hard work, the TT Chamber of Commerce finalists of the EY Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year award also include Anya Ayoung Chee of Anya Ayoung Chee Limited, and David Thomas and Rachel Renie of Market Movers Limited.

The winner of the will be announced on November 12 at the Champions of Business Induction Ceremony and Gala Cocktail Reception at the Hyatt Regency in Port-of-Spain.


"ISABEL BRASH Building a chocolate empire"

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