You might think it would be a painful and difficult process to secure an interview with a man who makes “the best chocolate you’ve never tasted”, according to the New York Times. You’d be wrong, because Samuel Maruta isn’t your typical businessman. The co-founder and chairman of the Marou chocolate brand was more than happy to meet me at Hanoi’s Maison Marou, the company’s second café, chocolate store and production facility all rolled into one delicious, chocolaty package.
Sporting a bushy beard and an easy smile, Maruta speaks passionately and carefully about his work, making it easy to forget he’s only been in the chocolate industry about seven years. Even when he says the word ‘chocolate’ it sounds natural and effortless, at least compared to when the word is mangled by my Northern Irish accent (think ‘chack-lat’).
But what led a French-Japanese banker with no long-standing links to Vietnam to start making world-renowned Vietnamese artisan chocolate? Like creating a good bar of chocolate, the answer is equal parts serendipity and passion.
Nowadays, Marou has a café in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that both offer in-house pastries, hot drinks and the brand’s signature single-origin chocolate bars, each named after the province in Vietnam that the cacao beans used to make it came from.
They also have their Origin Plus range of bars, which combine coffee and coconut milk with chocolate, a rare range and some collaborative bars, all of which are available around the world, of course alongside the single-origin bars.
Maison Marou Hanoi even has a gorgeous working 1940s cacao roaster in the middle of the cafe, which Maruta said they had shipped in from Croatia. Looking around the large and airy Hanoi cafe, it’s hard to believe Marou’s first bars of chocolate were made in a kitchen in Ho Chi Minh City, with Maruta and co-founder Vincent Mourou peeling roasted beans by hand.
Maruta first came to Vietnam “totally by chance” in the summer of 1996 on a three-month internship programme. After completing his undergraduate studies in Paris and then a master’s in England, Maruta embarked on a career in finance.
While Maruta enjoyed a successful tenure working for banks in Tokyo, Paris and eventually Vietnam, he eventually became disillusioned with his work. “It’s honestly not a very pleasant job.” Well-aware that he “didn’t become a banker because I was dreaming of being a banker” and that “life is too short to be doing this sort of stuff for too long”, Maruta quit his job in Ho Chi Minh City, where he lived with his wife and two children.
Temporarily unshackled from the constraints of employment, Maruta was free to explore more of Vietnam and signed up for a weekend trek in the jungle in Lam Dong Province. It was on this trip that he met fellow Frenchman Vincent Mourou.
Of course, the pair didn’t meet once in the middle of the jungle and decide to go into business together. Instead fate threw them together twice more, at Vietnamese language classes and again at a charity scooter ride, all within the span of about three months. “I think it was serendipity,” said Maruta.
After the scooter ride (Maruta is something of a petrolhead and has considered launching a homegrown Vietnamese motorbike brand) the two of them sat down for drinks and learned they had a lot in common. Mourou had also fallen out of love with his work. After working in Hollywood’s film industry and advertising in London, Paris and San Francisco, he had grown sick of the hectic corporate lifestyle and decided to travel the world, ending up in Vietnam in 2010.
Both in between jobs, tired of the rat race and intrigued by Vietnam’s favourable business environment, the pair discovered they had a mutual interest in the cacao plant, and Maruta had worked with a state-owned cacao company. “It was really this chance meeting of two people interested in the same thing and that’s where it really started to dawn on us that we could do something together,” recalled Maruta.
Despite having no background in making chocolate, the pair went to work making their first batch after having secured their first beans. While that may seem like a daunting task for novices, Maruta told me a dirty little secret. “It’s really not that difficult,” he smiled. “There’s no instruction manual for making chocolate, but it’s kind of the fun part figuring out how to make chocolate from cacao beans. You know what you have to do but figuring out the roasting time, what sort of equipment you need to grind chocolate, that’s the thing.”
With plenty of hard work, advice from others in the industry and a few prudent hires, Marou was receiving orders less than a year after starting out in early 2011, and hasn’t looked back since. Despite the company’s success, Mourou and Maruta haven’t forgotten their humble beginnings. They source all their materials in Vietnam, from the cacao in the chocolate to paper its wrapped in, and works with same small-scale farmers it did at the beginning. Marou is also committed to paying these farmers a fair price, something that Maruta recognises is becoming increasingly important.
As Vietnam develops and moves away from an agrarian economy to focus on industrialisation, there’s a risk cacao farming as a trade could die out. Maruta is cognisant of the threat this poses to his business. “What I notice is everybody is getting older. It’s a real problem. Most of the farmers we work with are in their 50s, 60s, sometimes 70s. The farmers’ children get jobs in Ho Chi Minh City. They’re not going to go back to the farm, so there’s a real question mark as to what we’re going to do when they retire.”
The company’s solution is to make planting cacao as attractive as possible and encouraging farmers to consolidate small farms together to create bigger plantations, something made difficult by high land prices. On top of this, drought and increasing salination in the Mekong Delta have wiped out some cacao trees. A particularly bad year of weather in 2016 destroyed all the cacao trees on a small island in the delta, which had been used to make Maruta’s favourite bar, the aptly-named Treasure Island.
Despite these concerns, it’s a safe bet that the future is bright for Marou, largely because the company’s founders aren’t greedy. When they first started out, Maruta said he and Mourou decided they would avoid the same profit over everything approach they were burnt out by in their old jobs. “The business model we were looking at was something we could pass down to the next generation. Something that doesn’t necessarily grow very fast.”
Maruta said they had rejected numerous proposals from investors to expand the business, and though the overtures were tempting, he said resisting them allowed them to run Marou their way. “We’ve come to appreciate how much freedom organic growth has given us,” explained Maruta. “The fact we’re not reliant on external partners – we can actually do stuff like pay the farmers more, pay employees more, give benefits, and we have a very low turnover. People are very happy and proud to be working for Marou.”
With a nod to his childhood memories, the chocolatier reflected on what matters most to him. “Chocolate is a product you can be proud of. It’s tangible. It’s not abstract. It’s something you make that you can eat, which is always a good thing… You don’t have childhood memories of coffee, because kids don’t drink coffee. But everybody’s got childhood memories of chocolate. It always opens this box of memories and feel-good things.”