Cacao Sampaka—Journey of cocoa across time and space

Cacao Sampaka—Journey of cocoa across time and space

[INTERVIEW]

Mr. Fumihiro Yamasaki
President of Cacao Sampaka Japan and the General Manager of the Asia Department at Cacao Sampaka, S.A.

JAPAN and the WORLD sat down with Mr. Fumihiro Yamasaki to deepen our knowledge about the cocoa industry.


—You opened the first store of Cacao Sampaka in Japan in 2009. How did you get involved in the chocolate business

I have been engaged in designing promotional items in the sports industry and often visited Europe, including Italy, U.K. and Spain. Once, during my business trip to Barcelona, I was impressed by Cacao Sampaka’s sophisticated and conceptual shop, and learned that it was a sought-after brand that many companies had tried to introduce in Japan.

I was further interested in the brand, as the company had a policy of looking at an overseas partner’s individual personality rather than just exporting its products. Although accounting for only 2% of the whole sales of the Nederland Group, Cacao Sampaka was the group’s first consumer business. The company was built using the concept of delivering good tasting and quality cocoa. It took me nearly two years after my first visit to the company in Barcelona to convince all the stakeholders to agree to my business plan in Japan and finally get the contract.

Cacao Sampaka

Fumihiro Yamasaki is the president of Cacao Sampaka Japan and the general manager of the Asia Department at Cacao Sampaka, S.A., an associate company within the Nederland Group, led by Nederland S.A. headquartered in Barcelona. Founded in 1935, the Nederland Group is Spain’s largest importer and manufacturer of cocoa.

Cacao Sampaka was established in 1999 and made a spectacular debut in Barcelona by implementing new possibilities and ideas in the chocolate industry. Cacao Sampaka attracts visitors from around the world, which has resulted in the opening of stores in major cities in Spain and in other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Japan.

—What are unique points about chocolate consumption in Japan?

Annual chocolate consumption per capita in Japan was 1.8 kg in 2000 and 2.0 kg in 2014. Although it is much less than the consumption in Europe or the United States, Japan is the largest chocolate consumer in Asia.

Cocoa beans are fermented and dried by farmers in the cocoa producing countries. / Credits: Cacao Sampaka.
Cocoa beans are fermented and dried by farmers in the cocoa producing countries. / Credits: Cacao Sampaka.

While the growth of domestic chocolate consumption from 2000 to 2014 was 9%, the import volume of chocolate from overseas increased by around 50%. I think one of the reasons for that is the increasing popularity of overseas chocolatiers. In the late 1990’s, Japanese pâtissiers, who were trained abroad and did well at international competitions, attracted attention. Therefore, from 2000, various overseas chocolate brands opened their stores in Japan. This trend had an impact on St. Valentine’s Day on February 14 and White Day on March 14.

The chocolate market size of Valentine’s Day in Japan is over 5 billion yen, which means that more than 10% of the country’s annual chocolate sales are done within two weeks. It is an original Japanese chocolate culture that women give chocolate to men. To express their gratitude, men reciprocate with presents to women on White Day. There are more than 200 brands of chocolates on sale during the Valentine’s Day season in Japan.

—Did you have a difficult time promoting Cacao Sampaka’s products in Japan?

Of course, there were already many chocolate brands from Europe, but only a few brands had their stores managed directly in Tokyo in 2009. I saw the possibility in the essence of cocoa beans as a natural fruit, on which Cacao Sampaka puts the most importance. In 1999 there were no other brands that included “cacao” in their names but us. It is our advantage that we are within the Nederland Group that deals with the whole process of the cocoa industry.

Cocoa tree and fruit. / Credits: Cacao Sampaka.
Cocoa tree and fruit. / Credits: Cacao Sampaka.

The history of chocolate in Japan, which started from an accessible blended taste at reasonable prices, goes back just over a century. The next step is to get a profound knowledge of chocolate such as the quality and taste of cocoa beans. Actually, I realize that the chocolate culture in Japan has been rapidly growing over the past 10 years since I got involved in the chocolate business.

Japanese people have a delicate sense of taste that appreciates the difference of each kind of cocoa bean, which will be a new discovery for them like I experienced when I first tasted Cacao Sampaka’s products in Barcelona.

Our product lineup includes a nine-bonbon pack featuring cocoa beans from nine different countries respectively. Also, we have 12 kinds of chocolate bars featuring 12 different cocoa beans―six from Africa and six from Latin America. I believe that Japanese people have a delicate sense of taste that appreciates the difference of each kind of cocoa bean, which will be a new discovery for them like I experienced when I first tasted Cacao Sampaka’s products in Barcelona.

For those who are not chocolate lovers, we have promoted our products in different ways. For example, our store in Marunouchi was the only foreign chocolate brand to sell soft-serve ice cream using chocolate, and that has attracted new clients. Now we have stores in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, and Osaka too.

Cacao Sampaka shop in Marunouchi, Tokyo. / Credits: Cacao Sampaka.
Cacao Sampaka shop in Marunouchi, Tokyo. / Credits: Cacao Sampaka.

One of the biggest challenges for us was the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 in 2011. Expensive products are naturally the first target to be cut from the market. At that time, we organized a charity by selling our products at half price and donating our sales to the disaster-hit areas via the Japanese Red Cross Society. Fortunately, the chocolate market has been revitalized in the recent years.

—What is the reason behind expanding your business to include a distributing function?

Originating in the United States, “Bean to Bar” shops are gaining popularity in the chocolate industry in Japan. In recent years, small-scale chocolatiers started manufacturing chocolate from buying cocoa beans and Operating process of roasting, breaking and conching. Complementing their lack of importing function, we are going to serve as a distributor of cocoa beans, making the best use of our position within the Nederland Group. We will offer cocoa beans from around the world at a proper price and would like to give them advice on chocolate production from a hygiene perspective as well as on a technical level.

—How can the cocoa industry contribute to developing countries?

Cocoa is produced in more than 40 countries in a belt between 10ºN and 10ºS of the equator, where the climate is appropriate for growing cocoa trees. Many of cocoa growing countries around the world are still facing big challenges in building basic infrastructure, as well as improving their literacy rates.

Valentine season in Japan. / Credits: Cacao Sampaka.
Valentine season in Japan. / Credits: Cacao Sampaka.

I realized that the process of fermentation and drying, done by the cocoa farmers, is solely based on their experience. These processes greatly affect the quality of the cocoa materials and eventually the final chocolate products. In order to get accurate records in cocoa production, I think it is essential to cultivate human resources, people who will become the leaders of the local chocolate industry.

The idea is to contribute to the local people by improving literacy rate, as well as agricultural technology and living environment, which may be eventually one of the solutions to the possible shortage of cocoa in the future.

With such ideas, we are now planning to run a school project for these countries. The idea is to contribute to the local people by improving the literacy rate, as well as agricultural technology and their living environment, which may be eventually one of the solutions to the possible shortage of cocoa in the future.

—What does the future hold for cocoa and the chocolate industry?

According to Mars Inc. and Barry Callebaut AG, one of the world’s largest chocolate makers, the world’s cocoa demand is estimated to be 5 million metric tons while its supply will be 4 million metric tons, which will make the gap one million metric tons in 2020. I hope that agricultural advisory and support from the developed countries will improve the productivity and environment of the cocoa producing centers in developing countries.

I believe that cocoa will become even more indispensable for us in the future as one of the fundamental fermented foods, as its scientific name Theobroma cacao is derived from the Greek for “food of the gods.”


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