When chocolate bars bearing the name Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat began popping up in shops and cafes around Saigon a decade ago — each artful wrapper proudly proclaiming the Vietnamese province its cacao had come from — you would have been forgiven for thinking the brand had been around for a long while, such was its sense of place.
In truth, Marou was little more than a gutsy startup at the time — the attempt of a former filmmaker and former banker to chase a new adventure.
Founders Vincent Mourou and Samuel Maruta had met while trekking in the south Vietnamese jungle and quickly became close friends. When they caught wind of a few thousand acres of cacao growing in and around the Mekong Delta, the pair decided to investigate the potential for making chocolate in Vietnam – something which hadn’t yet been done.
“I checked the market when I started at Marou in 2012 and realized that we didn’t have any chocolate produced in Vietnam,” says Thao Nguyen, “Few people even knew there was cacao in the country. The farmers didn’t really know what to do with it. They would sell it as a raw material for export at a cheap price.”
Mourou and Maruta dreamed of putting this cacao to better use by creating distinctly Vietnamese chocolate and bringing it to the world, and in turn bringing something back to Vietnam.
“There were very few people producing and exporting chocolate from the country of origin.” Mourou says, “The traditional model was cacao growing in the tropics, going to a cold country, and of course there’s value added there, but it never comes back. That’s something we wanted to change.”
The Adventure Begins
Enthused by the idea of chasing cacao all over rural Vietnam, the pair bought an old Citroen La Dalat in Bao Loc, then hit the road. When Vietcetera spent a day in the La Dalat with Mourou back in 2018, he confessed just how maverick an operation it was at the time, laughing, “We were really flying by the seat of our pants back then.”
Because of the fact that no one in Vietnam was actually making chocolate, there was no machinery, so Maruta and Mourou were learning to be engineers and chocolatiers all at once, scouring local markets for equipment and repurposing it to fit their needs. They made headway though, launching Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat in November 2011, nine months after its conception. In no time at all, the pair were filling suitcases with chocolate and showcasing them at expos in Hong Kong, Paris and Singapore as well as to stores in Vietnam.
Ten years on, the company has gone, in Nguyen’s words, “From nothing to everything.”
“Back then we were just a few people in the office, but now we have a huge amount of employees, we’re in different locations and have different products. It’s been amazing to see it all grow.”
That growth has been remarkable, with Marou products now a fixture in specialty shops in Vietnam and abroad, while their stores in Vietnam sell artisanal pastries as well as their signature chocolates.
“It started with just Sam and I,” recalls Mourou, “And today we have 177 employees. We opened Maison Marou on Calmette Street (District One, Ho Chi Minh City) in 2016, then we went to Hanoi in 2017, and we opened Maison Marou Thao Dien in 2020. We export to over 20 countries, and we’re also on the verge of releasing a whole new range of products and a new concept – Marou Stations – where we’ll take our products to the customer rather than them coming to us.”
The Watershed Moments
Asking Mourou about the seminal moments in those early days, he reels off a whole catalog – meeting his co-founder Maruta, finding and roasting cacao for the first time, impressing respected chocolate makers with their sample bars at a Hong Kong expo, and opening up their factory just outside of Saigon with the help of revered chocolatier Arnaud Normand. Then came their very first sale to the erstwhile Oasis Deli in Thao Dien, the hiring of chef Stephanie Aubriot, FDA approval in 2018, and of course launching the flagship shop on Calmette Street.
However one of the most pivotal moments was an otherwise unremarkable day in February 2012. That was the day Nguyen Nguyen walked in and asked for a job. She was working in Snap Cafe right next door to Oasis Deli when she saw Marou’s poster on the wall and a newspaper clipping that told their story.
“I just saw that picture of Sam and Vincent amongst the Cacao trees,” she says. “I read that story about the banker and the filmmaker setting off and making chocolate and I was so inspired. That very moment I realized I wanted to work for that company. I wanted to join that adventure.” One week later, she packed in her job and joined Team Marou.
Though today she’s the communications project coordinator, Nguyen has taken on just about every role at the company in her nine years — training and development officer, domestic sales manager, and export manager. It’s befitting of a company that values experimentation and adventure that Nguyen, like many of her colleagues, was able to try out different roles and climb the ranks.
“Thao took care of our very first exports,” Mourou tells us, “This all fell around the same time that we were first getting serious interest from overseas distributors and chocolate fans.”
Her timing couldn’t have been any better. Thanks to her efforts in exporting Marou products, committee members from the eminent Salon du Chocolat in Paris got a taste of Vietnam’s first chocolate, and immediately invited Marou to their prestigious event as a “New Talent in Chocolate.”
To say Marou went down well in Paris would be an understatement. “We ended up in I don’t how many of the main French publications. Our families were in disbelief and so were we!” Mourou remembers, “We were in a taxi one night when I heard that we were in Le Parisien (the leading French daily newspaper). We shouted at the driver to stop, hopped out and went to a kiosk to grab a newspaper. It was a full-page spread… that was extraordinary.”
Approval From The Crème De La Crème
Validation for the quality of Marou’s early products came in the form of approval from the late Michel Roux, a three-time Michelin star chef, and Pierre Hermé, the chocolatier and pastry chef voted number one in the world in 2016.
On winning the respect of Roux, Mourou says, “Sam and I were both speechless. It was actually through him that we met our current chef Stephanie,” Mourou tells us. “As for Pierre, when we were in Paris he set up a meeting with us in this extraordinary old building where his office was. He had our bars laid out in front of him and told us, ‘I’ve had these bars for eight months, and I’ve been waiting for this moment to try them with you.’”
“So we took him through the bars and told him all about the origin, the profile and flavor.” Mourou laughs, “It was really intimidating actually. He’s a very important figure, and he doesn’t speak that much! But that was an extraordinary moment for us.”
Around The World And Back To Vietnam
Considering that so much of the international excitement about Marou Chocolate predates the company’s flagship store by four years, it becomes apparent that the brand had caught the imagination of the global market before Vietnam.
“Interestingly enough, for many years, our brand was much bigger than our revenue,” reveals Mourou. “In the early years people thought we were this super established company, but we weren’t — we had maybe fifteen or twenty employees and were doing things very simply, but our brand was international, grabbing the attention of The New York Times, available in twenty countries, and winning awards.”
What was it about Marou that lit such a fire under people? “I think two things. It was a new taste in chocolate – it was a new origin. Chocolate lovers had never tasted something like this. It reminded them maybe of Madagascar or Indonesia, but it was quite unique.” Mourou goes on, “The second thing was, we made people dream! People in cubicles in London were writing to us about it. We were communicating something through the bar but also the visuals and our story – these guys just following their passion and doing things without compromise, in a place like Vietnam.”
It was after the 2016 opening of the company’s first physical store on Calmette Street that things really started to take off in Vietnam. “In 2015 the middle class in Vietnam really started to open up. That’s when we saw the opportunity to do something like Maison Marou.”
While bringing Vietnamese chocolate to a global market craving a new taste had been a success, there was an added challenge in bringing it back home – convincing the Vietnamese people that top quality specialty chocolate could be made right here at home, and it could be done without the overuse of sugar or additives.
“For the Vietnamese, they almost couldn’t believe it. They couldn't believe that we were actually making chocolate in Vietnam and were doing well. There was this brand that had a certain maturity, and it was grabbing their attention but also international attention.”
Global prestige coupled with the rapidly expanding Vietnamese economy led to Marou becoming just as successful at home as it was on the international front. “When we started Marou, we were doing around 75% exports and 25% sales in Vietnam. Just before the pandemic hit in 2020, we were doing 15% exports and 85% domestic sales.”
That’s not to say that exports have dropped, just that sales within Vietnam have grown so much in both their own stores and specialty outlets all over the country.
The One They Lost Along The Way
Since we’re reflecting on Marou’s first decade, the name of Mourou’s co-conspirator Samuel Maruta comes up again and again. On January 6, 2021, the Marou family suffered a terrible loss as Maruta passed away in France, aged just 46.
His passing still weighs heavily on Mourou and Nguyen. “Sam has been one of the most extraordinary, one of the most important people in my life, and one of my greatest friends,” Mourou says. “We had a great respect for one another, for what we wanted to do and the values that we had. Marou is a values-based company, and we spoke about this deeply in our first conversation about starting this business.”
He continues, “Sam was very smart, very well-read, very cultured and very humane. He behaved like an artist, and like a very rational person in turn. He had this great spirit of adventure, loved going out to the jungle and getting ready for those trips in nature. We just had amazing times together.”
Maruta’s Roadmap And The Phở Spice Bar, 'An Ode To Vietnam'
Though Maruta’s passing has left an indelible mark, Mourou elects to shine a light on how his partner’s efforts in life have paved the way for their future.
“I’ll talk about the beautiful thing – the legacy,” he begins, “Because of Covid, things were challenging. We wanted to accelerate things at Marou, so we went looking for partners to invest in the company. We were, fortunately, able to do that together. The partners got to know him well, bought into our vision, and were committed to us. So when he passed away, he’d already kind of taken care of everything. I wasn’t left with unanswered questions like ‘what would he want?’. He’d already given us the roadmap for the future.”
“Now this year, we’ve never been so dynamic. As well as the Marou Stations, we have a new line of chocolate called “Marou Bar”, and a chocolate energy bar called “Iron Bar” coming out in January 2022 which we’re really excited about.”
One thing Maruta dreamed up back in those early years has also been added to the inventory. Upon leaving the factory one lunchtime and passing by a phở shop, he caught a whiff of the spices being grilled over a wood fire – star anise, cardamom, coriander seeds, cinnamon and cloves. He had the brainwave of trying to infuse a Vietnamese chocolate bar with the very same spices that emanated around them. “This year, our talented chocolatier Dinh from Maison Marou Saigon came up with a special blend of those spices, so we’ve created the ‘Vietnam Phở Spice Bar’, which we’re releasing on December 10 to mark our anniversary.”
Nguyen picks up on the thread excitedly, “The taste is incredible. Dark chocolate mixed with the very same spices that go into a bowl of phở.”
“It’s really a thank you to Vietnam, an ode to Vietnam,” says Mourou, “We’ve tried to make it something exciting and celebratory. It has so many layers, and when you linger with it these different layers emerge. You’ll get the cardamom, then you’ll get the star anise and so on.”
Nguyen brings our conversation to a close by elaborating on Marou’s roadmap as the company looks towards its second decade. As well as rolling out Marou Stations and a whole range of new products, the entire workforce came together earlier this year to present their vision until 2025 as a family, with input from every member of staff. The vision? To keep the spirit of adventure alive within Marou. “It’s beautiful that we’ve all created this vision together. What we’re doing is trying to keep that spirit alive, that creativity, in every action and every conversation we have.”
She finishes off with a smile, “We keep that spirit alive by tasting good, and by doing good.”