Bassam Ghraoui believes that chocolate knows no limits. The Syrian businessman came to Hungary because of the war in his home country, and here, as a Syrian-Hungarian citizen, he is building a chocolate factory and creating over 500 new jobs, we learn from his interview with hvg.hu.
There is a story of the Ghraoui family that stretches back to over 200 years ago. The first Ghraoui business was established in Damascus, in 1805, trading sugar, coffee, tea and fruits. The first breakthrough came at the beginning of the twentieth century: Sadek Ghraoui decided to expand the family business over the world. At this point, the business was trading own products as well, Sadek was the first person to open a canning company in his country and it slowly became the biggest company in Syria.
In 1931 Bassam’s father, Sadek, came up with the idea to introduce the Arabic population to quality chocolate, but this takeover was not easy. Bassam says that the chocolate imported from Austria was sold first with silver scissors, gold letter openers to pique people’s interests. It was not only the chocolate that he brought over from Western-Europe but a chocolate expert from France. This period was the golden age of the Ghraoui chocolate: it was sold in the most prestigious shops in London, thus the family became an importer of Queen Elisabeth II.
The political changes of the decades following the events of 1946 (Syria became an autonomous country) had a negative impact on the family business. Three years after the union of Damascus with Egypt, the Egyptian president, Nasser, initiated a wave of nationalisation, and because of this, Sadek shortly lost his trading company and his factories. After the fall of the socialist order, Sadek was able to rebuild his empire. But two years after this, in 1964, the Baath regime nationalised his company and factories again. Bassam recalls a memory from his childhood, watching his father while he read the newspaper with a worried look on his face, followed by the words of his mother: “we’ve lost everything”.
The most tragic event, however, came in 1969: Bassam’s father passed away. Upon finishing high school, Bassam took over the family business. At that point, it was just a small shop, but Bassam managed to open a new chocolate factory in Ghouta, in 1996. The goal was to produce the best quality on the market, and they had great success: the company won at many chocolate exhibitions in the following years and it also became the main importer of several first class hotels.
The Syrian war put an end to the second golden age. The family had to close their factory in Ghouta in 2011, the workshop in Damascus followed shortly, and the Ghraoui chocolates slowly disappeared from the shelves of the shops.
The war forced the family to leave their home, this is how they ended up in Hungary. “I’m Hungarian” – tells Bassam Ghraoui hvg.hu, when asked about the reasons for choosing Hungary as the new home for their business. Bassam further adds,that they were considering their options in other Southern and South-eastern countries, but the conditions were the most favourable here, in Hungary. On top of this, the company plans to build a factory in Hatvan, Hungary, and the Hungarian government is willing to give them financial support.
Bassam says that he’s been making deals in Hungary since 1991, he was given a state award for his help with spreading the word about the Heller-Forgó cooling system in Syria. This shows that the Gharoui group is very innovative when it comes to business, but their main focus is still chocolate. Bassam makes sure to give a clear view of who he is: he is not a master in chocolate making, he is a businessman, with a distinct goal: not just the chocolate, but also the other goods produced at the factory in Hatvan must be successful.
The plans were presented in December last year, and they are promising. With 12 thousand square meters, the factory will be able to provide jobs for 540 people and to produce 12 thousand tonnes of chocolate per year. Bassam wants to establish the Ghraoui chocolate’s position in Western Europe as well, after this, he plans to expand the business to Asia and the Near-East. As 95% percent of the products are to be exported, building an adequate logistical team and acquiring reliable means of transportation are very important. With this, the company gets help from Hungarian professionals. Only the chocolate experts are of Syrian nationalities.
Bassam plans to establish a name for Hungary in the world’s chocolate scene. He argues that what makes a chocolate good is the raw material imported from West-Africa, not the branding. According to him, chocolate knows no boundaries.
The Hungarian Ghraoui shop is characterised by marble tables, painted ceilings, fruits and roses on the walls – quite the unusual sight in a chocolate shop. Hvg.hu also asked a few questions from the designer, whom Bassam can thank for his beautiful shop at Andrássy street. Bruno Moinard visited Budapest for the first time when working on the shop.
The design concept was inspired by the family’s and Syria’s history, he says that the shop’s interior resembles mostly the first drafts, there were not many changes. The idea behind the peculiar, out of the ordinary design was to recreate the atmosphere of the eastern marketplaces. The paintings of peaches were inspired by Syria and by the Opera house’s wall paintings (the shop is situated next to the Opera house). Moinard argues that the sharp contrast between the materials – concrete, marble, glass, metals – is to create a sense in the visitors that they entered a palace and a bazaar at the same time.
The designer was asked by the chocolate magnate to help him with the future shops in Paris, Dubai and many other Western-European cities. When asked about this, Moinard commented that he imagines the Parisian shop having a different ceiling, resembling more of Paris, but he definitely wants to keep the damask market atmosphere and the iconic orange colour of the Ghraoui brand.