Sonya Janahi, deputy chairperson & CEO of Maya La Chocolaterie & The Living Concepts explains how she has created a chocolate empire out of Bahrain.
What is your career background?
I have enjoyed a diverse career in the banking and telecom industries spanning over 25 years, with specialised know-how in the areas of retail, investment, oil & gas and real estate. I am also actively involved in our family business as a board member and have applied my corporate knowledge to strategically diversify and evolve the group’s subsidiaries beyond Bahrain.
How and why was Maya established?
After spending over two decades working in the corporate world, I wanted to venture out on my own and create something that would make a difference. My father was an entrepreneur and he had always inspired me in that sense. In 2006, I set up my hospitality and F&B consultancy ‘The Living Concepts’ because I saw a gap in the local market for unique food and beverage concepts – and I chose chocolate because I am a true chocolate aficionado. After a year of intensive research into the product and development, we launched our flagship ‘Maya La Chocolaterie’ outlet in Bahrain in 2007 and a year later we franchised to Qatar. That was the start of Maya’s regional expansion journey.
What is unique about Maya chocolates?
My vision was to create a chocolate brand out of this region that would be on par in quality and taste with some of the finest chocolatiers in the world. I was also determined to fill the gap in the regional market for ‘healthier’ chocolate. Hence, we opted to limit the use of cocoa butter in our chocolates to a bare minimum, eliminating any additives and preservatives and incorporating dark chocolate into our mixes. When we first started, consumption of our dark chocolate was at 5%, and now, 10 years later, it is over 45% – a significant jump. Our chocolates have a shelf life of six to eight months purely because of the stringent hygiene methods we use in our production methods and facility.
How much chocolate is produced in the factory?
We produce and export over 25 tonnes of artisan retail chocolates annually, featuring an eclectic range of flavours, from the exotic to the popular favourites. To ensure consistency in quality and taste, we produce all our chocolates locally and then export them fresh to our franchisees in the GCC and to clients worldwide. We create over 90 daring concoctions that are signature to Maya, all Halal-certified, inspired by alluring blends of the finest Belgian cocoa and Arabian spices.
Do you supply chocolate to the catering/ hospitality industry?
Maya functions as a white label supplier to other brands, creating chocolates exclusively for third-party distribution, which are different to Maya’s range of products. Our clients include sectors such as finance, fashion, tourism, and retail.
Please explain your catering business ‘Maya Delices’?
Maya Delices is the second brand that falls under ‘The Living Concepts’ umbrella and operates as Maya’s catering arm, creating unique and artistically-inspired desserts for corporate and private events.
What markets are you operating in with your franchised concepts?
Since opening our first branch in Doha in 2008, we have evolved Maya into a regional chain. We have 11 outlets in the GCC currently in operation with a physical presence in Bahrain, five outlets in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh and Jeddah) and we are re-opening soon in Doha. From the start, our aspiration for Maya was to take the brand across borders, so franchising was the perfect vehicle for us and was integral to our business plan. We offer our franchise partners a holistic support system, ranging from marketing to interior design, training and the actual retail products themselves, which are shipped fresh from Bahrain.
What are plans for the future?
We are always looking to expand Maya’s reach and our immediate plan is to open new branches across the Middle East, intensifying our presence in Saudi Arabia, and establishing new branches in the UAE, Oman and Morocco by the end of 2017. We have also set our sights on Europe and are exploring opportunities in London. In 2018, we plan to move into Asia with markets such as Singapore and Malaysia posing great potential. We also have an app and a range of cookbooks in the pipeline, which are shaping up nicely. The long-term plan is to take the company public by 2020. Another area of focus is to get Maya classified as a ‘bean to bar’ production facility in the next three years, to enable the processing and chocolate extraction of the imported cocoa beans on home ground.