In Good Taste: Mhon Lee, Founder, The Kakao Guy
As the first local nama chocolate shop in Dubai, The Kakao Guy found its popularity surge amid the COVID-19 crisis in June 2020- and that can be attributed to its launch of two new products during that period.
This article is a part of In Good Taste, a special feature built for the August 2021 issue of Entrepreneur Middle East showcasing 10 of the UAE's most promising homegrown food brands.
Having been conceptualized in 2018, The Kakao Guy came into being as an enterprise that wanted to be at the top of your minds every time you needed a sweet treat- and founder Mhon Lee chose to name it in a manner that certainly fit that brief. And while the Dubai-based small business was already doing pretty well for itself, The Kakao Guy found its popularity surge amid the COVID-19 crisis in June 2020- and that can be attributed to its launch of two new products during that period. The first of these was its exquisite nama chocolates- in fact, The Kakao Guy is the first local nama chocolate shop in Dubai.
“Nama (生, pronounced ‘na-ma’) means raw or fresh in Japanese,” Lee explains. “It’s a type of chocolate ganache, with three basic ingredients: chocolates, fresh cream, and butter. It is a velvety, indulgently rich, melt-in-your-mouth type of chocolate. The recipe is very simple and straightforward, but the key is using quality ingredients to elevate the taste. When we were doing our research, we found out that no one in Dubai is making nama chocolates locally. We came up with our own recipe and started producing it, and the reception from people for this product has been phenomenal.”
Image credit: The Kakao Guy
Another of The Kakao Guy’s creations during this period was its interpretation of the San Sebastian cheesecake, also known as the burnt Basque cheesecake, whose origins can be traced back to Spain three decades ago. For those of you who spent their time baking through the lockdowns in the coronavirus pandemic, you might remember this confection as being one of the so-called “quarantine cakes,” and Lee admits that The Kakao Guy’s version falls into the same category- however, he and his team went a step further than their peers in making this sumptuous treat.
“Unlike others, we didn’t stop at just doing the classic flavor,” Lee reveals. “When we launched it, we had four flavors right away!” The cake has since proved to be a major hit, with The Kakao Guy having gone on to make monthly specials featuring limited-time flavors. For instance, the company was able to collaborate with fellow Dubai-based F&B startup Project Chaiwala in Ramadan earlier this year to release a burnt cheesecake with the flavor of karak tea. (Also, heads up: The Kakao Guy’s special for August is a luscious peanut butter burnt cheesecake. You’re welcome.)
Image credit: The Kakao Guy
Now, the appeal of The Kakao Guy’s offerings can be drawn down to just the impeccable delicacies it makes, but that’d be taking away from one of its other key features, which is especially important to consider in our current circumstances where a lot of people are still hurting from the economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic. “Our product pricing is affordable,” Lee points out, quite simply. “Our biggest break came in during the quarantine periods of uncertainty, and we want people to be able to celebrate small and big wins with a box of chocolates or a cake. We want to be with people when they feel happy, and they feel the need to share their happiness with others.”
With ideologies like these governing the business, The Kakao Guy has thus managed to stand out in the Dubai F&B landscape, which is no small achievement considering how competitive the market is. “For us, it’s about having the right product at the right time,” Lee says. “We are an online shop, and while all the brick-and-mortar shops are trying to move online, we are already here. Word of mouth through Instagram also played a very important role in building our following. Our customers are very engaged and are very happy to share their feedback in social media, and we love to think that we have built a small community with our customers.” And this, at the end of the day, is what makes Lee most proud about launching The Kakao Guy. “I like to think our biggest accomplishment is that The Kakao Guy is becoming a household name,” he says. “It feels great that people think of The Kakao Guy when they want to order quality sweets, without breaking the bank.”
Image credit: The Kakao Guy
HIT THE SWEET SPOT: The Kakao Guy founder Mhon Lee shares his tips for wannabe entrepreneurs aiming to follow his lead
1. Do your research. “And this includes everything from identifying the product you want to launch and knowing the market players, to figuring out your targeted customers and identifying your unique selling points. This will play a big difference in standing out in this market.”
2. Get creative with your customer engagement. “Be perceptive with interacting with your customers. Every purchase is a personal experience. Take note of what works, and take feedback seriously. Always put yourself in your customer’s shoes.”
Mhon Lee with his team at The Kakao Guy. Image credit: The Kakao Guy.
3. Consistency is critical. “Make sure you deliver the same quality of product, every time. This builds your credibility and reputation, and ultimately determines your bottom line.”
4. Prioritize flexibility and agility. “You need to be flexible and agile on the needs of the market and your customers. Always be on your toes, as the market constantly changes.”
Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.
Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.