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Q&A: Bringing Gourmet Chocolate to Kyoto, Japan

  • Frances Alonzo

FILE - An employee takes out chocolate truffles at a shop.

FILE - An employee takes out chocolate truffles at a shop.

Valentine's Day in the United States is a day that is set aside where mainly men lavish the ladies in their lives with romantic dinners, flowers and chocolate. But in Japan, it's women who give chocolates to men. Now, Japanese women can chose a chocolate import that uses Ecuadorian cacao by way of a Honduran chocolate boutique owner in New York’s famed SoHo neighborhood. Mariebelle Japan, in Kyoto, showcases artfully crafted chocolates with art imprinted in ganaches and hot chocolate drinks. VOA’s Frances Alonzo talked to the owner of Mariebelle Kyoto, Maribel Lieberman, about her leap from lower Manhattan to taking her passion for chocolate to Kyoto, Japan. So how does a business woman make the jump from importing chocolate from Ecuador to her New York City chocolate boutique to opening up a chocolate boutique in Kyoto? The idea seemed like huge continental leaps that just begged to be explored.

ALONZO: Coffee seems to be the big drink of choice, and yet you choose chocolate, tell us why.

LIEBERMAN: I’m not a coffee drinker. You know you always do your passion. Chocolate has always been one of my favorite things to eat, but it’s also, it has been for generations, our ancestors were using cacao as money. So, it’s always been an intrigue for me, you know since I’m not a coffee drinker, chocolate was for me the way of going because I could not only do a drink but I could also do confections.

ALONZO: How does this come about? I mean you had been already established in New York, to Japan. How did that happen?

LIEBERMAN: In New York, I remember a Japanese newspaper coming to my store. They wanted to feature my chocolates in the newspaper. And you know they feature me on the cover. So then, I started getting a lot of Japanese and started my brand to be getting known among the Japanese community here. And one of the jobs that I did, when I had a catering [service], was a Japanese man who owned an advertising company. He actually was the one that introduced me to my partner. He’s the one who came along and said there’s this company that is looking for a good brand to come to Japan.

ALONZO: And here you are, you go to visit, and you check out the place. What is the store like in Japan?

LIEBERMAN: Kyoto is a city where you can find all the way Japan used to be, with these old Japanese buildings. They have the patio in the front and you go to the back for the store. So you have to go through little hallways to go in to the store. They have kept all the traditions and the aesthetics of food, companies there have lasted a hundred, two hundred years old. We want my brand to last a hundred years, two hundred years, if possible. And we wanted to partner with a city that has that tradition.

ALONZO: How did being a woman help you in opening a business in a foreign country?

LIEBERMAN: My approach to problem solving is different, for example. But being a woman has never something that I think would hold me back to open a business in a foreign country. In Japan, there are a lot of women-owned businesses. So I didn’t really feel that would be a problem. You know, my partner in Japan is a woman, too. And we almost daily, we talk. Of course, we talk about the business, but we have developed a friendship and we are really partners because we are focused, both of us, to bring “Maribel” worldwide.

ALONZO: Tell us about the chocolate itself. What makes it special?

LIEBERMAN: After doing research, I found that Latin America has some of the best qualities in cacao. What I wanted to introduce also to the people that they were not really familiar with single origin, different origins and different flavors of cacao. That’s when I started concentrating on introducing also to the people different origins and have people taste the different tastes of cacao. You know when I started my hot chocolate, I’m still bringing my cacao from Latin America, from Ecuador.

Maribel Lieberman said she plans to open stores all over Asia, beginning with Japan. The company is poised to add a cold chocolate drink to their menu and have it available in supermarkets. Japanese men aren’t off the hook; they are expected to return the favor on March 14, known as “White Day.”