It’s impossible not to draw comparisons to that other chocolate factory when you walk into Chocotopia, a newly opened “chocolate experience center” — from its burbling vats of chocolate to the giant slide that transports visitors from one level to the next it’s a place that would surely put a smile on Charlie’s face.
But there’s nothing mysterious about the source of the chocolate that supplies this mini-empire of chocolate businesses in the Czech Republic. As the only plant-to-bar chocolate maker in the Czech lands, the Chocotopia business model relies on a savvy recipe of high-quality, ethically-sourced products, consumer education, and hands-on fun to satisfy its customers’ sweet spot.
Twelve years ago, Henk Mestdagh (whose friends do in fact call him Willy Wonka) and his Czech wife Simona founded a company specializing in the production of quality chocolate and pralines. They opened their first shop with Belgian chocolate in the center of Prague in 2008.
“When I first came here to visit my wife’s family, I thought Prague was one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited,” says Mestdagh. His only complaint was that there was no decent chocolate.
“Everyone said Czech people don’t buy good chocolate, but I never believed that,” he says. His instincts proved to be right. In the years that followed, the Czech attitude toward quality chocolate would see exponential growth,
Henk and Simona would eventually go on to open a branch of the internationally known Choco-Story museum chain in the heart of Prague’s Old Town, in Celetná street. In 2018, they expanded the space to include the Grévin museum as well as a school for chocolate workshops.
“Initially we imported top-quality chocolate from Belgium,” says Mestdagh of their transformation from purveyors to producers. “But when we opened our studio to show people how to work with chocolate and how it’s made, we realized we could have our own products.”
Ironically, the chocolate being produced under the Chocotopia name in the Czech Republic has become a big hit in Mestdagh’s home country of Belgium with the company acquiring Belgian clients.
“When you start in production it’s all about profit, volume. We were making chocolate from the heart just because we wanted to show people how it worked,” he says. Their Belgian customers were in awe of the results.
Mestdagh and his family have poured that same passion for chocolate making into the newly opened Chocolate Experience Center which they’re hoping will appeal to local families and chocolate lovers who wouldn’t normally find themselves in the tourist center of Prague.
“The idea is to do a small-scale choco school that teaches people about cacao and our Mexican plantation,” says Mestdagh of the Chocolate Experience Center which opened its doors in June.
But there’s nothing small scale about the 4,000 sq meter space, a complex the encompasses a chocolate workshop, museum, indoor fantasyland, mini-cinema, professional meetings rooms, and chocolate shop all of which invite people to spend a day making chocolate, seeing how chocolate is made, and indulging in chocolate goodies like the homemade “Nutella” served in the cafe.
Our recent tour began with a look at some industrial-era chocolate machines encompassing the entire process from bean to truffle that culminated in a replica chocolate “laboratory”. Tours are available in Czech and English and visitors will soon be able to download an app to guide them through the exhibit in additional languages.
We emerged from the 19th century into the realm of modern-day chocolate production represented by an open industrial kitchen where we glimpsed chocolatiers hard at work on machines that weren’t all that different from their predecessors.
Housed in the same part of the building is the epicenter of the Chocotopia experience, a replica of a modern-day cacao plantation based on the family’s own Hacienda Cacao Criollo Maya plantation on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, presided over by resident parrots.
“A few years ago a Belgian company offered us the opportunity to invest in a cacao plantation. And we thought it was a nice opportunity to give something back in a human way,” says Mestdagh.
Quality cocoa beans are carefully monitored here, from planting to the resulting chocolate bars. No pesticides are used when growing, and the citizens of the local village work on the plantation, taking care of the cocoa plants according to traditional methods.
The exhibit illustrates how ecologically grown chocolate makes its way from cocoa plantations to consumers — the parrots are a nod to the fact that the plantation also serves as a sanctuary for exotic animals abandoned by drug cartels.
“We plant the tree, we wait to get the seeds, we have the fruits and then we make the chocolate,” Mestdagh says of the sustainable way in which they grow their Criollo beans, a variety of plant that while fragile is known for having the best taste.
A small percentage of the company’s products are made directly from the Criollo beans harvested at the plantation and are a hit among local chocolate connoisseurs who have become regular customers.
The tour then heads to the upper floor where the magic begins: a walk through the history of candy pulling (to see a live version of the video on display you’ll have to visit the Candytopia and Sweet Selfies Studio in the center) emerges in the workshop area and a large play zone partially designed with input from Henk and Simona’s children.
Workshops are held in bright and airy kitchen space where participants drizzle a variety of chocolate into molds then add in a rainbow of sweet toppings before the chocolate is set. A tasting of the heavenly house pralines is included.
And while the entire experience will thrill kids — mine perhaps exaggeratedly described it as “the best day of our lives” — adults will enjoy the history and opportunity to indulge in some fine chocolates. A novelty cake-throwing studio, with cakes made from leftover ingredients from the cafe, is a draw for birthday parties and team-building events.
“We want to find just the right balance between fun and real education,” says Mestdagh who also plans to engage a wide swath of local communities with upcoming events such as a Dia de Muertos event with the Mexican Embassy in the Czech Republic planned for October 30 of this year.
While the Belgian entrepreneur admits that the current situation has proven a challenge to starting a new business he believes that chocolate whether from Belgium, Mexico, or the Czech Republic makes the world a sweeter place.
“We want this to be a place that brings people together,” says Mestdagh of the experience center. “We believe people need that right now.”
Chocolate Experience Center
V Oblouku 728, Průhonice
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