For baking local culture into her company’s recipes
Kathy Johnston does not mince words when it comes to describing her passion: "I’ve always loved chocolate. It was always a very serious love." The obvious path would have been to retreat into the well-trod chocolatier traditions. Instead, Johnston chose to forge a new path: creating chocolates specifically suited to the tastes of consumers in the Middle East.
With an arts management degree, as well as certificates in fashion and creative writing, Johnston had worked for years in marketing and events. Then in 2016, her passion became her profession when she landed her dream job—with the too-perfect title of chief chocolate officer—at Mirzam in Dubai.
"I never imagined I’d be able to combine my love of chocolate and my interest in design and business," she says. "But all are called upon every day at the chocolate factory."
Born in New Zealand, she’s lived in the United Arab Emirates since the age of 3, and felt personally drawn to the project of weaving the area’s rich history and geography into wow-worthy recipes. One way to do that? Center the ingredient list around the maritime Spice Route, stretching from Japan through the Middle East to Europe. The inspiration is reflected not only in the ingredients—such as cardamom, pistachios and saffron—but also in the packaging design.
Consumers are hungry for options: The Middle East chocolate market is expected to show an annual compound growth rate of 4.2 percent from 2019 to 2025, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar leading the pack, according to 6Wresearch.
And Johnston appears prepared to make the most of that growth, overseeing both strategy and development projects with precision and care. For a single product, the process can involve testing more than two dozen recipes, as well as different roast and grind times, all while managing a host of logistical issues.
Here’s a peek at some of the projects—from factory build-out to chocolate bar development—that she has led:
Al Quoz 3 Factory
Not long after its 2016 launch, Mirzam outgrew its first factory. The new vision? More space to house a bigger team, larger machinery and more storage, along with a café and retail shop. Johnston worked on practically every aspect of the 18-month project: After the site was identified, she oversaw construction, including the master planning of the production lines, design of the public spaces and commissioning of the machinery.
To ensure smooth production, the factory layout had to allow for the optimal arrangement of the machinery and a busy team of 70 people. At the same time, Mirzam wanted to create a visible production process so customers and tourists could see how the chocolate gets made through large glass panels. Plus, the retail space would showcase the company’s nearly 200 products. "That’s a lot of creative engineering," Johnston says.
After a COVID-related delay, Mirzam opened its new flagship factory and public spaces in June 2020. The delay turned out to have an unexpected but welcome upside: “After the lockdown, having a new factory for people to visit was excellent timing—people were looking for something different,” Johnston says.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s founding, Mirzam launched a seasonal collection in late 2021. In a nod to the UAE’s seven emirates, Johnston created a series of seven truffles and commissioned packaging that would evoke the UAE’s next 50 years. And she and her team had just three months to do it.
"As a one-off seasonal occasion that didn’t have a previous case to look back to for sales history or customer behavior, we were taking a big risk," she says.
The gamble paid off. "The collection had more demand than anything we’ve produced," she says. Mirzam had to order three additional packaging print runs to fulfill the collection’s retail and corporate orders, and some of the recipes and packages are now part of the company’s permanent offerings.
Winter in Morocco Collection
When Mirzam first opened, all its recipes were made only with dark, vegan chocolate. "While this was the accepted standard for bean-to-bar chocolate makers internationally, the local market hadn’t had a dark-chocolate-only product before," Johnston says.
In a slight tweak for local taste buds, she and her team decided to do something different with its Winter in Morocco collection, combining white and milk chocolate recipes. With a two-month deadline looming for Christmas-season sales, Mirzam’s team researched the history of the spices grown and traded in the Morocco region, as well as historic and modern recipes. The team then produced experimental batches of 14 recipes before determining the five winners.
A collaboration with Indian visual artist Aziza Iqbal, the project also marked Mirzam’s first artist licensing agreement. "It was important for us to have a strong, fair agreement, and it took quite a while to land on a document," Johnston says. "Aziza is such a talented artist, and we were beyond thrilled when she agreed to work with us so early in our journey."
All of the bars in the Winter in Morocco collection have won awards, and three are now permanent Mirzam products.
Q&A: Kathy Johnston on sticky notes, growing cocoa trees in Saudi Arabia and upskilling
What project has most influenced you personally?
Our collection for the UAE50 anniversary. I’ve lived here for three decades, so celebrating everything we’ve achieved, being part of the story of the emirates, having such a great response to our recipes and packaging from the local community—this was quite a proud moment for me.
What’s your project management superpower?
Yellow sticky notes! My desk and walls are covered in them—projects to track, projects to implement, ideas to experiment with. I don’t know where inspiration comes from, but when something bubbles up, sticky notes are how I save it.
What podcast are you obsessed with recommending right now? Taken for Granted by organizational psychologist Adam Grant.
What moonshot project would you most like to work on?
There are so many. Growing cocoa trees in Saudi Arabia or Zanzibar, building additional factory space and starting a training program to upskill food industry employees.