A sweet Jerusalem tale

A holy city couple finds their Holy Grail – delicious vegan chocolate.

Samples of Panda Chocolate, which offers eight different flavors (photo credit: ORI BAREKET)
Samples of Panda Chocolate, which offers eight different flavors
(photo credit: ORI BAREKET)
Eclipsed by the endless daily clamor over security, the price of gasoline and the latest political scandal in the media, local scoops with a somewhat sweeter aftertaste seldom make it to the headlines; yet some are perhaps just delightful enough to make the cut, shedding light on a lively and vibrant Jerusalem rarely seen in the news. Such is the odd love story of two young Jerusalemites, whose romance could hardly have been any sweeter.
Few people are impervious to the power of chocolate.
But for some poor tormented souls, we tend to forget, milk chocolate poses a nearly impossible dilemma: between the irresistible savory taste of a universal and ageless delicacy, on the one hand, and the moral imperative against the consumption of dairy or any other animal products, on the other.
Having adopted this dietary code as nothing short of a way of life, and with worthy alternatives to quality milk chocolate surprisingly scarce on the market, Israel’s growing community of vegans to this day remains bereft of a fundamental pleasure that every other citizen can freely enjoy. A vegan must choose to either forsake his moral compass altogether or settle for a bitterly unsatisfying, even bleak, substitute: dark chocolate.
Two courageous spirits, however, did not remain apathetic to the plight of their fellow vegans. The fates of the heroes of our story intertwined when both decided nearly three years ago, upon a short acquaintance, to meet weekly and experiment with various recipes for chocolate in their own kitchens.
Sifting through dozens of potential substitutes for milk and animal fat – from soy milk to maple syrup – Daniel Bareket and Elya Adi spent months learning through successive failures and slowly inching toward the perfect combination that would yield the Holy Grail: vegan chocolate that is delicious in its own right, requiring no excuse or apology.
But sooner than they could find the elusive recipe, the hours spent in each other’s kitchens procured something else out of the oven: a powerful romance that continues to blossom to this day.
Soon enough, though, the freshly minted couple arrived at what they had yearned and labored for these many tiresome weeks in nothing short of a eureka moment. Returning to the kitchen the morning after their latest attempt at the Goldilocks blend of ingredients to test the outcome, a quick taste and an outrageous grin on Bareket’s face revealed that they were finally onto something. A few packages soon found their way to a handful of close friends, whose verdict was virtually unanimous: “Are you sure this isn’t regular milk chocolate?” What began as a humble bid for a homemade recipe, meant to sweeten their own lives and those of their intimate circle, now showed prospects for a far longer reach. Surely, to withhold the fruits of their labor from thousands of vegans aching for a taste of chocolate worthy of the name would be an injustice; and for the first time, Adi and Bareket began to see the potential business opportunity looming within their hobby, if only to make a little income on the side.
But to get a feel for the market and find the confidence to jump into it headlong, the couple opted this past July for an online crowdfunding campaign through the Israeli Head Start website, where they set a modest NIS 15,000 as their benchmark goal, aimed solely to finance an industrial-grade chocolate maker and ingredients to begin producing locally.
The campaign started on a Thursday. By Saturday night, their original expectations had been shattered by the web’s response – they had acquired a whopping NIS 120,000 from a tidal wave of excited fellow vegans eager to support their project and to be among the lucky few to taste the first batches of the up-and-coming Panda Chocolate.
“We were absolutely blown away by the feedback we received,” Bareket recalls. “We reached a niche in the market that was left in the dark, and the buzz that our campaign created was beyond our wildest expectations.”
By month’s end, that sum had climbed to over NIS 200,000 – a total of 10,000 packages ordered by some 2,000 enthusiastic vegans.
Having won celebrity status among vegans virtually overnight, the two found themselves going back to the drawing board yet again.
“At this point we understood we have to grow drastically,” relates Adi. “The business potential was just too real and immense to be ignored.”
Whereas the test of reality normally chills overblown dreams and expectations, in the case of Panda Chocolate the very opposite had come to pass: The modest culinary project of two young vegans quickly formed a life of its own and took matters into its own hands. It was now well on the way toward becoming a fullblown business enterprise, carried by the winds of public demand for a product that simply did not exist on the market as yet.
After months of bureaucratic paperwork, the Panda Chocolate factory is due to open within several weeks in the Givat Shaul neighborhood, a remarkable step up from the humble beginnings.
Having packaged the thousands of bars already sold online in their own living rooms, with the assorted help of family and friends who rose up to the task in their dozens, Adi and Bareket will soon have the machinery and hired workforce necessary to produce up to 10,000 packets monthly.
Eight different flavors of Panda Chocolate are already available for purchase online. Now the couple are bent on supplying several organic grocery stores and veggie restaurants in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, steadily widening their distribution.
The passion that drives their project, however, draws strength from forces far more potent than business savvy alone. For Adi and Bareket, their product not only answers cold, calculated market demand but also helps advance the vegan lifestyle through positive means rather than militant proselytizing.
“We strongly believe in veganism as a healthy and ethical way of life, but we are equally uncomfortable with the means some vegans have employed to push their ideology – horrific images of animals at slaughter, aggressive campaigns and scare tactics. We want to encourage vegan living in a friendly, approachable way,” explains Bareket.
“We offer a high-quality, delicious alternative to dairy chocolate,” Adi adds. “We are trying to show that choosing veganism doesn’t have to be a sacrifice; that there are great substitutes for almost everything, and where there aren’t – we can create them.”
Indeed, the widespread chatter on social media reveals the public response to their product has answered this hope precisely. Vegans are proudly brandishing photos of Panda Chocolate as living evidence that they, too, can enjoy the taste of chocolate without compromising their values.
The scope of future possibilities is virtually limitless.
The market that Panda Chocolate caters to is estimated at over NIS 5 million a year in Israel alone, and the prospect of selling their products abroad – where the vegan chocolate industry is as backward as ever – has not escaped the attention of Bareket and Adi.
Already, they are experimenting with ideas for new chocolate products and planning a line of vegan ice cream to follow. Increasingly, they perceive the possibility of becoming a true spearhead of the vegan industry in this country and an exemplary enterprise challenging other businesses to combine social values and moral vision as an integral part of their activity.
“We believe in our product, and we want our work to do good in society,” Adi smiles.
As this writer can personally attest, it certainly tastes good as well.