Russian chocolatier steeped in tradition

But 80-year history in Japan doesn't preclude drive for innovation

by Tomoko Otake

St. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and chocolate is occupying the thoughts of many people across the nation.

But for Valentine Morozoff, chocolate is much more than a mere seasonal delicacy. It is his livelihood — and the emblem of a bittersweet life his emigre family has carved out in their adopted homeland for 80 years.

Morozoff, a third-generation Russian immigrant, is president of Kobe-based Cosmopolitan Confectionery.

He is carrying on his grandfather Feodor’s endeavor to provide high-quality European-style chocolates in Japan, a mission started soon after Feodor Morozoff and his family fled the riverside town of Simbirsk in central Russia in the wake of the 1917 revolution.

Feodor, a general merchandise merchant in Russia, arrived in Kobe in 1922 and was among the very first to foresee huge opportunities here for a chocolate-making venture. He called in Russian and Chinese helpers from abroad and soon opened a store on Tor Road, an exotic shopping street in Kobe bustling with a large foreign population, including Europeans, Americans and people from other parts of Asia.

“Today, chocolate is available at reasonable prices, and everyone is familiar with it,” Morozoff says. “But when my grandfather started out, it was an extreme rarity, except for chocolate bars made by major food manufacturers.”

The store, Confectionery F. Morozoff, won the patronage of locals and foreigners and the business grew. In need of more capital, Feodor turned to Japanese investors for help, agreeing to create a company with them and serve on the board of directors.

But disagreements over management policy led him to court, where he had to swallow a settlement in 1936 that barred him from using his family name for business purposes.

Today, Morozoff-brand cakes and other sweets are made by Morozoff Ltd., a major confectionery manufacturer.

The Morozoffs as people have meanwhile done business under a separate corporate entity — Cosmopolitan Confectionery — sticking to their family tradition of making a small volume but large variety of luxury chocolates.

Cosmopolitan Confectionary logs annual sales of around 1 billion yen, 70 percent of which comes from chocolate-related products, and has flagship stores in Kobe and Ginza, Tokyo. Its products are also sold at around 500 locations, including hotels, high-end supermarkets and kiosks.

“I go to our factory every morning and check the chocolate blending tank,” Morozoff says. “I would like to retain personal control over my business, though I do have a dream to be a local and global brand.”

Morozoff, who grew up in Japan and mostly spoke English at home, is married to an American whom he met while studying electrical engineering and pursuing an MBA at the University of California at Berkeley. He has three sons.

He says his American years have given him ideas for new products, such as “Oakies,” which feature crispy almonds, walnuts and dry cereal wrapped in chocolate.

But the 57-year-old chocolatier says his mission is changing. Today, Cosmopolitan faces more competition from the world’s top-class chocolatiers, whose products are airlifted from factories abroad.

“My grandfather and father worked to re-create the European taste with the best material available in Japan at that time,” he says.

“We were making truffles 30 years ago, when they were so rare that people mistakenly thought they were moldy and sent them back to us. But now every global brand — be it from Germany, France or Switzerland — is available here.

“I guess our mission is no longer to introduce the European taste, but to create something original.”

The fruits of his labor, however they turn out, will no doubt be cosmopolitan, with a delicate mix of Russian, Japanese and American flavors.