February 1, 2022 3:02 PM EST

Kathy Johnston is so in love with chocolate, she lies awake at night thinking about it. “For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed,” she says. But as chief chocolate officer of Dubai-based chocolatier Mirzam, that’s a healthy fixation to have.

Like many other goods on Dubai’s store shelves, most of the city’s chocolate has traditionally been imported. But Mirzam is one of several ambitious startups developing homegrown alternatives—in its case, it’s making high-quality, bean-to-bar chocolate featuring ingredients sourced from along a historic spice route that ran from the west coast of Japan across the Middle East to Europe. Johnston joined Mirzam in early 2016 after meeting the company’s founders, who convinced her to work for them, rather than chasing her original dream of moving to Switzerland, chocolate capital of the world.

At first, the company’s plan was to primarily export its offerings to the U.S. while slowly building a market in the United Arab Emirates. But locals quickly embraced the company’s unique chocolates, which are known for their Emirati flavors and spices such as cardamon, almonds and pistachios. (That Mirzam collaborates with local artists for its branding and packaging further bolsters its hometown cred.) Nearly as soon as Mirzam’s team opened their doors for tastings, the company sold out of all of its stock—a sign as strong as any that Dubai was a more promising market than the team first thought. “We didn’t anticipate such a strong response locally,” Johnston says. “We had no time to think about export.”

Born in New Zealand, Johnston moved to Dubai when she was three years old. Her love of all things chocolate goes all the way back to her childhood, when she’d build ladders out of kitchen chairs to get at her mother’s hidden chocolate stash and spend her pocket money on imported praline eggs and salted caramel bars. She recalls telling her grandfather, who was the lead mechanic on Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1958 South Pole expedition, that her dream was to have her own chocolate factory.

That dream has come true at Mirzam, where Johnston oversees everything from sourcing (she works with small producers around the world) to production, packaging, and sales. But her true passion is coming up with innovative new sweets, with a focus on incorporating traditional Emirati recipes into the company’s offerings, including its popular crepe-like rigag bread; saffron- and rose-infused halvah (a dense confectionary sweetened with honey); and aseeda (a cardamom–scented dessert that Johnston thinks should be the next pumpkin spice).

Recipes like those have helped Mirzam grow at a breakneck pace—it has doubled its production capacity every year since opening amid ever-growing demand and increased its staff from one to 75 in five years. A bit of scrappiness doesn’t hurt either. The company moved into a larger space and bought new heavy equipment in 2020, but due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, technicians were unable to travel to set up the new gear, so Johnston and her team had to figure out how to do so on their own.

Now, about five years after selling its first bars, Mirzam is still working on “producing amazing-quality chocolate,” Johnston says, a process she calls an “ongoing work.” The company’s goal for the next five years is to maintain quality at greater volume and to open another shop. But its ambitions have also grown to include a certain civic pride, if not outright boosterism. “It’s about working with Emirati recipes and artists, and highlighting the amazing things that are happening here in Dubai,” Johnston says.

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