Although I’m a sports fan, I wouldn’t say that tennis is my favorite game. Hockey, football, basketball and soccer tend to top my list. Add the Olympics to my scorecard as well. Hence, when I discovered that I had the opportunity to sit down with Maria Sharapova last week during the ISM show, I was excited, although I really didn’t know what to expect.
Yes, I was familiar with her decision to launch her own sugar confections company in 2013, Sugarpova, which rolled out a line of gummies, chewy candies and gumballs. And yes, I certainly was aware of her accomplishments in tennis, learning the game from her father at the early age of four and then quickly becoming a tennis phenom by the tender age of six.
Today, at age 29, the 6’ 2”, 130-lb. Sharapova is ranked sixth in the world for singles by the World Tennis Association. Despite being dogged by injuries throughout her career, Sharapova has won at least one singles title a year from 2003 until 2015. Let’s just say that she’s been a consistent star on the world tennis scene for the past decade.
She’s also tall, beautiful and extremely well-spoken. Although I only had about 15 minutes with the sports goddess, it was revealing. Just as her love of gummies prompted her to establish the Sugarpova line of sweets, so to it was with chocolate.
But this wasn’t an overnight project, taking nearly eight months in between her tennis gigs. First of all, she actually visited potential partners across Europe. Tennis star or not, Sharapova was serious not only about adding to chocolate to her candy line, but learning about it as well.
“Seeing how chocolate was made was totally new to me,” she explains. Learning about the bean-to-bar process was also revealing, as was discovering the nuances between 50 percent and 70 percent cocoa content, Sharapova added.
In choosing Vernon Hills, Ill.-based European Chocolates Ltd., producers of the Baron Chocolatier brand, and a subsidiary of the Millano Group in Poznan, Poland, Sharapova emphasizes that the company was “The perfect fit, given their deep-rooted history in creating premium chocolate products coupled with their significant strides in craftsmanship.”
And that’s when the second phase of the chocolate line project kicked in, she explains.
“I went through many combinations, experimenting with the ingredients that I wanted to put into the chocolates. Of course, they were favorites that I liked, but it proved to be a process,” Sharapova says.
In addition, Sharapova had some prerequisites: First, only natural ingredients could be on the label, no GMOs allowed. Second, the chocolate had to be of the highest quality.
“I wanted to create an ‘experience’ with this product — a moment of indulgence, where time can stop and one can enjoy life’s little pleasures such as a bite of sensually rich chocolate,” says Sharapova. “This product wraps up many of my favorites in life: food, a smile and a slight moment of indulgence.”
When asked how many samples she tried before deciding on the 100-g chocolate bars in Dark, Milk, Dark with Toasted Coconut and Milk with Strawberry varieties, Sharapova simply smiles and answers, “Lots.”
Scheduled to debut in May, Sugarpova’s line of chocolates will feature the “lips” logo across a chocolate square on a white background. Again, Sharapova was involved in the design of the package design.
As Chris Mattina, European Chocolate Ltd.’s senior v.p. and general manager points out, “Our partnership with Maria and the Sugarpova team has given the consumer the opportunity to experience the intersection of fashion and food, without the guilt — GMO-free, natural ingredients, zero trans fats, kosher, halal. Chocolate that tastes great and is a simple indulgent pleasure!”
What’s the likelihood of Sharapova’s new chocolates scoring an ace? Based on Sharapova’s success on and off the court — Sugarpova continues to have double-digit growth year after year since its launch and is now sold in 30 countries — I’d say pretty damn good.
According to an article in Forbes, Sugarpova’s volume has grown from 250,000 bags in 2012 to 5 million in 2015. Contributor Danielle Rossingh writes that Sharapova hopes to triple Sugarpova sales to $20 million with the addition of her chocolate line. All this from a $500,000 investment three years ago.
Certainly looks like the tennis sensation knows to where to find the sweet spot — in tennis and confections.