David Donde on The Art of Indulgence & the Joy of Rapt

Words: Robyn Samuels | Photography: Lindsey Appolis

For businessman and dreamer, David Donde, building a successful establishment goes beyond peddling products, it’s about creating tangible experiences, whether a steampunk coffee house, a world-famous speakeasy or a chocolate playground. A stone’s throw away from Truth.Cape Town, his latest institution, Rapt – The Art of Indulgence, was birthed at a time when entrepreneurs catered to necessity. Donde and partner, Ken Walton, however, decided to cook up a concept fuelled by culinary fantasies and balanced by conscious cravings – a place where you could customise your sugar-free dark milk chocolate bar and eat it too. With confectionery crafted by Kaylah Greenberg of MySugar, and patisserie created by Laurence Smith – former head and executive pastry chef at Leeu and Delaire Graff Estate – the recipe was complete and they set up their one-stop chocolate shop.

What Food Group partners, Ken Walton (left) and David Donde (right).

At first glance, the pop culture-inspired interiors and pink walls instantly grab your attention, but you’ll also notice how joy is sold by the bar, novelty is enrobed in nostalgia, indulgence greets you at the door, and ‘guilt takes a backseat.’ A whimsical world of colourful Bon Bombs, cremé brûlée Choc-o-Lattes and cookie croissants, Rapt is where adults remaster their favourite childhood treats and kids are wonderstruck by the sight of liquid-nitrogen-churned ice cream.

Curious about the confectionery haven that’s been on everyone’s lips, we visited and spoke with David Donde of What Food Group about the art of indulgence, the people who feed into Rapt’s success, and the importance of “resisting the tide of mediocrity.”

You’ve been in the coffee business for a while. How did you get into chocolate?

During lockdown, we started looking at what else we could do; other people in our industry were going into supermarkets and all sorts of things, and that wasn’t where we were. We went, hang on, there are similarities between chocolate and coffee – particularly bean-to-bar, where you find your own cacao, roast it.

The parallels between coffee and chocolate were exact, except coffee left this old way of doing things in the early to mid-2000s; chocolate is still stuck in the 1970s and 1980s, well, not entirely. There are a few pioneers in the space bringing us into the modern world, and this is a perfect opportunity for us to follow a pattern of flavour – not bitterness. Is bitterness really necessary in chocolate… if bitterness isn’t necessary, how can we reduce or eliminate sugar and still have that gratifying, sweet flavour of chocolate? And, that’s what we’ve pulled off.

What was the inspiration behind Rapt?

We wanted something that was about joy. Sure, Rapt is all about discovering new things, and that whole experiential thing, but it’s also about nostalgia, childishness and playfulness. We wanted something that resonated with all of that, and in the end, it was the symbiosis of both pop art and food culture.

From the playful packaging to the 2D-lined furniture and the tin cans on the walls, the interiors are amazing. Did your love for pop art influence this whimsical world?

When we were creating our own little universe, it was leaning into pop art, but it got more specific. I’ve got a real love for Roy Lichtenstein, and his love of riffing off pop culture – of course, it was built at a different period – and then if you go back even further to people like [Piet] Mondrian, you’ve got this flat-line-look. What happens when the two of them meet is our chocolate playground – that and, of course, working with really talented people makes doing something like this so amazing.

 Can you tell us about the people who feed into Rapt’s success?

No organisation is better than its culture, and no culture can be created without incredible people. We’re a purpose-driven organisation – we’re all about real food and making healthy choices more desirable. It sounds insane to be building an ice cream and chocolate business around that, but that is exactly what we are doing. It’s, therefore, all about incredible people – whether Kaylah with her chocolate skills, Laurence with his patisserie skills, or our craziness on saying it shouldn’t be done this way, it’s too difficult doing it that way…

It becomes all about finding extraordinary people, absolutely resisting the tide of mediocrity; finding a better way to do things, and then finding people who can own their mistakes and learn from mistakes as opposed to that culture of cover-up. We are only as good as the amazing people who we’ve attracted with our mission.

A venture like this takes a great deal of effort. What are some of the challenges you’ve run into and how did you overcome them?

We’ve been very lucky with amazing graphic designers, our team from the What Food Group, and the people who’ve helped make Truth. Coffee such a success. But the real challenge is building something that hasn’t been imagined before from scratch, and thinking you know what you’re doing. I think it was Mike Tyson who said: ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,’ and we’ve had plenty of getting punched in the face.

The challenges in our first two weeks of opening were: ‘Is anyone going to come?’ and then the next challenge is, ‘Hell, we’ve sold out of everything.’ Too many people came; we had to hire new people. The new people don’t know what’s in everything. We’re trying to have sugar-free, low-sugar, and [figure out] which ones are vegan, which ones are dark chocolate, and which ones are milk chocolate, and which ones are amazing. And, you realise, for that kid who’s walked in, eyes lit up and all, it’s about their joy – and just delivering on the promise of experience, satisfaction and indulgence that we’re trying to give people.

 The store is a sweet tooth’s dream, from the Sudden Ice Cream to the Choc-o-Lattes and the Build-a-Bar; why did you decide on such a diverse array of offerings?

You’ve seen nothing yet! We haven’t got started; this is just version one. We’re not even properly open yet –the place has all this collateral that hasn’t been delivered yet. The real challenge is where can we take this?

There are stations here that haven’t been built yet. We know what they’re going to be, but you’ve got to get this core offering right before you can get to the next [stage], and we’re in the business of doing extraordinary stuff. If it was easy to do, we wouldn’t be doing it. Everything at this point in time is learning how to do something that nobody has a roadmap for, and that’s the amazing part. Success isn’t a destination, it’s a journey, and we are living that success.

Chocolate is a tough trade at the moment as cacao bean prices continue to rise. How has it been navigating that challenge?

I am so happy about the price of chocolate going up. Farmgate prices have, unfortunately, not gone up. We in coffee have been involved in speciality coffee, which is not connected to the commodity price. Let’s understand what commodity pricing means. It’s the price of the future’s market on some spot market on some stock exchange for very wealthy people to become even wealthier. It’s not about paying farmers more – we are.

At the moment, our cacao is sourced from the island of Sao Tome. When we pay more for that cacao, it goes to the farmers, so I’m incredibly happy about paying more. Paying more means the price that consumers pay for chocolate goes to a sustainable level – and I don’t mean sustainable for the consumer, I mean sustainable for the ecosystem. You, as the consumer, have a responsibility to pay a fair price for chocolate and understand why that pricing is there. We have a responsibility to make sure that charging that price causes value for the consumer and value for the system. And, if we’re going to make you pay a lot more for chocolate (which we should), we need to give you something that’s worth it.

We need to give you something that represents value – but more than that, we need to pay those people who are growing and fermenting that cacao. We’re taking the trouble to not have some commercial hybrid cacao, but some ancient cacao that is not cross-fertilised with absolute garbage and tastes wonderful, and for that, let’s face the music, do the right thing, and enjoy paying more, but get more for what we’re paying.

Sugar and chocolate go hand in hand; why did you want to appeal to health-conscious consumers and exclude sugar from certain offerings?

I never said I want to exclude sugar from certain offerings. It’s absolutely not true. Though, I want you to engage with yourself and be mindful. If it’s your sugar day, if it’s your treat day, you want to go all out, or you’re just feeling sorry for yourself, go for it – but it shouldn’t be the only way to enjoy indulgence.

I want you to be able to choose to have no sugar and have a delicious [product] because there’s actual chocolate in there. The main reason that chocolate has so much sugar in it has nothing to do with chocolate, it has everything to do with the price differential between sugar and chocolate, and how to make something that is fundamentally badly sourced, badly roasted, badly conched, tastes decent – well, just mask it all with crappy sugar.

This is the story of what we did with coffee. When I started in coffee 20 years ago, at a serious level of speciality coffee, you needed the sugar in the coffee to make it taste good. Today, you go out and you have a Flat White – you don’t need the sugar anymore. Nobody’s going: ‘I need the sugar to get the joy.’

I’m doing the same thing. I’m not asking you not to have sugar. I’m not asking you not to have a sweet tooth. I’m asking you to see that you can get respect for your body, for your health, and for your future self without compromising on joy.

Favourite treat on the menu?

That’s not fair! I think my favourite thing is straight bean-to-bar chocolate because it’s the thing we’ve invested the most time and effort in.

But my favourite thing isn’t actually the menu at all, it’s somebody going, ‘This can’t be real.’ And it’s got nothing to do with the menu.

You and Ken have built quite the empire with What Food Group; what’s one piece of advice you would give to entrepreneurs in such a volatile industry like the food and drinks space?

The one thing Ken and I would like to tell other entrepreneurs: ‘Don’t play it safe. Do audacious things; do something worth doing, otherwise, what is the point?’

I think most people try and provide answers to questions people are already answering. That’s not good enough – try and create something that has never been thought of before. Create your own space. Don’t just copy, steal like an artist. Build on what’s gone before you, but build something entirely new that other people are going to talk about because, otherwise, you’re just creating more mediocrity.

For more information about Rapt – The Art of Indulgence, visit the website below and follow them on social media. 

Location: 39 Buitenkant Street, Cape Town
Hours: Mon: 09h00–18h00 | Tues-Sat: 09h00–21h00 | Sun: 09h00–16h00
Contact: 021 201 7000 | Email

whatfoodgroup.com | Instagram | TikTok

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