PARIS (Reuters Life!) - When David Edwards first unveiled an inhaler which puffs micro-particles of chocolate into your mouth he never expected the initial production run of his "Le Whif" to sell out in less than a month.
"We did not imagine the reaction that we got at the end of the spring," said the 48-year-old Paris-based design entrepreneur. "We made 25,000 in April and they were all sold out before the first week of May."
The unusual chocolate experience has struck a chord, said Edwards, who is a professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard University. women in particular appreciate the Whif's convenient, handbag-friendly size, as well as the novelty of offering Whifs to guests after parties.
Now the challenge for Edwards and his design team, who work on the Rue du Bouloi as the "Labo Group," is to transform Le Whif from a niche design concept into a global brand.
The first test will be the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris, where Le Whif made its first appearance on October 26. Previously the inhaler had only been on sale at specialist Parisian outlet Colette or direct from the makers.
Now Le Whif will have to convince the Galeries' 700,000 daily visitors to spend 5.95 euros ($8.79) for a pack of three Whifs or 32 euros for a pack of 18.
Edwards said that by the end of 2010, Le Whif should be available in the United States, Asia and several European markets including Britain and Italy, where consumers are more used to unwrapping chocolate than inhaling it.
"We've gone from this artistic experience to a product that's selling in the biggest department store in Paris," said Edwards. "There's more to come." He hinted at a whole range of possible inhalable flavors, including savory snacks.
It won't be easy. Le Whif still needs work: Sucking too hard on the inhaler can lead to a mouth full of powder.
A new design planned for early 2010 should help fix this, and will offer new flavors on top of the existing mint, raspberry and dark chocolate range.
There is also the danger it will be dismissed as a fad abroad, according to Louise Thomas, a London-based chocolate expert who runs tasting events and advises retailers under the name "The Chocolate Consultant."
"I don't know if somebody would buy it more than once," said Thomas. "At the end of the day, you're not actually eating anything." She added that marketing Le Whif as a calorie-free alternative to chocolate was "really sad."
"Chocolate shouldn't be about calories or that it's bad for you," said Thomas. "Eating dark chocolate is good for you; that's been proven throughout hundreds of millions of years."
Big chocolate brands including Cadbury and Hershey have expanded into organic confectionery over the past few years, to cash in on increasingly health-conscious consumer habits. Cadbury bought Green & Black's in 2005 while Hershey bought Dagoba in 2006.
The prolonged recession in Britain may also not favor Le Whif, as traditional chocolate continues to enjoy sales growth as the ultimate comfort food. Cadbury, the market leader there, reported a 7 percent rise in third-quarter sales last month.
Edwards dismisses the idea that Le Whif is a fad. He says that distributor reaction in London has been "positive" so far, and claims to have sold 6,000 Whifs at the Salon du Chocolat industry convention in Paris in October.
He did not want to say how much it will cost to launch Le Whif internationally, but he says he has so far invested 3 million euros of his own money into Labo Group since he founded it in October. The company aims to be profitable in early 2010.
Edwards' ultimate aim is to one day float Labo Group on the stock market, or to sell specific brands such as Le Whif to bigger industry specialists.
Editing by Paul Casciato