When chocolate is an education

Luxury brand La Maison Du Chocolat believes now is the time to grow its bottom line. It is embarking on an ambitious expansion drive in Asia while aiming to stay true to the standards its reputation is built on.

The luxury chocolate market might seem an unlikely candidate for expansion in a global recession but French artisan brand La Maison du Chocolat is hoping to buck the trend. With plans to open more stores in Asia over the next two years, the business aims to attract more buyers than ever through a marketing strategy of “educating” consumers about the quality of the ingredients it uses.

The company already runs 19 shops in large cities around the world and another two are opening this year in Hong Kong. A recession is the perfect time to expand operations further, claims Geoffroy D’Anglejan, chief executive of La Maison du Chocolat. “People want reassurance. Chocolate is a good answer for that; you can share it too. It’s difficult for everybody at the moment but we are still seeing growth.”

He adds that while the company’s chocolates are not cheap, they still cost a relatively small amount overall compared to other premium goods, such as clothing or cars. The average spend in a La Maison du Chocolat store, reveals D’Anglejan, is a modest $20-30 (£12-18).

While La Maison du Chocolat has been around for 31 years, D’Anglejan says it has only recently seen the right climate for expanding outside its French homeland. This has little to do with the economy and everything to do with consumer attitudes to the brand’s type of products.

In the UK, for example, D’Anglejan says that confectionery has traditionally been focused on sweets such as caramels and toffees, with less interest in pure chocolate. As a result, it took a while for the brand to become convinced that consumers in Britain would be receptive to its products. He adds: “It was very similar in New York. It wasn’t a problem but it was something that would require time to educate customers.”

Just as consumers buying wine now have a relatively sophisticated understanding of how the different grapes, soil and regions affect its taste, D’Anglejan argues that the same is slowly becoming true of chocolate. People are now increasingly demanding to know where the chocolate beans were harvested, their blend and the type or amount of cocoa used.

“We never use pure cocoa from one plantation; you have to mix them for the right balance. So in one of our chocolates, you might have cocoa of four or five origins,” D’Anglejan explains.

As more widely available brands such as Green & Black’s promote the importance of provenance, quality and taste to consumers, this is helping La Maison du Chocolat in its education mission. 

Angus Thirlwell, founder of premium chocolatier Hotel Chocolat, agrees that consumers are keen to find out more than ever before about product origins. His brand runs a “Tasting Club”, which sends its members a selection of products to try and score, along with an information newsletter to tell people about how chocolates are made and where the cocoa is sourced.

Thirlwell reveals that he is considering extending the ethos of the tasting club to the high street. While some Hotel Chocolat stores already operate cafés, Thirlwell says there are “opportunities” for creating even more interesting “experiences” for consumers in future. With such products as cocoa nib vinegar already in the collection, he sees chocolate as part of a gourmet experience on a par with wine.

For La Maison du Chocolate, customer education on a day-to-day basis is carried out through its shops. Staff are taken to the brand’s French headquarters for intensive training sessions (one sales course can last a month) aimed at creating a branded education experience for shoppers – similar to going to consult a team of experts.

“We haven’t spoken enough about our knowledge,” admits D’Anglejan, who says that aside from the staff training for everyday operations, the company also runs special “chocolate classes”. In the UK, these can take two forms – one where consumers learn the history of chocolate and the process of chocolate making; the other involves learning how to pair teas and coffees with chocolate along with some history.

These sessions are open to customisation, however, because the brand is keen that as a boutique supplier, it carries the bespoke ethos through to all parts of the business. It has a large corporate business, where companies can personalise sessions for their staff.

Yet as a brand that prides itself on its relatively small size – just 300 staff – and a few number of locations, supplying corporate clients seems a little strange. D’Anglejan disagrees, pointing out that La Maison du Chocolat is as choosy in its partnerships as its other operations.

D’Anglejan says the company would not consider providing its chocolates to anything other than other premium marques. For example, he says, if McDonald’s wanted to be supplied with chocolates to be given out in the retailer’s branded meals, he would have to refuse. Not out of disrespect for the McDonald’s brand, he claims, but merely because the two companies are incompatible in their approach.

“We only want to make high quality,” he says. “That’s why we are here; it’s our vocation.”

So far, this attitude does not seem to have hurt the bottom line. D’Anglejan reveals the company’s online service is growing by about 20-30% each year, and he says the value of the business-to-business division is at least twice the current internet sales. With the premium chocolate market expected to reach $12.9bn (£8bn) by 2012 despite the recession, it’s fair to suppose he is seeing pretty healthy numbers.

It is not just generating new business where La Maison du Chocolat aims to keep tight control. The company also carefully manages its production process from its French headquarters. Its staff must have official qualifications in luxury chocolate making before they are hired and even then the company trains them for two years in its distinctive processes and techniques.

“We control everything,” says D’Anglejan. “Everywhere you will find the same range. We create all our products near Paris and ship them.”

This doesn’t prevent the company from tailoring its products to local festivals or cultures, he claims. He says that in Japan, Valentine’s Day is such an important phenomenon that it overshadows other festivals. As such, the company will make sure it has specific products on sale for these occasions. For the US market, the brand concentrates on Thanksgiving, which tends to be celebrated more than Christmas.

But the company has no plans to turn its boutique operations – which already have a global audience – into a brand stocked in every department store across the world. Asked if he plans to follow premium rivals such as Godiva into a wider number of outlets, D’Anglejan says La Maison du Chocolat is not an “industrial” chocolatier.

His perception is that small is beautiful. But that only applies to the size of the company and its boutique nature. D’Anglejan says he is keen for his bottom line to grow as much as possible but he’s prepared to be patient. He says: “It’s not a question of time or money. We just want to do everything well.”

Timeline – La Maison du Chocolat

  • 1977 The brand was founded by Basque-born master chocolatier Robert Linxe in Paris. Linxe had opened his first chocolate boutique in 1955 and after selling this, he opened his first La Maison du Chocolat store.
  • 1987 The company expands to a second location in Paris.
  • 1990 The brand expands its operations to New York’s Madison Avenue.
  • 1998 The company’s first Asian premises opens in Tokyo.
  • 2004 Two boutiques open in London.

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