Etienne Gravel purchased Toronto-based Daniel Chocolates five years ago with plans to establish a larger brand presence for the Belgian chocolate company. Hoping to put Daniel Chocolates on the shelves of big-name retailers, Etienne soon discovered that this may not be in the company’s future and needed a new plan to achieve success.
Now boasting top line growth of double the inflation rate, we sat down with Mr. Gravel to learn more about the company and the key strategies to which he attributes its success.
Q: What Makes Daniel Chocolates Different?
All natural, preservative free, authentic European chocolates. It’s a unique product offering in Canada. We import raw Belgian cocoa and make the chocolates here in Canada ourselves, without adding any preservatives. So it’s essentially an authentic European product made in Canada.
More importantly, we refuse to compromise the quality of chocolate, even if it meant putting aside my dreams of taking the company into a wholesale market. In order to appeal to big-box retailers, we would need to extend the shelf life of our chocolates by adding preservatives, but doing so would compromise the quality and taste of the chocolate. This was something we simply wouldn’t do.
Retailers in North America demand that chocolate has an extended shelf life. To serve this end, there is a need to add preservatives, particularly when the chocolate contains fruits or nuts. In Europe, where consumer-purchasing habits are different, chocolate sells more often and does not need such a long shelf life. This is why European chocolates generally contain fewer preservatives and why they are so highly valued - the taste and quality is exceptional and uncompromised by additives.
We thought it was of utmost importance to maintain the quality and taste of Daniel Chocolates, making it impossible for us to add preservatives just for the purposes of going wholesale. We know who our customers are and wanted to continue delivering the quality they expected.
Q: What seasons or holidays prove to be the busiest for you?
Major holidays like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Christmas are naturally our biggest times of the year. But returning customers are a significant part of Daniel Chocolate’s ongoing success.
By looking at our biggest sellers and seasons, we were able to fine-tune our marketing efforts to focus on what our customers were demanding. We have well over 50 varieties of chocolate available at our store location at all times in various shapes, forms, and flavors. And, all of these options are fresh, preservative free Belgian chocolate. We also focus a lot of energy on beautiful gift-wrapping, gift bags, and a variety of seasonal options. We have pre-packaged chocolate gift boxes, as well as boxes to hand pick individual chocolates. Customers know that they can come to us for not only an excellent product, but also the gifting options that they need.
We also learned from our customer research that women predominantly do chocolate purchasing. This led us to tailor many of our offers towards this audience. Men gifting chocolate to women is the typical stereotype (chocolate and flowers for Valentine’s Day, for instance) but women are in fact the primary purchasers, so we can tailor everything from store layout and décor, to website design, towards this primary audience.
Q: What advice would you give to other small business owners?
Well, after revising my original business plan to focus on our retail store, I think that getting to know your business intimately and having contingency plans in place, are essential components of small business success.
Based on this knowledge, ‘Do your homework’ is the one piece of advice I would give to small business owners and entrepreneurs. If you know your business inside and out, and you continue your research throughout the various stages of development, you will be better prepared for the unexpected and can easily shift gears as necessary to continue moving forward.”
Obviously, new business ventures have unique needs, but my experience with Daniel Chocolates has taught me just how valuable it is to research your products, competition, industry and customers. It’s also important to be realistic and prepared for the unexpected. In my case, I thought there were a lot of opportunities in wholesale given some strong relationships I had from my years of experience in the industry, but it wasn’t a fit and I needed to have another plan. Things will always evolve – the market, competition, customers – so you need to be poised to work through these changes.
Q. What changes have you seen in the market and customers over the years?
Healthier eating habits and heightened food awareness in general have impacted our business. People are looking more and more for foods that are preservative-free, which Daniel Chocolates products always have been, but we have added new low-sugar and sugar-free options to our product portfolio.
We also are seeing a bigger shift to dark chocolate for the same reason. Dark chocolate is less bitter if it’s all natural, and it’s healthier given there is less added sugar. Parents are teaching kids to eat dark chocolate from a younger age as it’s a healthier chocolate choice, which is getting them accustomed to the flavour of dark chocolate earlier. They then carry that appreciation into adulthood.
Another challenge has been the rising price of cocoa. Not only are chocolatiers raising their prices to account for these increases, but they are also finding ways to alter their recipes. Similar to how we refused to compromise our quality for wholesale opportunities, we remain committed to delivering the quality products that our customers expect, regardless of the price of cocoa. Of course, we may need to charge more at times, but we try to keep product quality and prices as level as possible so that we can continue meeting the needs of our customers.
At Daniel Chocolates, we are actually increasing our product quality despite market changes, making our chocolates even more scarcely available and highly valued.
Q: What technologies have been important for your business?
Innovation has changed the consumer landscape in recent years and I think it’s essential to continue innovating the company and advancing our technologies in response to these changes.
eCommerce & Website
The way consumers shop today has evolved – they are increasingly turning to online search engines to learn more about products and competitors in the marketplace. So, although Daniel Chocolates always had an online store, we are ramping up on our website technologies and enhancing our ecommerce store in the coming months to accommodate these changes. People are also researching and shopping from wherever they are and on whatever device they are using. Our position is that we need to continue evolving our ecommerce strategy to move with the times. Our site will be increasingly accessible to mobile users and easier to find when looking for premium chocolates in the Toronto area.
On that same note, we recognize that customers are using social media and networking platforms more than ever. Social media was not something in which we formerly participated, but we have entered this space and look to strengthening our presence on various sites to ensure we continue to reach our customers, and potential customers.
In addition, the Moneris solution - PAYD Pro Plus™ - integrates inventory management, customer profiles and analytics capabilities into one single POS system. This has been a tremendous help in streamlining our administrative functions and allowing more time to focus on our customers and marketing strategies.
Q: What are your core values for the business?
Since purchasing the company, the overall vision has only grown stronger. This vision focuses on a commitment to providing an exceptional customer experience. All our employees are tasked with making sure that customers are given one-on-one attention from the moment they enter the store, so that they leave feeling completely satisfied with their purchase. When I first purchased the business, we were seeing approximately 60 percent conversion rates for our sales. With an even stronger emphasis on the customer experience, we are now in the 90 percent range and attribute this improvement to our commitment to offering premium products with complementary premium service.
Listening to your team and having open lines of communication with your employees is also very important. Hearing their thoughts and feedback direct from interactions with the customer, is some of the most valuable insight you can glean about your business. Business data can only tell you so much. You need the valuable knowledge of your employees in order to make truly educated business decisions and strategize for the future.
In addition to appreciating customers and employees alike, Daniel Chocolates also supports local businesses by giving back whenever possible. We choose local products and partners whenever possible, and have yet to turn down a local charity or sponsorship when we are presented with the opportunity. Support those around you and you will receive the same in return.
Most importantly, you need to love what you do as a business owner, given you will be putting in long, hard hours to make it work. The happiness that comes with the job will more than compensate for the hours at the end of the day.
Q: So what’s next for Daniel Chocolates Toronto?
We are now looking at new opportunities to expand the online presence. The next step is to bring the taste of Europe to Canada by offering imported chocolates alongside with those made in Canada with European ingredients. This will further expand the online product offerings and bring a broader variety of products in-store.
Q: So after talking at great length about quality, do you have any advice on how to identify a quality chocolate?
In tasting chocolate, the “snap to the ear” (breaking of the chocolate) tells you how many preservatives it contains. In other words, the more snap, the higher quality chocolate and less additives. There should be no after taste, and the overall flavour should be sweet and not too bitter. When looking at the chocolate, there should be no blemishes or discolouration that would result from the sugar in the chocolate being exposed to extreme temperatures. And never ever refrigerate your chocolate – it causes the sugar to ‘bloom,’ which changes the flavour for the worse.
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