SOURCE: ERIK LEIJON, SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTE
After years of slow and steady growth since opening their first location on St-Denis St. in 2003, the husband-and-wife-run company intends to franchise, expand into Ontario and get onto more grocery-store shelves in 2018.
“I think we’re ready to franchise now,” said eponymous company founder Juliette Brun from their chocolate lab in Longueuil. “We’ve had so much demand since about a year into us starting the business. My husband (Lionel May, company VP) handles those sorts of emails, and he gets about 10 a day.”
Brun said future growth will be a mix of corporate-owned locations along with multi-unit franchise owners in bigger cities and single-unit owners in smaller towns. The plan is to expand methodically.
“We’ve learned location makes a big difference. We don’t mind waiting another eight months if we don’t have the right spot,” she said.
For now, every treat is made and packaged by hand in Longueuil and the option exists to add a second production floor to their South Shore hub. If Ontario takes to Juliette et Chocolat — they’re sticking with the French spelling — they’ll eventually look to add a second production facility. If demand keeps growing, they may even need to automate somewhat, but at this time 15 to 20 employees handle the making of all 300 varieties of seasonal and non-seasonal sweets.
Even in the company’s early days, Brun and May’s goal was to develop a chain. After opening on St-Denis St., they opened another on Laurier Ave. and soon added the location they’re most famous for, on St-Laurent Blvd. and Prince-Arthur St. The Juliette et Chocolat empire currently consists of eight locations — they’ve yet to close a store — an increasingly pivotal online boutique, 300 full- and part-time employees, and a modest grocery store presence at Metros on the South Shore and Les 5 Saisons in the city.
Brun estimates they go through about 50 tonnes of chocolate a year.
The well-travelled Brun, of French origin but born in Brazil and brought up in the U.S., realized she had a potential winning business idea after seeking out, and failing to find, a real hot chocolate in Montreal.
“It was in the middle of the coffee shop explosion where they were popping up everywhere, and so we felt like the coffee market was covered. In France, chocolate was a pretty big thing, but here it didn’t seem as popular. Considering Montreal’s weather, we thought it would be perfect,” she said.
“What we took from our experience in Paris was an appreciation for high-end products. When you have a cup of hot chocolate, it’s a real cup of chocolate. When we started market studying and tried out hot chocolates in Montreal, they were all hot cocoas: hot water with marshmallows, powder and sugar. We wanted the kind of hot chocolate you get in Paris.”
From there, the question Brun and May asked grew to: What if the entire menu was chocolate?
Word of mouth spread quickly, but skeptics emerged as well.
“When we started, we had people come into our stores and say it was a hoax, that chocolate is chocolate and it’s all the same. Now you’d never hear that. It’s considered like wine,” May said.
“What we could find at first was Hershey-type chocolate. That was our first experience with wholesaling,” Brun said. “But we’ve never sold that type of chocolate.”
Juliette et Chocolat isn’t bound to one supplier. May said Peru, Madagascar and other equatorial climes are the biggest producers of cocoa, and the beans are transported to mostly Belgium and France, where they’re turned into chocolate. The Barry Callebaut factory in St-Hyacinthe is also a major chocolate manufacturer.
Recently, a news story predicting the extinction of cacao plants by 2050 went viral. It was quickly debunked, but the damage was done and a potential world without chocolate became a popular subject of conversation. At the very least, the doomsday scenario did bring to the forefront the effects of climate change and overproduction of cacao supplies.
“I think there will be a solution because there’s more demand,” May said. “Agriculture is catching up to demand. Right now it’s a crunch period, but they’ll catch up eventually.”
“Farming cacao is a long process. It takes 40 to 50 years,” Brun said. “And everyone is eating more chocolate around the world — it’s become a worldwide phenomenon. We can’t predict what will happen in 20 years, but we keep evolving, and I think we’ll find a solution.”