Benoît Nihant, the bean to bar Belgian chocolatier is looking to expand with the opening of more shops without losing the artisanal approach that makes his chocolates so special.
Having successfully opened a shop in the Belgian capital city, Brussels, and exported his chocolates to Asia, Benoît wants to open additional shops in Brussels and does not exclude openings in Antwerp and Gent though his focus for the time being is Brussels.
He told Food and Wine Gazette he was actively looking for places in the area of Uccle, Waterloo and Stockel to go closer to where his customers are.
His current store in Brussels is in Ixelles but it took him a long time to find it. “We had been wanting to open a shop in Brussels for a long time but we could not find a suitable place. We did not want to be near the Grand Place because it is the place where only the tourists go, we did not want to go the Sablon because that is more of a showcase, the rent is very expensive and it is why there are mainly big companies there.”
Benoît said that he wanted an area where they could be able to attract repeat customers. “Not everybody likes our chocolate but many people feel the difference between our chocolates and others and we need to be in a place where customers can return. If you have a shop in a tourist area, tourists may come once but if they come a second time they might forget about us.”
The opening in Brussels more than a year ago was very encouraging. “Our shop had not been open yet and we had people coming inside and asking to buy chocolate. Three days before our opening we were already selling chocolates. And the start has been good so that is why we are comfortable to open more shops,” he said.
The Belgian chocolatier is one of only a few chocolatiers worldwide who starts his chocolate making process buying his beans directly from different plantations worldwide.
International customers can buy chocolates online but he has also been very successful in Japan. “We do not have commercial power and the customers we have are the ones who specifically come to us. In Japan, they love chocolates and we were lucky to have a great person representing us. He wanted to invest in a chocolate brand which he could distribute in Japan. He travelled around Europe and went to many good chocolate makers in Paris but finally he found what he wanted in our brand and proposed that he represented us on the Japanese market.”
Benoît said it took over a year and a half to start selling one chocolate in Japan because their distributor wanted to open a flagship store first before spreading out. But since the beginning, every month and year has been better and better.
“Every year, we have more and more people wanting to sell our chocolates. But many times, they want to make money out of selling our chocolate but that is not the right approach for the product we have. We have to find someone who is willing to have a successful experience but who invests for the long term.”
Benoît tells me an anecdote about the day that his distributor in Japan ran out of stock three days before Valentine’s day on the first year he was distributing the chocolates. “Valentine’s Day in Japan is huge. It is 70% of the turnover. He was competing with other chocolate makers that had been there for 20 years. But that first year has helped because now he has people queueing to buy our chocolate.”
Benoît is not afraid of growing too quickly. “Our biggest concern, if we grow to quickly is that we will require investment which would mean selling shares in our company and this is something that we precisely want to avoid. We left our jobs as employees and we want to avoid having to go back to the corporate world. I believe we can still grow without impacting quality. Our customers come to us because of the way our chocolate tastes and we are not willing to change this. If our roaster is not big enough, we will not buy an industrial roaster but a second roaster that does the same as the one we have.”
Read our full interview with Benoît Nihant here.