Thinking outside the box

Nicolas Bouvé, head of the renowned chocolatiers Godiva, tells Virginia Matthews why he feels bullish despite the gloom

As early Easter treats go, a tooth-friendly chocolate designed to be eaten before bed, a brainpower-enhancing chocolate enriched with Omega 3 and an "emergency chocolate" for immediate relief of anything from job loss to exam pressure may sound unlikely rivals to the traditional outsized egg.



But with chocolate makers around the world racing to beat last year's new product record with ever-more daring innovations – some 8,000 different varieties made it to market in 2008 – the humble Easter bunny has a challenge on its hands. In the past three years alone, international chocolate launches have soared by more than 30 per cent; a trend that analysts say will gather pace, rather than fall off, as the recession leads more of us to seek solace in sweetness.

Yet the signs are that despite rock-bottom prices, cost is not all when it comes to craving. Pile 'em high, cheaper chocolate brands are currently being eclipsed by new thinking among the premium chocolate-makers, many of whom are located in that toothsome nation Belgium.

That chocolate consumption tends to rise when times are hard is a phenomenon that not surprisingly brings a warm smile to the face of Nicolas Bouvé, managing director of the £340m Godiva Chocolatier; one of the longest-established artisan chocolate makers in Brussels.

Currently gearing up for a bumper spring season with a new range of luxury dessert truffles including crème brûlée and citron varieties, as well as a new line of hand-packaged eggs, Bouvé believes that the hunger for top-quality chocolate will once again prove recession-proof.

"When it comes to truly fantastic products, there is much evidence that people are even more determined to have the odd treat when times are difficult and they need cheering up," he says. "We have lived through many recessions before and lived to tell the tale and, so far, we don't see any major problems this time round either."

Godiva was launched in Brussels in 1926 by master chocolatier brothers Joseph and Pierre Draps, who named their firm after the legendary Lady Godiva, who famously rode naked through the streets of Coventry in the 11th century in a protest to persuade her husband, the Earl of Mercia, to cut taxes.

Like the local cobbler or watch-maker, the Draps initially sold their wares direct to the public and unlike the plain chocolate varieties becoming popular in the United States at the time, thanks to Hershey's, Godiva chocolates were delicately moulded and filled with fruits. The brothers' original shop, on the cobblestone streets of the city's Grande Place market area, still exists today.

Now available throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America and employing 4,000 people worldwide, the company's products are distributed via a network of dedicated Godiva shops, a number of concessions in big-name stores such as Harrods, Selfridges, Bloomingdale's and Macy's and a growing list of franchises. The firm is also official chocolatier to the Belgian royal family.

While Godiva products are not the cheapest brand on the market – a box of 20 truffles for example weighs in at £27 – the firm lays claim to be one of the largest distributors of hand-decorated and hand-packaged – though not hand-made – chocolates in the world.

But can any business of this size still claim to maintain early artisan principles? Yes, says Bouvé, who stresses that despite the big bucks involved, just three family firms have to date been involved in its development.

Back in 1966, the Draps brothers sold their company to the US food giant Campbell's, thereby paving the way for massive expansion in North America; still by far Godiva's biggest market. Last year, Campbell's sold Godiva to the Turkish-owned Ulker food operation for around £578m. Regardless of the big bucks and boardroom politics involved in the takeover, Bouvé insists that little has changed in the world of luxury chocolate since the Twenties.

"Although we clearly now produce our products on a far larger scale, the operation has essentially been mechanised, rather than industrialised," he says. "Of course, we need to consider the shelf-life of our products more closely nowadays, but the steps we take in making our chocolate are essentially unchanged."

While the preparation of Godiva's chocolate fillings remain a trade secret, the business continues to deploy many of the brothers' original ingredients and methods. They include the use of an 80-year-old praline paste recipe and a traditional range of mousses and fruit fillings such as raspberry cream that are rich in butter and cream.

Although Belgian chocolate is widely regarded as the best in the world as regards the quality of the cocoa beans it uses, the competition, says Bouvé, is increasingly fierce.

"In Brussels, every second shop is seemingly a chocolate specialist and many firms claim to produce lovely texture and tastes in what is an increasingly crowded market. Our hand-decoration – which in our case is produced by a team of just 16 highly experienced women – is a real point of difference though, as is our luxury packaging."

With its new Turkish backers looking to conquer new territories, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and even China are now set firmly in the company's sights. Alongside geographical growth, Godiva also hopes for rapid expansion in the travel market, with the likely launch of a new range of products aimed specifically at international business and leisure travellers.

Although Godiva is not a fair trade chocolate –largely because it cannot find a supplier in this category large enough to produce the quantity of chocolate it requires – Bouvé says that ethical sourcing will become a major challenge as Western consumers become sensitive to working conditions in the developing world.

"It's no longer enough simply to say that our cocoa beans come from Ghana and the Ivory Coast; two of the best cocoa-producing regions of the world," says Bouvé. "People want to know more about who grows the crop and how they are treated and we need to be able to reassure them that we are trading fairly."

If business ethics remain a key challenge for the chocolate firm, it believes it is ahead of the game when it comes to health trends. With dark chocolate, like red wine, thought to contain important antioxidants, Godiva is already producing more of this variety than either milk or white chocolate and Bouvé believes this new emphasis will continue.

"For the past 80 years, we have made our chocolate the hero of the Godiva story and it's an approach that's served us well even though public tastes have changed. Even when times are hard, people need some luxury in their lives and we aim to continue supplying it."

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