There is nothing quite like chocolate to boost the spirits, and as Maria Cobden, discovers it is also a sound start to a successful retail business.
Successfully branding something as universal as chocolate can't be an easy task but husband and wife team Lilly and Tom Haikin have managed to do that in less than three years.
As the sole owners and distributors of Max Brenner chocolate products in Australia, the pair have managed to capture a market with a brand that, two and a half years ago, was unknown here. "Introducing the Australian market to this beautiful product and concept in general was not all that hard, because it's an original and innovative concept." But surely the task was also made easier because chocolate lovers are not exactly a lost tribe? "It certainly has something to do with the fact that it is chocolate."
Lilly is just as passionate about the concept as the product on the shelves. Max Brenner, the face and name behind the 'chocolate from the bald man', devised the concept of producing a whole chocolate experience. Brenner established his first store in Israel in 1996 after working for seven years as an apprentice for chocolatiers worldwide. He wanted to develop a chocolate culture which, according to the Chocolate Bar's company profile, "would tell the complete story of chocolate, which would reveal the hidden secrets of the chocolatiers and enliven forgotten traditions that were developed throughout the years".
That complete story includes having the right packaging and equipment to enjoy your treat. Brenner's concept has two aspects – the bar area that is devoted to hot chocolate (including the delicious suckao which is hot milk in a cup with a tealight at the bottom which you spoon chocolate shavings into), and the retail section which sells a variety of chocolate goods all packaged in an easy to identify style.
"With the bar section the whole concept of it is that the cocoa beans are sourced from different origins and nobody has done that before." Lilly says they were the first to bring that idea out of Israel, with great results.
Bringing chocolate from Israel into Australia would seem a strange move for some, but Lilly says there was nothing else like it in Australia and they knew the quality of the product, and these factors lessened the risk. "My husband is a good friend of Max. He comes from a hospitality background, and we both have a passion for food and love the quality of the brand." Not that friendship was enough to secure the sole owner and distributor deal. "Friendship is one thing, getting into business is another!" Brenner was looking for someone to share his vision and passion for the product and that's what secured the deal.
Then came the hard part. Most of the chocolate is shipped out from Israel, taking between 20-28 days, air freight is used only in emergencies. Due to the sensitive nature of the produce, it is transported in refrigerated units, with the more fragile pralines and grenache chocolates being frozen to prevent spoilage.
Not only is international shipping a complex issue but, with between 80-100 stores, restaurants, gift stores, and hotels selling the product on their behalf in Sydney and Melbourne, getting such a fragile product to these destinations in perfect order is also a concern.
"We do all the Sydney deliveries ourselves, and handle all the distribution so we don't lose quality of the product." And with two of their own stores, in Paddington and Chatswood in NSW, another opening in Manly, and the soon to be opened store in Melbourne's CBD, that's no easy task.
Then there's the problem of finding the right retailers. "We have been very selective. We really encourage whoever is taking the product to be as passionate about it as we are."
So what did it take to get an unknown brand so accepted in Australia in such a short timeframe? "We knew it was going to be a success but you can't measure that until you hit the ground and see what happens. There is nothing in the Australian market to compare to it, we wanted to market a whole chocolate culture. We don't think we have a competitor in what we do in the sense that what Max has created is unique."
According to Lilly it's all about creating a culture and educating people. That's not to say there weren't problems.
The main hurdle at the start was the cost of the goods. Even though they had a great location in Paddington, where people traditionally pay top dollar for quality goods, there was still a barrier. People just weren't used to paying high prices for chocolate, especially for a brand they didn't know. Although Tom says they didn't really have to work that hard to educate their customers, it took about six months for perceptions to change. The free samples may have had some influence!
Next, The World?
Well, maybe. Although Lilly says they are busy enough now, and soon to get busier given that she is due to give birth in December, expansion is on the cards. "I don't know if we will go Australia-wide, in a few years time maybe." New Zealand, however, is a possibility, and they have had approaches from Asia. "We don't believe in running too quickly, we've got a lot on our plate."
There may not be any plans for expansion via stores but the chocolates are available on wishlist.com.au, and you can even find the product in some ski resorts in winter.
The passion for chocolate and its culture is all pervasive in the stores. According to Lilly even the staff must have a passion for the product. "All the girls who work in our shops have to test it, love it and know how to describe it to the customers."