A labour of love

Blurb: Belgian chocolatier Hubert Heyez earns almost half his yearly profits during the period between between St-Valentine's Day and Easter.

Hubert Heyez navigated his way around the heart-shaped displays at Chocolat Belge Heyez Père & Fils's retail outlet. He smiled politely at the last minute shoppers congregated there, and walked quickly into the production facility located in the back of the store.

"It's a busy time of the year for us," Heyez said. "We earn almost half of our profits between St-Valentines Day and Easter."

While chocolate manufacturing in North America is mainly thought of as a business, in Belgium, it is a profession. Chocolatiers like Heyez study the trade in college and often complete extensive apprenticeships before setting out on their own. That training and a strong focus on quality are key reasons why Belgians have acquired a reputation as some of the world's best chocolate makers.

Fortunately for Heyez's clients, Belgium isn't such a great place to do business. As a result, his parents crossed the ocean with their then 19-year old son during the mid-1980s to try their luck in Quebec. And residents of St-Bruno, where the family eventually set up shop, have been the big winners.

Customers have a wide variety of praline designs and recipes to choose from. But in recent years customer tastes have moved toward darker chocolates, with a higher cocoa content, a trend that Heyez endorses fully.

"The stuff you buy in the depanneurs often has so little cocoa in it, you can't even really call it chocolate," said Heyez, with a look of disgust on his face. "It's more like candy."

All of Heyez's dark chocolates are made from Belgian chocolate, which is imported into the country in five kilogram bars or in small chips. It is then sold to chocolatiers like Heyez, who melt and transform them into pralines and wide variety of forms ranging from Easter Bunnies, Santa Clauses and so on.

Unlike most chocolatiers who rely on the limited selection of standard molds sold by industry suppliers, Heyez makes his own. The vast majority of these are based on designs he has seen elsewhere, but he is also an accomplished sculptor and he often makes original designs. Once the original die is ready Heyez then makes duplicate blanks on a thermo-forming machine he built himself.

Although Hubert's father passed away almost a decade ago, the company he founded hasn't looked back. He, his wife, Annie Fournier and his mother Janine, who is still active, have since added a growing list of corporate clients to their retail business.

In recent years the firm has also begun manufacturing for the resale market to merchants like Yves Proulx, who operates two stores stoked with premium food products like pastries, ice creams and chocolates, under the Péchés Mignons Rimouski banner.

"Demand is growing for almost any high quality food product," Proulx said. "People want to spoil themselves."

Now surprisingly, that makes for good business. Sales at the Chocolate Belge Heyez have shot up 30 per cent during the last five years to about $1.5 million.

"We like it here very much," Heyez said. "Quebecers have a strong work ethic and a good gastronomic tradition. They don't mind paying a little extra for a treat."

The dangers of working in a chocolate factory are sublimely illustrated in a photo of a corpulent, younger Heyez that is mounted on a wall at the company's entrance. "I've lost about a hundred pounds since that picture was taken," said Heyez, who is now thin and energetic looking, with a sheepish smile. "I love chocolate. But I've learnt to control myself."

Heyez, isn't the only one that is having a love affair with Belgian chocolates. According to Jean Jacques Berjot, commercial director at Barry-Callebaut, --Heyez's main raw chocolate supplier,--worldwide chocolate sales have been consistently rising by about four per cent a year on a tonnage basis. Berjot, who has been selling to Quebec chocolatiers for more than two decades, describes Heyez as one of the best.

"Even though he lives here now, he is still a typical Belgian artisan, like you would find in Brussels, Gand or Liège," Berjo said. "He produces strong, consistent quality year after year."

But despite Chocolat Belge Heyez's success, Hubert Heyez has no big plans for the future other than producing high quality products. He remains strikingly unconcerned by the financial aspects of his business. His typical response to money questions, --such as the percentage of the company's sales made in the retail stores as opposed to in bulk,-- is to look over his shoulder at his mother and ask her.

"It's about fifty-fifty," he repeated sheepishly. "You'll have to excuse me. I just do production here. She takes care of the books."



Fact Box:
Company Name: Chocolat Belge Heyez Père et Fils
Web-site: www.heyez.com
Owner: Heyez family
Founded: 1986
Products: Belgian chocolates
Employees: Seasonal between six and 35
Phone #: 450-653-5616





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Peter Diekmeyer
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