Tucked in a quiet Brussels suburb behind an unassuming garage door is the factory of Manon Chocolatier. As easy as it is to miss the small sign, once inside the garage, it expands into Christian (known as Mr. Manon) Vanderkerken’s sanctuary of chocolate. The operation, founded in 1935 by Manon’s grandfather, handcrafts 80 different types of bonbons using all natural ingredients, some of which even come from Manon’s own garden. The treasured confections are offered at an equally unassuming retail location in downtown Brussels, and those not too delicate to travel are exported to international destinations that include Europe, Japan, and the United States.
Around 12 years ago, Manon received a call. Not someone asking to have a shipment of his creations express delivered for a special occasion, as was usually the case, but a man who wanted to gain admittance to Manon’s refuge. A private tour of the factory. Interested to share his expertise in how pralines are made and intrigued by the possibility of some direct marketing for the company, Manon agreed.
Combining his knowledge of chocolate and the history left him by his grandfather with a bit of magic learned from an old Chinese man, Manon put together a tour that involved hands-on education, tasting, vintage chocolate making equipment and a surprise ingredient thrown in for good measure. The result was such a success that word got out, and Manon began offering regular tours of the operation, except during peak production times before Christmas and Easter. “When I did my first tour, it was for fun. Twelve years later, I still do the tours for fun. I never really imagine it as a business, but a chance to get paid for something I like doing anyway. In addition to eating 250g of dark chocolate per day (for health), I think that everyone should know about how chocolate is made, and that is my real goal.”ù
Roughly 3,000 people visit the enclave each year. At 12 euro per person (10 for groups of 15 or more during the week), Manon is not in much danger of getting wealthy and retiring using tour proceeds. However, in creating a complementary business with little incremental cost (making tour income highly profitable) he has also managed to get paid to do his own marketing. Most visitors purchase his handiwork at the tiny factory shop near the garage door following the tour, and word-of-mouth has placed him among the top 40 attractions in Brussels on TripAdvisor.com.
Conjuring Up Your Own Venture
Manon challenges us to ask what business we are in. Is he in the business of selling chocolate? Certainly. Is he also in the business of education and entertainment around chocolate? Without a doubt. And by expanding the scope of what constitutes a chocolate business, he effectively differentiates himself from the numerous other excellent (many larger and better funded) truffle traders in Brussels. He also teaches us where to look for these unique insights. They come from the things we already have, and support the things we already do. Manon has 100-year old chocolate recipes and Chinese card tricks. Chances are excellent you have something equally magical.
Written by Stuart Read, professor of marketing at IMD and Nick Dew, assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and also available at Business Life.
Publication: British Airways Business Life