Interview with Jean Paul Hepp
By Kathryn Gordon and Jessie Riley
Jessie: Hi JP! It’s been awhile since Food Startup Help created a themed showpiece for your grand opening, and worked with you on the bon bon, truffle and hand dipped production. You’ve hired a chocolatier and other staff since then.
Take us back and tell us why you decided to start an artisan chocolate company after 23 years in the pharmaceutical industry?
Jean Paul: I was born and raised in Belgium, so I’ve been surrounded by and indulged on great chocolates throughout my life. My palate was spoiled when I came over to the US in 1997!
I quickly realized that the so called Belgian style chocolates didn’t taste at all like what I was used to. Worse even, I found out the famed ‘Belgian Chocolate’ Godiva was being praised for as the best chocolate, was no more Belgian than Campbell Soups who acquired them in 1974!
So my daughter Eveline (who lives in Belgium) and I (from the US) decided to start our own production. Eveline helped me out with original product line using traditional Belgian recipes. We choose to go for artisan made chocolates, using the best ingredients we can find simply because that’s how we do it in Belgium.
Jessie: I know you started off taking some online courses. Would you recommend that to other chocolatiers as a method to “come-up-to speed”, now that you've been producing for a while?
Jean Paul: I learned a lot about the theory and science behind the art of chocolate making in several online courses. Theory is definitely important, but I now know more than before that this also needs to go along with hands-on experience. While I participated in several classes with chocolatiers and manufacturers on location (Belgium, Canada and Ecuador) – classes are often held in an ideal climate controlled environment. I now would recommend to also sign up for internships in order to know and better understand the ‘natural’ (environmental) challenges of making artisan chocolate.
Kathryn: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned since you opened Chocodiem?
Jean Paul: Location, location, location, right? Right for several reasons!
Water is the biggest enemy of chocolate. The chocolate just will not temper correctly if the ambient air is too humid. I didn’t give that enough thought when I started my production right next to a river in historic Clinton, NJ, which by itself is known to be humid most of the year. I don’t have a completely insulated kitchen; dehumidifiers aren’t adequate to do the job. So, wrong location for production for sure!
Then there is the commercial location. I planned to start wholesale first but after 3 months it became clear that this strategy only works well when the brand is already known, accepted, and proven. To redress this situation, I opened a retail store adjacent to our production kitchen but it is not in the most accessible part of town. Additionally, it’s located in the back of a large building and relatively difficult to find even with proper signage. Changing location is expensive so we are still dealing with this challenge.
It would have been better to make the right decision upfront. This then relates back to internships again. Experience in the field would probably have helped me avert such unknowns and helped with adapting the business plan accordingly.
Kathryn: If you could step back in time and plan everything all out again to open your business, what aspects would you change besides industry internships?
When analyzing the market in search of the best places to settle, don’t just select an affluent area, but also look at the activity level of the local population. Are they retired, commuting to jobs? Is there public transportation to and from the major areas?
Jessie: You’ve tried several different approaches in terms of sales since 2012. What has been the best sales strategy for you? Hiring a sales person? The parties? The walk in traffic? Local advertising? Internet presence? Wedding favors? Tables for events? I know you’ve done them all.I would say the best sales return on investment (in our startup phase) has been advertising in high end, state-wide magazines. It has helped us to connect with the right audience beyond our local community.
However, there are other factors to consider in setting the best sales strategy. I did start small (and am still small) and would definitely do that again. I wrote a business plan and would do this again too.
While the following sounds cliché it is so true. Staff is very important for the making and supporting the quality of your products, as well as representing and maintaining a high image of your store and company. We’re lucky to be able to rely on an excellent Pastry Chef Kathleen Hernandez (ICE graduate), great advisors for marketing and operations, special holiday related events, and on the support of the employees staffing our store.
Finally, being able to rely on the community is no small matter. It includes the landlord and many other friends and neighbors who try to help in any way possible to make this successful.
Jessie: What’s your favorite chocolate that you’ve created?
Jean Paul: Our “Naked Truffle” is made of dark or milk ganache with only a thin, one-layer enrobing. This is used as the base for all other truffles infused with different flavors.
This is how we created a unique line of liquor truffles which is quickly becoming Chocodiem’s signature chocolate collection. It’s not only unique in its conception but it’s also unique in its approach of customization as we can make any truffle with the customers’ liquor of choice whether it’s for personal indulgence, for weddings, parties, corporate or other events, vineyards, microbreweries, liquor stores, gift stores etc.
Jean Paul: Reaching out to a larger audience. Chocodiem is known and very much appreciated for its high quality products. This comes with a higher price tag which is not always attractive for the local consumers. While many businesses started with high quality products, most of them took the easy way out and converted to cheaper chocolates and by doing so sometimes dramatically increased their sales.
Chocodiem wants to maintain a high standard over the long run. It will take a while before this can be obtained through our branding and sales efforts, but we believe that hard work, perseverance, and continued word of mouth will rule.
Kathryn: Anything else you’d add?
Jean Paul: Work hard, very hard. Try to keep it fun. After all what other product can guarantee a smile each time it even just gets mentioned! Enjoy!