The Belgian Chocolate Shop combines traditional handcrafting with new school storytelling
For the past 34 years, The Belgian Chocolate Shop has worked its way into the hearts of Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood. Now it’s developing a digital strategy to grow beyond.
When the rest of the world is busy changing, tradition has been a differentiator for The Belgian Chocolate Shop tucked in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood.
“People need a sense of permanence… something that is consistent and hasn't changed over the years,” says founder Patricia Cohrs. “It contributes to their well-being, their mental health, their happiness – in a way, we’re a service.”
Cohrs is like a chocolate sage; she waxes philosophical about the immeasurability of joy in her chocolate, some abstract energy circling in the atoms that make up the chocolate, passed on from her hands, her own love of the products she creates.
And her customers tend to agree.
Born in Brussels, and trained by the chocolatier who supplied the Belgian King and Queen, Cohrs left her home behind and moved to the Beaches with her husband (who passed away in 2007), opening the Belgian Chocolate Shop in 1984.
“I was 24, we had no business plan and borrowed money from my grandparents, parents, my husband's great aunt – everybody pitched in thinking they were never going to see that money again,” says Cohrs. “Surprise: they did.”
The shop became a destination, known for its handmade chocolates.
“(We were) across the street from a school and kids would come and drop their pennies on the counter and say what can I get for this?” says Cohrs. They never charged them full price and they didn’t give out freebies, but they always had some chocolate bits for them to enjoy. “They could tell it was different.”
Within five years they’d opened a second shop (which closed 10 years later when Cohrs felt scaling up was taking away that intimate feel that they’d started with) and bought the building the original one was in.
As for the kids, they kept coming back.
“These people now come here with their own children and even some with their grandchildren,” she says with a laugh. “Often people tell me ‘please never close… we can’t remember what Easter was like before you’ … you would not believe how many marriages we've saved.”
How The Belgian Chocolate Shop is spreading joy to the next generation
Rather than cloak itself in tradition, The Belgian Chocolate Shop has sought a blend of that original intimacy combined with the reach that social media affords.
“My kids tell me: ‘you need Facebook and an Instagram profile, you need to post pictures and tell stories,’ ” says Cohrs. “I’m a people person, I’m not a screen person but I understand there a lot of people who use screens out there.”
She connected with Digital Main Street through the Beaches BIA and has since re-jigged The Belgian Chocolate Shop’s online presence, helping to spread awareness, and more importantly, tell the stories she’s been telling all along, albeit, to a wider audience.
“It’s just one more angle that is accessible to us as a small business to draw in more traffic and share what we know and what we want to offer them,” she adds. “I'm so excited about what we make, I want to make sure that people who would enjoy it don't miss it, that they know about us.”
By Andrew Seale