Focus: Emerging Canadian artisan confectionery market on the rise
While the Canadian chocolate market is dominated by major manufacturers, such as Nestlé, Hershey, Mondelēz, Lindt, Mars and Ferrero – a diverse artisanal sector is fast rising, as consumers seek out premium products that are locally produced and often marketed to specific target customers, writes Daniel Sekulich
According to research firm Statista, retail sales of chocolate in Canada amounted to around USD2.6 billion annually between 2016 and 2018, with the major firms accounting for more than 80% of national sales.
The average Canadian annual household expenditure on chocolate more than doubled in the last decade, growing from CAD35 (USD25) in 2010 to CAD77 (USD55) in 2019. Prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, small but steady growth was expected this year and into the new decade. Regardless of the overall impact of the pandemic, smaller local producers are seeking to increase their current 10% share of the market they currently hold.
There are craft chocolate producers in every part of the country except for the vast, sparsely populated northern territory of Nunavut. While the majority are in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, Canadian chocolatiers have established themselves from coast to coast, creating products that reflect their regional origins, appealing to a targeted customer base and using creative marketing techniques.
An example is Alicja Buchowicz, a 26-year-old, artisanal chocolatier based in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. She opened her firm, Alicja Confections, in 2015, initially selling bonbons and then bars to a small clientele, many being millennials. But her business really began to grow when she developed a unique new product line: postcard chocolate bars.
“I was sitting at my desk one day and noticed that a bar I’d made was sitting on a standard envelope, and the bar was the perfect size to fit in it,” Buchowicz recalls. “Yes, it was staring me in the face, this idea. So that’s where postcard chocolate bars began, and things took off from there.”
These mailable (both domestic and international) postcard bars are handcrafted in her studio, wrapped in airtight foil, then put in paper packaging that allows the sender to write a personal note. Buchowicz discovered that the paper packaging is cheaper than using traditional specialty packaging, such as foil wrapping, and these savings allowed her to increase the variety of colourful packaging and enhance the line’s visual appeal.
“I love making the bars, but I also love the process of creating the package designs,” she said. “And I’ve had designs that came from people, customers, that I’ve thought were great and decided to use. So it feels very communal. Very inspiring.” Alicja Confections now has 30 different types for sale, made from dark, milk and white chocolate, selling for CAD8.99 (USD 6.40) apiece both online and through her Ottawa retail store, and she pays the postage if customers order directly from her website. Their popularity has helped grow her business from a single person outfit into a one that employs 14 people during peak periods.
In Canada’s largest city, Toronto, there are over 20 craft chocolatiers operating, each seeking to differentiate themselves and their product lines. With almost half its population of 3 million being foreign-born, Toronto is not only the nation’s largest city, but also its most multicultural – the metropolitan area is 6 million people. And this provides numerous ethnic influences inspiring artisanal producers.
Laura Slack is one of those, a Toronto chocolate artist who specialises in handmade luxury confections, who has capitalised on local interest in the Mexican Day of the Dead by crafting a line of edible chocolate truffle skulls filled with dulce de leche, a caramel-like spread.
“It was about six years ago that I saw [decorations] for Day of the Dead and, of course, Hallowe’en, around the city and decided to create some chocolate skulls,” Slack told Confectionery Production, adding, “They’re fairly labour intensive, with a double mould that’s then hand-painted, but they proved to be popular from day one.”
This success allowed Slack to experiment with other artistic products, such as her luxury drinking chocolate ‘Drink of the Gods’, trying to strike the perfect combination of beautiful presentation and unique taste. While this increases the retail price, she says her clientele is forgiving: “Generally speaking, women make up the majority of my customers, and I think that creating aesthetically beautiful products and packaging particularly appeals to women. They know these are premium products, and that’s what they want.”
Slack believes that Canadians in general have become more educated about the nuances of chocolate, which has enhanced the overall consumer experience. “I think that people are a lot more willing to support small, local chocolatiers than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” she says. “People are much more willing to spend money to get a higher quality, locally made product [and] willing to try different tastes and experiment more with flavours, because they’re more open-minded about food”
On Canada’s east coast, chocolatier Darryl Pike agrees with Slack’s assessment. Pike runs JACOBEAN Craft Chocolate, the first ‘bean-to-bar’ producer, where a manufacturer is closely involved in cocoa sourcing, in the province of Newfoundland & Labrador, and says, “Yes, I definitely think the consumer base for craft chocolate in Canada is growing.”
He believes the chocolate sector is going through the same sort of renaissance that has already occurred with wine, beer, cheese and coffee in the country, pointing out that there are now more than 30 bean-to-bar producers in Canada.
When Pike decided to open his business in St John’s (the province’s capital) during 2018, he made the decision to become a bean-to-bar chocolatier for both business and ethical reasons. He wanted to stand out, but also wanted control over his supply chain, buying beans direct from farmers in Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Papua New Guinea: “Instead of ‘fair trade’ I wanted ‘direct trade’. I want to have a green impact on the planet.”
While Pike knew there could be challenges getting select cacao beans shipped to Newfoundland, he was confident there would be a local market for his products, which has grown from initially just two items for sale to now offering some 30 different artisanal items, including products that contain local ingredients such as Newfoundland juniper berries, honey, strawberries and sea salt.
“The branding of my products, as being from Newfoundland, is very important,” Pike points out. “I am also currently working on something new, using Newfoundland partridge berries,” he said, using the local term for lingonberries. “This will be my most expensive chocolate, because it takes 30 days to make, as the berry is gummy and sticky. But I’m really excited about it.”
While his business is busy and he has online orders from as far away as Illinois in the United States, Pike does worry that the Canadian craft chocolate sector will become increasingly competitive as more producers enter the market. And he has noted how larger companies increasingly used terminology and packaging mirroring that used by the bear-to-bar segment.
“Part of the sales process is educating consumers, telling them that good chocolate doesn’t just come from Europe,” he says. “It comes from all over the world now. So, I’m interested in what’s going to happen in the next five years here, as I think it’s going to potentially become a saturated market.”
But Pike is quick to add something that could be a mantra for Canadian artisanal chocolatiers: “Once you try good chocolate – craft chocolate – you just don’t go back to anything else.”
*Other Canadian artisanal chocolate producers:
Rebel Chocolates, Montréal, Québec: rebelchocolates.com
SOMA Chocolatemaker, Toronto, Ontario: somachocolate.com
Choklat, Calgary, Alberta: choklat.com
BLINK Chocolate, Vancouver, British Columbia: blinkchocolate.com