Chocolatiers throughout Belgium have been weathering the Covid-19 pandemic as best they can, but the loss of turnover is considerable and even Easter didn’t make much of a dent in that, according to reporting from Bruzz.
The Dutch-language news outlet spoke with various chocolate makers from Sablon to the Grote Markt in order to get their insights into how they’ve handled the pandemic.
The Easter season seems to have hardly boosted the poor annual figures of the capital's chocolate masters, they found, while they continue to keep paying the rent and cleaning costs of maintaining a storefront.
People attract people, even in coronation times. So when we have walked outside, we see successively a local resident, a young couple and a grandmother with two toddlers shopping. "The grandchildren are visiting today and still have their Easter to take care of," the older one says. She sympathises with the chocolate-makers, because "these are difficult days for everyone". Meanwhile, Marcolini himself is on the phone from Paris. He does not want to say how much, but he is categorical:
“The situation does not look good,” said chocolatier Pierre Marcolini. “We are doing what we can, but it’s mainly looking forward to the day when the pandemic is over and the measures stop.”
Without foreign tourists and with obligatory working from home, the squares and streets that house the chocolate boutiques remain too empty for much profit, especially considering a holiday when those who can afford luxury chocolates are most inclined to make a purchase.
“I myself looked at the official production figures from Statbel, and even though they are only from companies with more than 20 employees, the downward trend is clear,” Guy Gallet, secretary general of the sector association Choprabisco, told Bruzz.
“In 2020, 7.8% less cocoa, chocolate and confectionery was produced than in 2019. In the first half of the year, with the first lockdown, those figures rise to 11.6% for chocolate and even to 25.8 per cent for pralines.”
This is a greater decline than the overall food industry, Gallet says.
“The chocolate industry has been hit twice as hard as the food industry and, within the chocolate industry, the praline manufacturers have been hit twice as hard again,” said Gallet.
According to newly released annual figures from Fevia, the federation of the Belgian food industry, 2020 had an average turnover decrease of 1.7% for general food and of 3.7% percent for cocoa products, chocolate and confectionery compared to 2019.
Focusing only on a crisis month like May 2020, chocolate production was 36% lower than in 2019, and pralines 65% lower.
“If you then zoom in on shops in a tourist zone, such as the centre of Brussels or Zaventem airport, the figures are even worse,” said Gallet. “This is not only because exports and tourism are stagnant, but because of our limited social contacts there are also simply far fewer opportunities to give chocolates or eggs as gifts.”
The consequences are most visible on the Grote Markt. The stately building that once housed Victor Hugo and where now Neuhaus and Pierre Marcolini each run a boutique is closed.
“It's a catastrophe,” said a Leonidas employee just down the street. “The place used to be full of tourists, now it's mainly the drunks who stand out.”
Godiva and Neuhaus near the famous Manneken Pis are closed, but Leonidas in Stoofstraat is not.
Because they only opened their doors there in December 2019, they only experienced a few months of normalcy before the pandemic truly hit Europe.
“It is what it is,” the shopkeeper told reporters. “I already updated the Easter display case yesterday with cheerful spring shades, and waiting for customers there is always something to polish.”
“All we can do is keep our window display as attractive as possible,” said another shopkeeper for a chocolate boutique.
Unlike Neuhaus or Pierre Marcolini, Leonidas is trying to keep all its shops open.
“A deliberate move,” CEO Philippe de Selliers told Bruzz. “For us, Easter is the second best period of the year after the end-of-year festivities. Even though we knew that sales in the Brussels city centre would be much lower, we wanted to remain true to our philosophy of 'sharing moments of happiness with as many people as possible' and not disappoint domestic tourists who wanted to 'Brussels it up' for a day.”
“Because you have to be even smarter than usual in times of crisis, we put a lot of effort into decoration. This is not only important for sales or for our image, it has also helped to counterbalance what for many people is a very dark period with a smile. The chocolate Easter bunny on some of our display cases has been photographed many times by passers-by.”
Nevertheless, the CEO estimates the total loss of turnover due to the coronavirus at 20%.
“That rises to 50-60% in the tourist centre of Brussels, where Asian and American tourists are now staying away, and even to 90% in travel retail in the airport,” said de Selliers. “But I am drawing hope from research that found during this crisis that the craving for quality, local products and social contact, including in-store, has only increased.”
The Brussels Times