Belgium is known for its mouthwatering chocolate. While many other countries are proud of their chocolate industry, such as Switzerland, I cannot draw any other conclusion that Belgian chocolate is the best. With so much temptation around, I have to admit that my chocolate consumption has at least quadrupled since I came to Brussels in 2010.
Five years ago, when I was teaching a class on international business strategies at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, I dedicated half a session on Belgian chocolate. With a room full of MBA-students, we were trying to find an answer to the question why out of all countries it was Belgium that developed into the world’s premier quality chocolate producer. Simply stating that Belgium has the best chocolatiers does namely not explain how it became famed for this delicacy. The same goes for French sparkling wine, Cuban rum, and Scottish Whiskey, so we would have to search for deeper reasons.
It was Harvard’s prominent business thinker Professor Michael Porter who developed a model to explain the competitive advantage of nations. The “Diamond” framework consists of four interrelated conditions:
- Factor conditions: availability of skilled labor, infrastructure, capital, and raw materials
- Related & supporting industries: sectors that are important for the existence of the chocolate industry or its further development
- Demand conditions: there needs to be a strong customer base that stimulates quality and continuous improvement
- Firm strategy, structure & rivalry: competition is beneficial for the development of any industry as it creates a dynamic environment that boosts productivity and innovativeness.
If applied to Belgium, we can observe several factors contributing to the establishment and strengthening of the national chocolate industry. From a historic perspective, the sourcing of high quality cacao beans from the Belgian Congo was a major factor to get the best raw materials. Belgian chocolatiers such as Jean Neuhaus (Swiss) and Frans Callebaut created the pralines and couvertures, which caused a lot of buzz around the world. Additionally, the Belgian population loves to eat chocolate (20 pounds per year on average!) and generally appreciates good food, which fostered the ever-increasing quality of gourmet chocolate. Stimulated by the dynamic restaurant sector and availability of outstanding culinary schools, the chocolate industry could further develop by educating new generations of chocolatiers. Moreover, the dozens of gourmet chocolate houses and the 2000+ chocolate shops in Belgium caused an intense domestic competition. This ensured one could distinguish oneself from the others, which further contributed to the competitive advantage of Belgium versus other countries in this delicious industry.
No doubt you have already figured out that it’s not the Grand Place, but the Sablon that is the centre of the chocolate industry. This is where you will find most famous shops such as Neuhaus, Leonidas, Godiva, Alex & Alex, Wittamer and Marcolini, although you will also find them spread over the rest of Brussels, the rest of Belgium and in many foreign countries. Let’s us take a closer look at these and other “chocolat-ty” destinations in our city.
Leonidas – Exactly 100 years ago, Leonidas Kestekides, an American from Greek-Cypriot descent, opened his first chocolate shop in Brussels. Now it has about 1,250 stores in 50 countries around the world and is known for its affordability compared to some other famous brands.
Neuhaus – Founded by Swiss national Jean Neuhaus as a pharmancy over 150 with the first and still existing shop in the Galeries Royal Saint-Hubert, Neuhaus is known for its pralines that were created by the grand-son of the original founder, Jean Neuhaus II. The brand is also known for its nice packaging, although 50 years after this novelty other firms have certainly catches up with this aspect.
Godiva – Originally established in 1926 with the opening of a shop at the Grand Place, Godiva was acquired by the Campbell Soup Company in 1967 and part of a large Turkish holding company since 2007. As most other large chocolatiers, it has expanded its range of products. Currently it has about 450 shops worldwide.
Marcolini – Although Pierre Marcolini opened his first store only in 1995, he has risen to the absolute top of gourmet chocolate. The famous chocolatier won the prestigious Title of World Champion of pastry in that year, and the fame has only grown since then. Arguably the store on the Grand Sablon is the most beautiful chocolate shop in Brussels, but certainly the creations you find in there are true gems. If you can only see one shop, this is the one!
Wittamer – Less known than the above ones, the prestigious Wittamer brand was founded in 1910. Today it’s still run by the straight descendants of the original chocolatier Henri Wittamer and has the honour to be the Official Supplier to the Court of Belgium. Striving after beauty and perfection, Wittamer has become especially popular as a luxury chocolate brand in Japan.
Passion Chocolat – This shop at the Sablon originated from one of Brussels’ largest communes, Woluwe-Saint-Pierre. It’s owner Massimo Ori says: “I want to reintroduce my customers to forgotten flavours. However, the quest for originality is not my sole aim. With our dedication to artisan-based methods, my team and I are able to continue delighting those who love traditional flavours whilst working innovatively to enhance the authentic basic formulas in our varied range of chocolates.”
Laurent Gerbaud – This is one of those brands that quickly made a name for itself, despite that it exists only for eleven years. It is especially known for its delicious covered small candied oranges, as well as the high quality of the dark chocolate itself.
Besides the above brands, there are countless other smaller chocolatiers in Brussels and Belgium, as well as places to learn more about chocolate or even visit a chocolate factory. Here are a few of them where you can truly feel like Charly himself!
Zaabär – Located not far from Place Stéphanie on Chaussée Charleroi, Zaabär offers several types of visits, from one hour demonstrations to highly personalised chocolate-making workshops with dinner.
Museum of Cocoa & Chocolate – Housed in a nice building as old as the Brussels City Hall, this museum is just off Grand Place. It is rather small and primarily appreciated for the free cookie dipped in melted chocolate and the chocolate after the demonstration.
Planete Chocolat – Relatively new, the reviews on Planet Chocolat are quite positive compared to the previously mentioned museum. Just around the corner from Manneken Pis, it is more like a combination of a chocolate shop that also offers demonstrations and workshops. Definitely worth a visit!
So there is plenty of chocolate to choose from. I love walking in a store and pick up a box of chocolates once and a while. Either for myself or as a nice present when I visit friends. What is your favourite store?