Few entrepreneurs can boast of collaborating with Victoria Beckham. One of them is Belgium-based chocolatier Pierre Marcolini. While his chocolates have reached the shores of France, the UK, Japan, China and even the Middle East, having an opportunity to design a box of chocolate hearts with Beckham to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her couture label took the brand further.
But this was hardly his first or last gig with a famous star. Marcolini has collaborated with designer Tom Dixon, fashion designer Olympia Le Tan and the Maison Kitsuné to create limited edition boxes of chocolates.
However, it wasn’t all sugar, spice and everything nice in the beginning. Looking back, Marcolini’s love affair with chocolate began at the age of 14. Over the years it became increasingly important to him to be able to follow his passion. “I have always wanted to be independent, to have my own creative freedom, to have the chance to create what I wanted,” Marcolini says, adding that it wasn’t easy to crack into the saturated market. After having served as a pastry chef initially, in 1995 he opened his store in Belgium.
Marcolini quickly gained popularity due to his “tempting show windows,” which put his brand ahead of his competitor on the same street who had actually been his first employer. “It was audacious to open my boutique in front of the biggest pastry institution in Belgium,” Marcolini notes. “I was lucky because it became a success quickly from the start and getting the award of the World Champion in Pastry in Lyon in 1995 also helped a lot.”
But to achieve continued success, one must keep providing a unique offering which sets their brand apart from others. Given the chocolate industry is predicted to be worth $162bn by 2024, it’s easy to see how the sector is swarmed with entrepreneurs trying to find their standing. And Marcolini did exactly that by challenging the norm of chocolate being sugar-filled. “I had to become more well-known and people had to understand and adhere to my chocolate vision which was breaking the rules of the traditional Belgian chocolatier,” he details. “People were used to eating chocolate pralines with a high individual weight and lots of sugar. I was offering chocolates to savour, smaller and with less sugar.” Additionally, he even tried unusual recipes and flavours, such as ganache with Earl Grey, which in the 90s was unheard of, the chocolatier claims.
Apart from tickling his customer’s tastebuds, what sets this brand apart is Marcolini’s principle of sourcing cocoa beans directly from the farms for which he travels across 12 countries. He is closely involved in the whole process including getting the ingredients, roasting the cocoa beans and the final assembly. “It has always been important to me to source the best cocoa beans and create a long-term relationship with the planters and I also want them to work in the best conditions,” he explains, adding this was all possible as it was a small business. “Being a smaller company often means you have more control over the creative process, rather than selling out as some bigger brands do, often for financial reasons.”
Furthermore, he ensures he plays his part in being environmentally-friendly. “The [brand] and the planters who I work with signed a charter adhering to three important ethical and sustainable topics – excluding child labour, excluding the use of glyphosate and not using the CCN51, a hybrid cocoa bean which is impoverishing the soil,” he continues. “This triple commitment gives us the opportunity to offer a top quality chocolate with ethical and sustainable values at our core.”
Furthermore, Marcolini ensures he is well aware of any new trends and tastes of his customers and tailors his range accordingly. For instance, during Ramadan, to appeal to his Muslim following he created a whole new collection with salted caramel, dates and flavours of pistachio. “As I travel a lot I take a lot of inspiration from other cultures and weave them into collections,” he says.
While Marcolini hails from Belgium, Blighty holds a special place for the patissier. “Even if I do not master the language of Shakespeare, I am in love with London and its energy,” he affirms. “I would say the UK is definitely forward-thinking and open minded as a market, often craving less traditional tastes over more modern and geometric designs.” And thanks to his passion coupled with the UK’s welcoming market, his chocolates are now stocked in Harrods and Selfridges. “The fact that I represent a kind of avant-garde in the chocolate world, always reinventing new codes and recipes, must have seduced them,” he notes.
Despite a journey fraught with obstacles, Marcolini kept treading with the ambition to take the brand where it is now. “The hardest thing I had to face when I started was the lack of trust,” he recalls. “People thought I was crazy. I was young and I wanted to revolutionise the chocolate world. Sometimes in Belgium we do not authorise our self to dream.”
But that clearly didn’t stop him from aiming higher. Today, the brand boasts of 40 stores worldwide and Marcolini is set to increase that figure. “My wish for the [brand] is to become a recognised international company without losing our Belgian chocolate savoir-faire and craftsmanship while keeping our values,” he says bullishly. “I also have a dream to open a school and transmit my know-how to pupils and encourage the next generations to realise their dreams.”
With the brand entering its third decade and looking at his hunger, we’re sure to say that the future is smelling rather sweet for Marcolini – he’s definitely on top of the game. And he says it’s only because he took the time to understand the industry when growing the business. “The best advice I can give [to other entrepreneurs] is do not hurry and take the time to study the dos and don’ts to learn as you go,” he concludes.