A guest interview with John and Belinda Spear, of Le Chocolatier Canmore
When you open the door, it envelopes you: the smell of fine chocolate. And then you see it: chocolate in all shapes and sizes, boxes and see-through packages … all kinds of goodies to tempt you.
This is one of my favorite spots in Canmore: Le Chocolatier’s retail shop and chocolate-making factory where I regularly re-stock my art studio’s valuable dark chocolate stash. Barb and I have one studio rule we never compromise on: we can’t run out of chocolate (preferably dark), and whoever takes the last piece has to buy the next bar (usually from Le Chocolatier).
On this day, I had the pleasure of getting a behind-the-scenes look at this fine locally-owned Canmore business that specializes in handcrafted Belgian chocolates. The owners, John and Belinda Spear, gave me a personal tour, and of course a few chocolates to sample along the way.
My first question had to be how this dynamic couple stays so slim surrounded by all this chocolate every day. Belinda smiles knowingly and says, “We eat a little chocolate every day. That way we don’t have the big cravings that might undo us.”
If you happen to have an undeniable chocolate craving like me, you’ve come to the right place. There is a stunning variety to satisfy anyone’s taste. They have over 20 chocolate bar flavours, 20 kinds of truffles, plus bonbons with flavors like Lemon Sorbet, Raspberry Parfait, Hazelnut Praline, and more.
“In a typical week, we go through about 300 kilos of chocolate (about 660 pounds),” says John. “During seasonal times, like Christmas and Easter, it’s easily three-times that amount.”
The day I was in, just before Easter, they had three tempering machines running, one for each type of chocolate: milk, white and dark. The machine uses a precise heating process that keeps the chocolate liquefied until it is ready to pour into moulds or to be used for dipping other ingredients when making specialty chocolates. Once out of the machine it hardens in about 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the shape of the chocolate. Today, I watched chocolate-maker Bea dip chocolate mallows and create Easter bunnies.
Most days, John also crafts the chocolates, and Belinda creates the beautiful packaging and does the administration for the business. This month marks nine years in the chocolate business for the couple. They moved to Canmore from England after spending one day here and absolutely falling in love with this mountain town. In England, John was a chef and they owned a catering business so they were already familiar with the food business. But, the idea of becoming chocolatiers didn’t come until they moved here.
Fate, it seemed, had something a little different planned for them. Soon after coming to Canmore, they met the original owner of Le Chocolatier and John remarked casually if she wanted to sell, he would be interested. Three months later, she called to say she was moving out of the country, and before they could catch their breath they found themselves proud owners of a chocolate-making business.
They began making 10 flavours of chocolate bars and six kinds of truffles in their basement. John’s passion, and his subsequent specialty chocolate training, led to the expansion of the company. In November 2005, Le Chocolatier moved into a customized chocolate-making factory and retail store. Today, they continue to make local chocolates by hand, but also sell wholesale to stores throughout Alberta, and supply the prestigious Canadian Fairmont hotel chain across Canada.
It’s a busy life for the couple, but clearly they have fun in business together. As I ask who does the beautiful packaging, Belinda says, “I do…” and John cuts her off and says, “And, I do everything else!” She rolls her eyes and he laughs, then he says, “I couldn’t do the packaging because men don’t have that chip in their brain that lets them do bows.”
When I ask to take a photo of them together, John sneakily puts his fingers in the rabbit ear shape behind Belinda’s head. She swats him playfully. They both laugh, and I can certainly tell where the fun you see throughout their store comes from.
John explains, “Lots of the creative process is working alone. You have to enjoy what you do, and having a sense of humor really helps. If you can’t play, you can’t be creative.”
Their chocolate labels give you a sense of this impishness. Promoting their chocolate bar “Almond Avalanche” on their website, they say “You’ll beg to be buried!”. They also sell chocolate CDs, moose-shaped lollipops, even milk chocolate body paint with a label that asks you to “Embrace your inner artist”.
John says another passion for them is creating traditions and memories. “We have people who come back every year for the same chocolate egg, that special chocolate Christmas Santa, or one of our chocolate-filled edible champagne bottles. In a time when traditions seem to be falling away, we’re thrilled to be in a business where traditions are so important.”
One day earlier this year when I was in the shop, a woman came in and bought a heaping box of Le Chocolatier treats to take back to Japan with her. John and Belinda have heard that in Japan, it’s a tradition to bring a small present back from a trip for friends and family. John and Belinda love that their chocolates are being enjoyed around the world.
“We’re so pleased living here in Canmore,” they said. “We have such good friends, and a lovely family to keep us balanced. It’s busy running a small family business like this, but we always try to find time to take a day off every week with our kids, and recharge by enjoying the mountains and activities the kids are involved in.”
“And,” John adds with a twinkle, “we get to work around chocolate every day. How could you improve on that?”
For more information on Le Chocolatier, and an online shop of their chocolates, visit www.lechocolatier.ca.