1st impressions of life at a small business in rural Nova Scotia

I have barely been at the new job as Sales Associate at Appleton Chocolates Co., Tatamagouche, North shore of Nova Scotia, for 2 weeks and already have had some learnings about myself, about small business, about a chocolate business, and of course simply about chocolate!

I have to say that within a few days I was like I never want to be a chocolatier – way too much monotonous repetitive labour intensive manual work. You need to have the passion as Michael Foote, the head chocolatier, has. Of course these are hand made chocolates so this isn’t surprising. Of course I love the end product but I am just not into that level of detail work in many things with some exceptions. I also was reminded of the long hours 7 days a week 365 days a year that often small business owners and operators must often do in order to make the business profitable let alone viable.  The chocolates must be made again and again and again as stock gets sold.  This certainly is a popular biz as they sell out of certain flavour combinations.

What is really neat in my opinion is that this small chocolate store has been around for more than 21 years, opening in 1997, operating out of a cabin in the middle of the woods for its first 19 years and at least a 1/2 hour drive from anything larger than a village (a village that doesn’t exist anymore  – Appleton). It is impressive on so many levels: a high end chocolate store with a focus on dark – yeah! (although not solely to the exclusion of milk & white chocolate of course) in rural Nova Scotia; the use of high end European chocolate so the good stuff and from a reputable chocolate maker company; a business that has been around for more than 2 decades where most small businesses don’t succeed or last that long, especially in an economically depressed region of the country like the Maritimes; and, many folks know about the place and they don’t need convincing about the quality product (new customers don’t really need convincing, I mean really it is chocolate for heaven’s sake!).

It certainly does perfectly complement the other food establishments in the community/area: the micro brewery Tatamagouche Brewery (can’t say I am a fan – many many others are! – since I don’t like bitter beers but this seems to be the Maritime (& German?) pallet, the winery, a cidery Vista Bella Farm, a cafe with coffee roastery and another roastery Ceilidh Coffee Roasters, and the many restaurants including a fab food truck Route 6.

Everyone loves chocolate so this is a product that makes people happy. It is nice to sell this product for just this reason, but also because so many ingredients are locally sourced. Now if only we could grow cacao in Canada.  However I have now met a few folks who don’t like maple syrup. I was dumbfounded!  But then I realized that many folks grow up with pancake syrup like aunt jemima and not maple syrup since the latter is much more expensive so I get it. I was lucky since I grew up in Quebec, to me the original home of maple syrup and sugaring off parties. However, we all have our fav childhood foods which may or may not be that healthy for you, or could even be processed foods – we will always love them…although…

Sidenote: I have noticed over the past many years that when I have imbibed in some childhood treat, e.g. store bought cookies or cakes, they don’t taste the same.  Now I know these food corporations are always trying to reduce their costs so cutting the cost of ingredients besides labour is one way they do this (also just shrinking the size of the product – sneaky!).  So for example this is why we see the use of palm oil as currently it is the cheapest source of food oil AND it is contributing to what could be the eventual extinction of the amazing ORANGUTAN which only can only be found in Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia.  So check your labels on what you buy – DO NOT support these products/companies.

I have been pleasantly surprised at the intra-business support amongst the businesses in Tatamagouche. Not that everyone loves each other but overall there is a nice cordiality, and folks purchasing each other’s products and recommending each other’s businesses to their customers. The closest to this that I experienced would be at the farmers markets where most vendors are often very supportive of each other, newbies being supported by the longer term vendors, and vendors directing customers to other vendors. The now more common way to look at business is through a lens of complementarity instead of competition. There will still be those of the old guard who see any other business providing anything similar to their own as the evil competitor.

I also have been struck at how I am hanging out and getting to know my coworkers more than I get to do this with friends! It makes sense when you are spending 6+ hours/day of work in the same work space. I never get to see my friends enough. I so appreciate the times we can spend together but the conversations could always continue for many more hours. I just wish folks weren’t so bloody busy but now I am going to be that person, working more or less a full-time in the summer tourist & cottager season. It is also wonderful that the 5 of us (owners Michael (the head chocolatier) & Heather (wife & husband team), Mary-Ellen, student Ian, and me) get along well which is of course important.

I certainly don’t mind the work as it isn’t a hard sell. Folks appreciate chocolate and they can see the work in progress so they know it is hand crafted and well worth the price. I have yet to have the customer who feels the prices are high and would say “well I can get a chocolate bar at the local convenience store for cheaper”.  Well yes you can but I’m sorry the quality thus taste will not compare.  I won’t apologize for being a chocolate snob to a certain extent.  I know because of my background, the child of European immigrants, having been exposed to good quality chocolate since my youth when my only surviving grandmother would send us food baskets of goodies each xmas, I have had the privilege and thus exposure to good quality chocolate and it followed that I prefer dark chocolate.

There are ebbs and flows depending on the day but in other ways you just never know how much business you may get in a day. Some days there is no rhyme or reason to the # of customers.  I am also helping out with some social media/website posts, some other computer work so there is enough to keep me occupied.

It has also been neat to see familiar faces, meet new folks, learning whose who in the area. I guess you could say I am hearing quite a bit about the town gossip, using the most positive implication of this term. It is also just nice to put faces to names. Of course you do have to be careful what you say & do in a small town for obvious reasons. I have already had the opportunity to speak Spanish once and French several times.  I’m sure there will be the occasional time to speak Dutch.  Now if only I knew German since there are many in the area.

Next time I will write a bit about chocolate – you know the % of cocoa they say on packages of dark chocolate, e.g 55% or 72% or 90%?  Well it isn’t about bitterness.

Disclaimer: My thoughts are my mine alone and are not reflective of Appleton Chocolates or any other business.

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