Halifax’s sweetheart chocolatiers

Those who truly appreciate the art of the chocolatier were blessed with the arrival of Rousseau Chocolatier to Halifax in May 2014. From a tiny store on Hollis Street, Nathalie Morin served in front while her life and business partner Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet created beautiful confections that their customers just couldn’t get enough of out back. The young couple moved to Halifax without ever having set foot in the city, and heard from many doubters that there was no way they would possibly succeed, but four years on they’ve proved them wrong. This past January, Rousseau Chocolatier moved from that tiny storefront to a large, bright, and airy space on South Street, adding a cafe to their operation, and a staff of five. Their success story is a sweet one, and it is clear that they’ve fallen for the city as much as the city has fallen for their cacao treats.

The tagline on Rousseau Chocolatier’s Instagram page reads, “From the South of France to Halifax, NS… a love story!” And when talking with the couple, you realize that it really is. They met a decade ago, fell in love, and spent years travelling Europe learning the craft of making, and selling, chocolate. Morin is Canadian and Rousseau-Dumarcet is from France. They met when Rousseau-Dumarcet was a young pastry chef working in Canada, and Morin worked in the hospitality industry. Soon after meeting, Rousseau-Dumarcet confessed that working with chocolate was his passion. “We joked about one day owning our own little chocolate shop,” says Morin, “But it was far from reality. We had no money, we were young and had itchy feet – we just wanted to travel.” As time went on, the couple realized that opening that little shop was their goal, and set about working towards it.

While continuing their travels, the couple sought work with chocolatiers in France, England, and Scotland. “We’d get hired as a couple. I would work on the front end of the business in sales, and he would work in the production. That worked really well and solidified that this was what we wanted to do,” says Morin. “Our goal was then to scrape up as much money, and get as much experience as we could, to one day open up our own place.”

And why Halifax? That’s a question the couple gets asked often. “We wanted to live somewhere in Canada where not only is the quality of life amazing but there are far fewer chocolatiers,” says Morin. “We were living in Scotland at the time when we started going down a checklist of cities and areas in Canada where we would love to live. At that time there wasn’t much in terms of chocolatiers doing high-end stuff in Halifax, so we saw that as an untapped market. We researched Halifax online, read all the newspaper and magazine articles we could find, and it all sounded very positive. There was so much new construction going on, and the city seemed from a distance like it was booming.” It sounded like “Eldorado.”

Starting small

Arriving in Halifax full of enthusiasm to start their business, the couple soon discovered that many people – from their contractor to local food bloggers – thought that they hadn’t a chance of succeeding. “That gave us a huge kick in the butt to just prove them wrong. I really believed in what Julien was doing, that his knowledge of the products and his experience were going to make this work,” says Morin. They were bringing something completely different to the city and thought that would set them apart from any competition. They knew if they could get people to try their chocolate, that would be it. So the duo showcased them wherever they could. “Anybody who said here’s a table you can sell your products, we were there,” says Morin, “Thank God we didn’t have a kid at that point because it took up 100 percent of our time. We worked every day, and we never wanted to close for fear of missing sales.”

Rousseau products were different in several ways. First, Rousseau-Dumarcet’s creativity and skills elevated chocolate to an art form, something you’d undoubtedly see in bigger cities but hadn’t really hit Halifax yet. Their chocolates were high-end, using the finest fresh ingredients that changed with the seasons, with no artificial flavours, and exciting twists on what you’d expect to see. In the early days, their chocolates and macarons took centre stage, with best sellers being the feuilletine – whipped hazelnut praline with thin layers of crisp wafer dipped in milk chocolate – and their salted butter caramels dipped in either milk or dark chocolate. Drooling yet?

Soon after opening, Rousseau-Dumarcet was getting calls from foragers and local producers who wanted their products in his creations. Word got around fast, and Rousseau Chocolatier’s popularity grew. Soon they had regulars coming into to buy bags full of their chocolates, all singing their praise.

Morin and Rousseau-Dumarcet soon realized that the way they did things – using fresh, local ingredients in their chocolates – fit in perfectly here. “Our customers were really encouraging, saying, “I could easily go to the supermarket and buy a box of Pot of Gold, but that is not what I want to give as a gift and not what I want to eat,” Morin says. Nova Scotians’ support of local has been key to Rousseau Chocolatier’s success. Morin loved being able to tell her customers that those were Seafoam Lavender Company and Gardens’ lavender buds in the chocolates, or that the rhubarb they were using had been picked up at the farmers’ market. They supported local, and the community supported them. “We felt like it went full circle, and seeing our customers appreciate that meant so much,” says Morin.

Morin confesses their first year in business was terrifying as they had to learn everything on the fly and they realized that despite all that experience they’d picked up along the way, there was still so much they didn’t know. The only support they had was a bookkeeper, – the couple had to fulfill every other role. “I don’t think people realize that when you have a business you can’t necessarily afford to pay for marketing or photography every time you make a new product,” says Morin, “ I had no idea how to promote products, I just went with my instincts and followed what other people were doing.” Social media is crucial to the business, and something else Morin had to learn on the fly. “It was a full two years before I got us an Instagram account because some of our younger customers were like, “Hey are you on Instagram? If you’re dealing with food, you have to be on Instagram!”  Now Instagram is my biggest social media platform, and it’s where I have the most followers and interactions. Instagram is where people find our website.”

Julien Rousseau-Dumarcet and Nathalie Morin

At the end of that first year, when they sat down with their bookkeeper and she told them, “Hey you guys are doing quite well, eh?” they were able to breathe a sigh of relief and slow down a little. “It was at that point we felt we were able to close one day a week and that went well we didn’t lose any money, and then we got busy at weekends, and we had to hire somebody. That was a big turning point when you could offer a job to somebody to help you,” says Morin, “It was an incredible feeling.”

The sweet smell of success

In January of this year, Rousseau Chocolatier moved to their current location. “Making that move was even more terrifying than opening the first location,” says Morin, explaining that with the first location they had way less to lose (they only used their own money, and expanding required loans). “We were also so excited because we knew this location was going to be magic. It’s on a corner which gives us more visibility from the outside, it’s bright with 16-foot ceilings, and we knew that having a cafe was going to help get people through the door. Once they are here, we get to give samples and talk about our products. It’s really great to be able to bring people in with great coffee, and then win them over with chocolate.”

This summer they invested in a soft serve ice cream machine, and offered a creamy,  dairy-free option every day – something unique and appreciated by lactose intolerant Haligonians who blew up the ‘gram with pics of their swirly cones. This has proven such a successful arm of their business the plan is to offer house-made gelato in the next few years. They’re in no rush to expand too quickly though – they already have their products in 20 different places across Nova Scotia and as far as Moncton – and life is pretty busy, especially with a baby now in the mix. “We’ve never tried to bite off too much, and we only climb the ladder one rung at a time,” says Morin.

Through all this change, the continued quality of their product remains key. Rousseau-Dumarcet is still in love with making chocolate, and the freedom having his own shop gives him to create. The menu changes regularly as he and his right-hand, Ellen Stone, experiment with flavours. “It’s always fun developing chocolates. Every time we try something we don’t know if it’s going to be a good chocolate or not, it’s a test, but when the combination works it’s just so cool.,” he says, “It’s a mystery until we try it.”

Many of Rousseau Chocolatier’s customers have been with them from the start, and Morin is ever-thankful for the support they’ve received, and how warmly they’ve been accepted. They were embraced by Halifax’s French community early on, with the Alliance Française sending their students (and staff) there to converse in French. This helped the couple feel like part of a community early in their Halifax experience. Opening Rousseau Chocolatier was a dream, and Morin says that as although the dream came true, none of their excitement has diminished. “It’s wild to think that this time last year we just had one employee and now we’re looking at employing more people,” she says, “We’re even more excited than when we started, and coming here has given us an amazing quality of life. We’ve never regretted coming to Halifax for a minute, this was absolutely the right place to start.”