Virus gives Easter a bitter taste for Belgian chocolatiers

Easter sales were down 90 percent, with the world in the grip of a deadly pandemic, Belgians ordered to remain at home.

4/10/2020 2:00:00 PM

“In terms of cash flow I can keep going until the middle of May,” he said, describing how he’s relying on online orders. “After that, it will get very complicated, but you’ve got to be optimistic.”

Easter sales were down 90 percent, with the world in the grip of a deadly pandemic, Belgians ordered to remain at home.

Brussels-based chocolate maker Laurent Gerbaud works in his shop in Brussels on April 9, 2020, during a lockdown in Belgium to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus. – Gerbaud is a part of the initiative “Pas sans mon chocolat” (Not without my chocolate), enabling him to receive and deliver orders despite his shop being closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. Ahead of Easter, the online platform encourages clients to buy their chocolate from local artisans rather than from large retailers. (Photo by Aris Oikonomou / AFP)

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Gerbaud’s boutique is well-placed near Brussels’ touristy museum quarter and in ordinary times his display of wares catch the greedy eyes of passers-by.Not so now–Easter sales were down 90 percent, with the world in the grip of a deadly pandemic, Belgians ordered to remain at home aside from essential errands and Europe’s borders closed.

In better days, the businessman employs six full-time staff and 25 students, but he said he can no longer cover their salaries.‘Getting complicated’The drop in sales reminds him of the localized lockdown imposed after the 2015 bomb and gun attacks in Paris were linked to Belgium-based suspects

–but this is much more severe.“In terms of cash flow I can keep going until the middle of May,” he said, describing how he’s relying on online orders. “After that, it will get very complicated, but you’ve got to be optimistic.”Gerbaud managed to sell his Easter eggs and has been trying to shift his extra chocolate bars and candied fruits. Treats filled with creamy ganache will not keep fresh, so he has donated them to health workers.

Brussels-based chocolate maker Laurent Gerbaud handles chocolates in his workshop in Brussels on April 9, 2020, during a lockdown in Belgium to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus. – Gerbaud is a part of the initiative “Pas sans mon chocolat” (Not without my chocolate), enabling him to receive and deliver orders despite his shop being closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. Ahead of Easter, the online platform encourages clients to buy their chocolate from local artisans rather than from large retailers. (Photo by Aris Oikonomou / AFP)

According to the chocolate-makers’ guild Choprabisco, Belgium’s confectioners have handed over 13 million eggs, rabbits, and sweet biscuits to the country’s hospitals so far during the outbreak.ADVERTISEMENTThe head of the association, Guy Gallet said Easter normally represents between 15 and 30 percent of his members’ annual turnover, so COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time.

Chocolatealong with beer, waffles, and chips–is one of Belgium’s signature flavors, and tourist stores and airport gift shops have been particularly badly hit, with traffic down to almost zero.Nevertheless, online sales were holding up, as Belgians comfort themselves at home with sweet treats. The products of some star chocolatiers like Pierre Marcolini are now only available online.

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‘Boosts morale’Away from the tourist trail, in a quiet residential area of the south of the Brussels, local producers like Jerome Grimonpon were hanging on–in his case reopening his store one week into the lockdown.“I was getting phone calls from customers saying ‘We need chocolate in moments like this! Easter is coming’,” he said, standing in his bay window workshop with two co-workers wearing facemasks.

All is not as before in the attached retail outlet, however. Opening hours have been reduced and customers were allowed in only one at a time, with an appointment. Deliveries have been stepped up.“There’s a bit of ground to make up,” he said, explaining that sales in this normally busy season are around half what they normally would be.

But he can count on local support. “People still come out from time to time to get food, and I’m not far from the supermarkets,” he said.There were two clients waiting expectantly outside. Civil servant Rita came by bicycle to pick up her order.“When you’re working from home, it’s nice to have a choccy box beside the computer. It boosts morale,” she said.

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