Experience is also a mantra of Brent Smith, co-owner of the Newfoundland Chocolate Company with his wife, Christina Dove. After seven years in business, 2015 was the company’s biggest: It opened its first retail store outside of Newfoundland (in the MicMac Mall in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia), and its first café, on Signal Hill, St. John’s. New custom packaging and new recipes were launched, and business grew almost 70 per cent. The company was recently recognized at the St. John’s Board of Trade 2015 Business Excellence Awards, winning the Leader in Growth and Sales, Innovation Solutions, and Business Excellence (the top prize) categories.
Smith says 2016 will be just as dynamic. But “exceptional” chocolate and local ingredients, though attractive to consumers, aren’t enough to account for the company’s success.
“We’re not competing with Ganong or Lindt, we’re not selling a commodity — we’re selling an experience,” he says, describing the carefully designed, engaging and interactive retail outlets. “The store is our competitive advantage. How can we create an experience that’s more than a transaction, it’s a story? Newfoundlanders are great storytellers, and we have a story to tell. That’s what I think we do very well.”
Smith’s vision is to expand the Newfoundland Chocolate Company into a national brand. The time is right, he says, to do it.
“Now is a very interesting time,” Smith says, admitting that the provincial economic downturn has led him to focus more on external markets, including opening two more retail outlets in Nova Scotia in 2016. “But I feel good about chocolate, in that it’s generally a pretty recession-proof product, as an affordable luxury.
“The name of the company wasn’t accidental. That’s our vision: to represent Newfoundland and Labrador, and tell our story. I want people to associate great chocolate and amazing in-store experiences with Newfoundland…”
A dose of good timing hasn’t hurt. “That brand — Newfoundland — has evolved over the past 10 to 15 years. There’s a pride in the brand now. In the early days, the first couple of trade shows we did, we’d get the moronic comments: ‘Newfie chocolate?’ ‘What, is there codfish in it?’ But now the brand is associated with purity, honesty and resilience. And premium chocolate dovetails nicely with that.”
At 70 employees and growing, the Newfoundland Chocolate Company is considered a medium-sized business. Smith admits he misses some of the “entrepreneurial agility” of being a smaller operation, but maintains the same services and values remain at the heart of the company.
“The basics you could depend on a generation ago, hearing ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ that’s a rarity these days. To stand out, you don’t even have to be that good, you just have to be small and friendly. But then if you take it up a level, you get noticed.”
That’s an important point: it may not seem cutting-edge, but small- and medium-sized businesses are innovating by refocusing attention on their employees and their customer service. Attention to creating personal connections — whether it’s with a consumer taste-testing single-origin chocolate, a tourist booking a room and receiving a follow-up phone call, a major international broadcaster, or a client looking for custom video system — can make all the difference.
“When our clients call us or email us, they know they’re going to get a response,” says SubC’s Collier. “In fact, some of the other manufacturers are doing us a favour — clients have come to us, saying, ‘I’m just tired of not getting an answer.’ That can be our big break.”
Feeling a commitment and connection to Newfoundland and Labrador is another factor driving the determination to succeed.
“I’m very positive about the future for Newfoundland,” Smith says. “We’ve been through this stuff before and we’ll get through it again.” In fact, he sees an important role for his company, and others like it, right now.
“The business community needs to help. We’re on strategy here. We’re not hesitating, we’re growing. We’re pushing forward … we have a responsibility to not take our foot off the gas at this point in time, and to continue to build our business, our brand, and our province. It’s more important than ever.”