In ten words or less, what’s so special about your products?
European style high-quality chocolate made in Frontenac.
Intriguing. Tell us more.
I produce high-quality chocolate bars, with cocoa that’s sustainably grown on organic cooperatives and farms in South America. The cocoa beans are then refined in Switzerland, to the highest possible quality. I create the final product, which really is world-class, right here in Frontenac.
Many people dream about starting a food or drinks business. How did you launch yours? What’s the story behind Fine Chocolates by Ludwig?
I’m a pastry chef and baker by trade, my parents owned a bakery in Southern Germany. I came to Canada in 1990 and then worked as a chef at the Chateau Laurier and for the Governor-General. After a while, I felt like I needed a change, so we moved out to the Frontenac region. My wife and I then owned and managed a cottage camp.
About 12 years ago, when our business was quiet during winter, I started experimenting with making chocolate because I saw an opportunity to bring European-style very high-end chocolate to Canada. At the time, there was really nobody out there doing this, so that’s how my journey as a food entrepreneur started.
I had always been interested in good quality chocolate and trained as a chocolatier in Europe so I decided to give it a try. The first two years, I was selling my chocolates at regional Christmas markets, not even in Perth or Kingston, just really, really local. Then Foodsmith in Perth agreed to sell my products and that was when the business first took off.
Did you launch your chocolate business from home, or from a food production facility?
I started experimenting in my home kitchen, but of course, it’s not legal to sell products made that way. In Frontenac, there are a lot of community halls with a commercial kitchen that can be rented for a reasonable cost and some food manufacturing businesses that are not always 100% occupied all the time also rent their kitchens.
Frontenac Business Services can also help you find a suitable commercial kitchen space that’s affordable for food entrepreneurs. I think it’s important to start on a small scale and keep your expenses low.
Then, when we built our current house, I put a certified kitchen into our basement, so now I can work from home. But really, you first have to get experience under your belt and you have to know what you’re doing before you take a step as big as this. It takes time.
When you first launched your chocolate business, how did you pay for everything? How much did it cost to launch your own food business?
In the beginning, I kept my budgets very, very low. I even cut out my own packaging by hand, because I wanted to save the money of having the printer do it. I started experimenting at home and then, when I received positive feedback from friends and family, moved to a certified kitchen in a community centre where the rent was affordable so that I could start selling my chocolates.
The next big expense for me was to purchase a chocolate melting machine. I gave myself a budget of $4000 to get all the machinery I needed to make really good chocolate and have managed to stick to it.
Did you receive any help from Frontenac Business Services?
Absolutely. From helping me find my first commercial kitchen to introducing me to valuable contacts to funding, they have been incredibly helpful. The team is always available to talk and the workshops they offer are really valuable for food entrepreneurs.
They also offer help with grants and loans which made a big difference for me. You always have to watch your bottom line.
And last but not least, they are available as a sounding board when I am unsure about an idea. They always try to be as helpful as possible.
Where are you now? Where is your business going?
I really enjoy making quality products and I definitely want to continue like that for as long as possible. I have a lot of drive and there are still many things I want to explore. My business is a lifestyle business, I don’t want to grow it into something huge because then I’d lose the artisan connection with it that is so important to me.
I’d like to train somebody to take the business over one day. I would love to pass my knowledge on to somebody who’d like to be mentored.
What’s so special about doing business in Frontenac?
Without a doubt, the people. The people and the lifestyle, the possibility to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Personally, I am an avid swimmer, so having all these lakes nearby is just fantastic for both physical and mental health.
Here in Frontenac people really want to help you to be successful and get to know you. And of course, working with Frontenac Business Services is a huge plus. Because the density of businesses is lower here they can focus on the individual businesses more.
Finally, do you have a checklist that you could share, your top three tips to keep in mind when starting a food business? Things you wished you would have known yourself.
Number one would be to keep it simple and don’t get distracted. Write down what you want to focus on and then run with it, learn everything you can about your chosen category. The more experience you have about the products you’re making, the better they will be.
Number two is to focus on quality. Quality is everything. When you create a quality product, other people and businesses want to be associated with you. During the pandemic, this saved me because I got lots of offers for collaboration, to get involved with gift boxes and special deals.
And finally, number three, keep an eye on the money. Everything will most likely cost three times as much as you anticipate, plan for that. Talk to the FAB team about funding options, and always, always keep an eye on the bottom line.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.