When Robert and Yvonne Piron left Belgium in their 20’s and came to the states in 1949, little did they know what they were getting themselves into – foodwise, that is. After moving to a “meat and potatoes” kind of country, as America was at the time, the Pirons faced some difficulties in finding anything resembling fine, handmade Belgian pastries and chocolates. If only they could find the same kind of quality, delicious foods they had in Belgium in the United States. Luckily, their sons were able to make their wish come true.
Belgian Chocolatier Piron, founded by their son Bob and later co-owned by their son Fred, opened its doors in Evanston, Ill. right at the beginning of the Midwest’s food revolution in the early ‘80s, Bob says. This included the entry of European delicacies into Chicago, amongst other cities. Once the city became more diverse, so did the food. And with this food revolution, it only seems appropriate that the brothers’ backgrounds were just as diverse.
Life before chocolatieringBefore Bob Piron started his own chocolate business in the North Shore, he was in architecture school. It was during this time that he began to question what he wanted to do with his life. To find out, he decided to take on a few different careers. He worked as a graphic arts supply salesman, home improvement salesman and even had his own handyman business before he found his calling. But a critical conversation with his father determined his future.
“While I was talking with my dad one day, my dad said, ‘Why don’t you go to Belgium and learn how to make good Belgian pastries?’” Bob explains. He rejected this suggestion because of the early hours, so his father then suggested, “‘Well, what about chocolates?’”
And that’s where it all began. Bob used his family’s connections in Belgium to secure an apprenticeship with one of the country’s top chocolatiers at the time, René Goossens. But working in Antwerp, Belgium wasn’t quite what he expected at first. With no prior knowledge of making chocolate, Bob had to learn everything from scratch. And being in an unfamiliar country didn’t help.
“The first week I was like, what did I get myself into because I really didn’t know what I was doing and I was having trouble with the language,” Bob says. “We were living in a small town that our parents grew up in so I had to commute 30 kilometers into the city and I was getting lost every day. I said, I’ll give it a month. After a month if I don’t like it, I’m going back home. But I just kind of fell in love with it.”
And while Bob was discovering what he wanted to do with his life, Fred was doing the same.
After graduating from the Florida Institute of Technology with an oceanography degree, Fred went on to obtain a bachelor’s of science degree in biology from the University of Illinois. He then worked for eight years managing photography stores before he pursued his real passion: flight. Fred worked as a flight instructor at a flight school, which in turn had a contract with Shadow Traffic, a private company that supplies traffic information to media outlets in the Chicago area. Fred flew everywhere from the Wisconsin border to Indiana reporting traffic for Shadow Traffic while teaching flight classes, but after a few years, an ear ailment forced him to give it up. At that point in his life, Fred was unsure of what to do next.
At the same time, his brother, Bob, who had been running Belgian Chocolatier Piron for more than ten years, had similarly come to a crossroads. There was no better time for the brothers to come together and help each other out.
In the late ‘90s, the brothers decided to run Belgian Chocolatier Piron as co-owners. Bob taught his brother everything he had learned from Goossens and from his own experience and as a result, Fred became a chocolatier. This merger proved to be a great decision because the year Fred came on, sales jumped 30 to 40%.
From wholesale to retailPrior to the brothers joining forces, however, Bob faced a few challenges on his own. When Bob opened the shop’s doors to the public in the spring of 1984, the store was a quite different operation than it is today.
First off, it was located in Northbrook, Ill. Secondly, Bob was wholesaling his products out of the basement of a medical building.
“It was actually a denture lab, so it had exhaust hoods, fire protection, a lot of plumbing,” he explains. “It had everything we needed built in. All we basically needed to do is clean it up a little bit, throw our equipment in and we opened and started wholesale.”
But after wholesaling and working in private label for a couple of years, Bob realized this wasn’t the best, or most efficient, way to sell handmade Belgian chocolates.
Today, Evanston, Ill.-based Belgian Chocolatier Piron is mainly retail with 10% of business being mail orders and 5% being corporate orders.
Constructing the storeTo transition from wholesale to retail, Bob moved operations into his and Fred’s hometown in Evanston, Ill. And although Fred wasn’t a co-owner of the business quite yet, the brothers remodeled the store together to make it a suitable home for chocolate making. Previously, the space was used as a furniture store, an art gallery and a dry cleaners. And thanks to Bob’s background in architecture, he became a licensed general contractor, which enabled the brothers to do the work on the store themselves.
“Fred and I built the cold room together and even built our own cabinets,” Bob says. “We also put in a new floor and a suspended ceiling for temperature control.”
After putting some work into the chocolate shop, it was time to introduce their products to the North Shore.
From 'meat and potatoes' to European delicaciesAlthough most consumers today associate Belgium with fine chocolates, the Pirons still had to teach many customers what Belgian chocolate was all about.
“America was always about steaks and meat and potatoes,” Fred says. “Trying to get them to taste and try something new and something different was very difficult.”
“When common chocolates were selling for $4 to $6 a pound, we came in at $18 a pound because we had to import all of our ingredients,” he explains. “People thought we were nuts, until they tried it.”
Now 25 years after Belgian Chocolatier Piron opened its doors, Bob and Fred remain loyal to their Belgian heritage by dedicating themselves to creating only the best quality chocolates. But there’s more to these chocolates than meets the eye. Every one is made fresh without any added preservatives. And just like an old European chocolate shop would, Bob and Fred temper their chocolate by hand.
“The idea was to learn to make them and then make them here fresh as opposed to importing them,” Bob says. Designing these chocolates is also an important aspect. It’s a challenge the brothers have embraced. And it shows in their work.
Designing a chocolate piece“The first rule of our chocolates is taste,” Fred says. “It has to be appealing, but it has to taste good first.”
“The product should be classic, it should be beautiful and it should be appealing on its own,” Bob adds. “It should look like some craft, some skill, some artistry went into it.”
To produce an artistic, but great tasting product, the brothers use many moulded pieces. They also sprinkle nuts on some pieces or use contrasting or same-colored drizzles on pieces to give them character.
And although the brothers don’t normally stray from their classic Belgian recipes, they can’t resist trying out a new chocolate trend, such as adding herbs and spices to chocolates. One of the company’s newest pieces is a Chili Pepper chocolate, made with semi-sweet chocolate ganache and decorated with ground chipotle chili pepper.
Still, it’s hard for customers to resist the classics at the shop, such as the Grand Marnier, one of the brothers’ very first chocolate pieces and still one of their most popular. It features a dark chocolate shell containing whipped buttercream-flavored Grand Marnier.
“[The Grand Marnier piece] kind of sells itself just by the way it looks because it looks like a little cupcake,” Fred says.
The brothers’ newest piece is called the Patrice, named after Bob’s wife, Patricia. It is a double layer piece, combining dark chocolate ganache, milk chocolate praliné and Paillete Feuilletine for a light wafer crunch.
The company also offers nut barks, dried fruit dipped in chocolate, toffee and some sugar-free chocolates.
Opportunities to growEven though business hasn’t slowed down at all, the company’s steady 5% per year growth has ceased.
“We’re not shrinking, but we’re not growing anymore and that’s because we have to do something different,” Fred says.
“We either have to move to a different location or open up some other stores.”
And while the brothers are keeping their eyes open, there are currently no plans for expansion. Other options include adding a wholesale division to the business and offering more impulse items.
Nevertheless, whether or not the Pirons decide to retool the business, they’ve still managed to give their parents – and consumers – a little piece of Belgium.