French born master chocolatier Benoit Lorge was recently chosen by Kerry Local Enterprise Office to represent the county in this year’s National Enterprise Awards, adding yet another recognition to his impressive haul of accolades. Here, he tells Heike O’Sullivan about his ‘Path to Sweet Success’.
‘Growing up in Nancy, Lorraine, my grandmother Henriette was a huge inspiration to me. She was a traditional French cook with a great knowledge of food. When I was in my teens, a friend was training to be a pastry chef. I’ve always loved sweets and decided to go down the same route, knowing that, as a pastry chef, I could find work pretty much anywhere in the world which suited my love for travel really well.
‘After gaining professional qualifications as a pastry chef in France, I had the opportunity to live and work in some amazing places. My favourite position was at the fabulous Inverlochy Castle, thought to be Scotland’s finest Country Hotel. The scenery there was nothing short of spectacular. Having moved on from there, I explored other countries and also lived in the Irish Midlands for a year where I got to know and love Ireland. Sometime later, I was offered the pastry chef position at Sheen Falls Lodge and I didn’t really think twice.
‘During my time at Sheen Falls, I was asked to create some chocolates for a local charity fundraiser and I loved the experience of that. I guess you could say that, after six years at Sheen Falls, my feet were getting itchy again and having realised my passion for chocolate making, I had it in my mind that I wanted to work with chocolate full time. Having fallen in love with the people and the scenery in and around Kenmare, this time though, I wasn’t going to pack my bags and go travelling again. I knew I wanted to stay.
‘You also live in Bonane and will remember that I first started out in a section of the late Margaret O’Connor’s post office. Thankfully, it’s not actually expensive to start a small chocolaterie as a one-man operation. I began with the idea of supplying hotels and shops with great quality chocolate. One thing led to another and I am proud to say, my chocolates became really popular, mainly thanks to word-of-mouth recommendation. Fate lent a hand when Margaret and her family decided to close the post office. I was able to lease the premises and transformed the building into a working kitchen with adjoining shop and store room. The location by the side of the main road, with local and tourist traffic passing by all day, was ideal.
‘My business then grew organically. Thanks to demand, I was able to take on staff. I approached more retail outlets, pitched up at a number of Farmers’ Markets and also sold at the Limerick Milk Market for years. Today, I have my shop in Kenmare and a production kitchen at Kenmare Business Park. Kerry Local Enterprise Office (LEO) have been a huge support throughout; I couldn’t praise them enough. Of course, we also still have our original premises in Bonane where the old kitchen is now a demonstration kitchen which is ideal for our Chocolate Courses. There are different courses which all prove popular, be it those for children and families, hobby groups, hen and birthday parties, or indeed the ‘serious’ courses aimed at fellow chefs or aspiring artisan chocolatiers. As you can imagine, a chocolate maker’s business is quite seasonal, with Christmas, Easter and St Valentine’s Day being the obvious highlights of the year.
The recipe for my success? Well, of course it all boils down to the chocolates. Not just the way they’re made, with love and passion, but importantly, the raw ingredients they’re made of. Personally, there was never a question to use anything but the finest ingredients for my chocolate creations. For me, part of the whole process is to carefully source my cocoa beans, and they simply must be ethically produced and traded.
‘For milk chocolate, I prefer beans from Ghana and the Ivory Coast; for dark chocolate, from Mexico and Venezuela. My chocolate supplier produces bespoke blends to my own specifications which are then shipped to us here in Kerry. At first, the sustainability of my raw materials was mainly important just to me. Over the years though, it has become a huge part of the customer’s purchase decision as well, which is great. And it’s not just the chocolate. Packaging technology is evolving rapidly and I’m particularly interested in using a biodegradable material to replace plastic packaging as soon as it is commercially viable to do so. Advances in label printing technology has resulted in us only requiring one label now compared to three labels previously. I’m also proud to be an early adopter of biodegradable coffee cups and lids for our hot chocolate sales in store.
‘Like all my fellow retailers, I can’t wait for my two shops to reopen. The Covid-19 pandemic has really seen people rally around their local, trusted food producers and thanks to my customers’ support, we have had a very busy Christmas period. I have also used the past year to give my website a major make-over with the help of a Trading Online Voucher from Kerry LEO. Again, I can’t recommend Kerry LEO highly enough to other small businesses who might also benefit from their priceless assistance. They’re really outstanding and well worth a call.
‘We launched the revamped www.lorge.ie recently and it now includes an online shop which, I’m happy to say, has been really busy, particularly now in the run-up to Easter. Our handmade Easter eggs have always been very sought-after. Because each egg is artistically finished by hand, every single one is unique. As in every year, our eggs come in small, medium and large sizes, various colours and finishes, and can be either hollow or filled with our hand-made chocolates. Due to popular demand, our Easter bunnies and hens are also available online, plus our range of boxes, bars and bags. Please do have a look – you might like what you see. To Kenmare and all of our loyal customers, thank you very much for your continued support!’
You can order your Easter treats on www.lorge.ie, or for larger quantities or special requests please email email@example.com or phone 064 667 9994.
(Previously published in the Kenmare News, March 2021)