The Lady Rides Again

Godiva, a luxury chocolatier, finds a sweet spot in Vietnam

They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but whoever first coined that phrase must have never tasted a piece of premium Belgian chocolate before. Why Belgium? Because there is a broad consensus that the world’s best chocolates come from Belgium, more specifically, because of a certain company that started there in 1926, a company called Godiva.

Joseph Draps founded Godiva Chocolatier in 1926 in Belgium, and there are now Godiva stores in over 100 countries, with the most recent in Mongolia. In Vietnam, the flagship store is inside Sai Gon Centre on Le Loi in District 1, and it is here that our journey begins.

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As I entered the brightly lit, yet warm and relaxed atmosphere of the modern chocolate store for our interview, I was introduced to Chef Philippe Daue, one of Godiva’s only five Chef Chocolatiers. Philippe was born in Belgium, but from one faithful trip in 1991, as he put it, he “fell in love immediately with Asia,” and he has called the region home since 1995. He is currently based in Shanghai, and helps take charge of Godiva’s expansion in Asia. And the country that started his love affair with Asia? It was Vietnam (“I love Vietnamese food. The coffee! The pho!” he was quick to exclaim). So it was rather a fitting full circle that he was in Saigon again to help kick-start Godiva’s expansion plans for Vietnam. There are currently two stores in Vietnam, and the plan is for ten.

So, what does Godiva mean, and why was the name chosen to represent the chocolate? “Our founder was inspired by the legend of Lady Godiva [and her story of dedication to help the impoverished and the oppressed],” he says. The story goes: Lady Godiva’s husband was a ruthless ruler in 11th-century England who had imposed a heavy tax on his townspeople. Lady Godiva protested, and her husband would only relent and lift the tax if she rode naked on a horse through the town. After issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair, and her legacy was eternally cemented in the hearts of her people and her story spread throughout history. Philippe added, the name Godiva “embodies timeless values balanced with modern boldness,” just like Lady Godiva, and the brand’s credo is to strive for a balance of “extraordinary richness, premium quality, and iconic style.”

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A major reason Godiva’s reputation has endured is because of its iconic chocolate piece—the chocolate truffle. It has become synonymous with the Godiva brand: “It is our best selling and most-recognizable chocolate,” Philippe proudly asserts. If you are not sure what exactly a chocolate truffle is—it is the small, mostly circular-shaped chocolates, unlike the longer chocolate bars you see sold at supermarkets and convenience stores. Another customer favorite are speculoos, which are Belgian cookies often enjoyed with coffee.

Other main ingredients are cocoa solids (the actual chocolate), vanilla for flavoring, and “the least amount of sugar possible!” Philippe exclaims. When he switches from (dark) chocolate to milk chocolate, Philippe adds milk powder. What about  white chocolate? Then you just take out the cocoa solids. So, in terms of ‘chocolateness,’ it goes white chocolate, to milk chocolate, then dark chocolate.

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Another important reason why Godiva stands out from the competition is how well its chocolate physically holds up, regardless of the country its being sold in. You can have many popular brands that service a particular country or region, but when you move to the global level, there are health/nutrition regulations and compliances you must abide by, and yet the chocolate also must hold its shape and texture while being sold in the coldest to hottest climates worldwide. The Godiva staff also does a good job of offering ice packs to store with the chocolate for customers who are out shopping and aren’t going straight back to their home or hotel. Philippe also offers this advice: “Ideally, you should store the chocolates between 12-18 degrees Celsius. Don’t freeze it, and if you store it in the refrigerator, wait for 20-30 minutes after you take it out for the best taste experience.” Also, chocolate absorbs smells of other foods, so to allow it to deodorize all the smells first before you enjoy it is also a prudent decision.

Finally, it is the unique shapes and designs of Godiva chocolates that make them world-renown. To say that Godiva takes its tastes and aesthetics seriously is an understatement—its design process usually takes from 1.5-2 years from start to launch. There are approximately 50 core molds, but add to them the different flairs and flourishes, colors and textures, and unique individual truffles and other chocolate pieces number in the thousands. For example, for this past Lunar New Year’s theme and celebration, there will be dog-shaped chocolate pieces, with Oolong, Pu’er (fermented black tea), and Matcha tea flavor combinations. And for the mid-autumn festival later this year, there will be “chocolate flavored and themed mooncakes!” Philippe gleefully declares.

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With its uniqueness and recognizable image, you would think Godiva can just cruise on forever —it is, after all, according to Philippe, “one of the top three chocolate brands in the world, and the top for premium chocolates.” Those who don’t adapt are doomed to fail, and Godiva is keenly aware of the changing lifestyles of the modern consumer. Whereas once you can succeed by solely selling, now you must add service. Instead of a 15-minute experience to just buy chocolates, it is more  memorable to spend an hour socializing with your family and friends, enjoying the chocolate you just bought, along with a cup of coffee or tea—perhaps even some ice cream? Pull up a comfortable chair, or lose yourself in a sofa, enjoy the free Wi-Fi, and stay a while.

Going forward, Godiva wants to be more mainstream. It is already a renowned luxury premium chocolate brand, but it wants to also be known as a brand everyone can enjoy, so hence, a café where everyone can enjoy in. “Please, call it a lifestyle boutique,” Philippe corrects me. As the consumer evolves, so does Godiva. Although there are over 800 stores worldwide, the journey continues. Any advice for the road, then? “Eat more chocolate!” Truer words were never spoken.

Images by Vy Lam  and Godiva

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