Americans are expected to spend less this holiday, and the Swiss chocolatier Teuscher, which offers luxury confectionaries to the US market, is feeling the pinch.
Teuscher, best known for its champagne truffles, says US sales have melted away in the past few years due in large part to cutbacks by corporate clients, who are less willing to send expensive gifts to their customers as a result of the economic downturn.
"Most companies were ordering big boxes of chocolates at $176 (SFr183.10) a box, and they've really cut back on that," said Peter Dela Cruz, manager of the Teuscher store at the Rockefeller Center in New York City.
The American market is important for Teuscher, representing half of the company's total sales. Teuscher has 13 franchises in the US, with the Rockefeller Center store -- located on one of the busiest plazas in New York -- pulling in the most sales annually.
Although sales have picked up slightly from last year, Dela Cruz expects his store -- which first opened its doors in 1977 -- to have sales of about $2 million this year, far from its peak of $3 million in 2006.
The Swiss-made confectionaries are sent by plane from Zurich to New York at least once a week but the weak dollar has also made importing the chocolates more costly.
Despite the economic downturn, about 600 people per day flood the store in December to buy chocolates at $75 per pound, one of the highest priced chocolates available in the US. It gets so busy, that there is even a part-time security guard on duty at the door, to direct people and expedite sales.
The Champagne truffle
Teuscher, a Zurich-based family run company founded by the late Adolf Teuscher (known as Dolf after the Second World War) over 70 years ago, prides itself on making high quality chocolates, scouting the world for the finest cocoa, marzipan, fruits, nuts and other ingredients. It offers over a hundred varieties of chocolates including pralines, truffles and good old-fashioned chocolate bars.
"It’s not mass produced. You’re making chocolates that are really high quality and you really can't over-produce them; you have to make them in small batches," said Dela Cruz.
Dela Cruz said Dolf Teuscher Jr, who runs the company and first expanded to the US market, keeps “tight control over not having too many locations” to preserve quality.
The store’s best-seller, by far, is its hand-made champagne truffle, with a dark chocolate ganache centre enriched by a creamy infusion containing Dom Perignon Champagne. Zagat, a major publisher of restaurant guides, calls them "the best Champagne truffles ever" and Oprah Winfrey chose it as a firm favourite describing it as “one very sweet dream”.
It was indeed a sweet dream that lead Adolf Teuscher to develop the champagne truffle in 1947. In the summer of that year, one of the worst heat waves of the century hit Switzerland. It was a confectioner's nightmare.
Spending sleepless nights, Teuscher thought about how he could make ends meet for his young family. One night he dreamed of champagne and saw himself making champagne truffles, selling them to eager customers.
The next day Teuscher hit the kitchen with his inspiration, and lo and behold, the champagne truffle was born.
A small taste of happiness
Many people who visit the Rockefeller store come in to either try (sorry no free samples) the champagne truffle or buy it for family or friends. “I have several women in my life - three girlfriends - and this is the easiest solution that wins; guaranteed success,” said one middle-aged man. “Champagne truffles seems to hit the spot every time.”
A young woman who described herself as a “chocolate addict” said Teuscher was her favorite despite the high prices. “I know that good quality chocolates cost, so it’s worth it.”
Dela Cruz says that some people come into the store for a small taste of happiness at a relatively low price. “For people that are having hard times they can come in and get a truffle for $2.25 and that really makes them happy.”
The highly decorated store and elaborate packaging also pulls customers in with many saying the window decorations enticed them to enter. One tourist clearly balked when a salesperson told her the price of a small ornate gold-colored box with a poinsettia decoration that held four truffles: $24.95. “But I love the poinsettia box. I have to have it,” she said.
This year, to cut back on costs, Dela Cruz and his team put up the Christmas decorations themselves, with convincing results. “Mr. Teuscher will come next Sunday and I think he'll be really happy with how the store looks,” Dela Cruz said.
He will also be happy that many customers are still willing to pay $75 per pound for his chocolates despite the tough economy.
Karin Kamp in New York, swissinfo.ch
In the last 20 years, worldwide chocolate consumption has doubled.
Over the last five years alone, global consumption has increased 14 per cent.
The Swiss consume more chocolate (approximately 24 pounds per capita per year) than any other nation in the world. American's consume about 12 pounds annually per person.
There has been a worldwide shortage of cocoa beans versus consumption, in the last four years, which is forcing cocoa prices up to 29-year highs.