Chocolate Heaven: Interview with Lukas Wenger

Fri, 13. Aug. 2021
One of the planned attractions: the Toblerone tunnel

Lukas Wenger from Gsteig loves Swiss chocolate. So much, in fact, he has plans afoot to launch Swiss Chocolate World, an adventure park focused on, you guessed it: Swiss chocolate. GstaadLife met with Lukas to get the lowdown on Switzerland’s famed relationship with chocolate, his plans to date and unconventional chocolate concoctions.

Please tell me about Swiss Chocolate World
My plan is to offer a theme park museum split across three divisions: History World, Shopping World and Event World.

We will give visitors a fun way to learn about the history of Swiss chocolate as well as offer a selection of unique and unusual activities. Although we’ll offer lots of background information, you won’t go to Swiss Chocolate World to just look at exhibits and read. You’ll go to learn about and really experience Swiss chocolate as a whole.

Chocolatiers will give demonstrations on how to create art with chocolate, from the most incredible statues to chocolate paintings that our visitors can take home with them. We will also organise competitions and events for people who would like to work in the chocolate industry, but won’t actually make chocolate on site as there will be more than enough of it around. We will also be the only place that sells every single brand of Swiss chocolate on the market.

What made you want to create a chocolate museum?
I love chocolate, of course, and want to highlight its importance to Switzerland. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I understood the size of the opportunity. I was working for a limo company in Gstaad at the time and was astounded by the huge number of trips booked to visit Maison Cailler, the chocolate factory.

Although Cailler was sold in many countries a hundred years ago, the brand is virtually unknown today. Despite this over 400,000 people – of which 80% are foreign tourists – visit its factory in Broc each year.
This made me think there must be an enormous market for more well-known products like Toblerone and Ovomaltine.

Thus the idea for Swiss Chocolate World was born.

Do you have a background in chocolate?
Not in chocolate, but I spent many years working in hospitality and event management. I was responsible for building up and running a convention centre for Opel before working in hotels across Germany and Belgium. Then of course I was at the limo company in Gstaad, which led to the beginning of Swiss Chocolate World.

Why did you pick Bern as your location?
Although I live in Gsteig, I was born and raised in Bern. I have always been interested in history and as I grew up, I learned about Bern’s close relationship with chocolate. I knew that Toblerone and Ovomaltine were both from there but as I researched further, I found more connections between the city and chocolate.

Take Lindt, for instance. I had always assumed, wrongly, that such a big name was from Zürich. But in talking to a friend of my mother from Bern with the name Lindt, I learned she is a member of the famous chocolate family and can trace a direct ancestral relationship back to Rodolphe Lindt. He is the inventor, who famously revolutionised chocolate by making it less bitter and giving us the melt-in-your-mouth consistency we know today.

As for Suchard, the creator of Milka, many people think it originated in Austria or Germany, but it’s Swiss. Mr Suchard completed his apprenticeship in Bern before setting up his chocolate business in Neuchâtel. But the Bern connection continued because he used milk exclusively from cows in Konolfingen in the Emmental. A mere 15 kilometres from the city, he deemed this the very best milk available. And the owners of the Konolfingen milk producer? A certain Auguste Escoffier and César Ritz, later of hotel fame.

Then consider the fascinating story of Toblerone. When Jean Tobler handed control of his company Chocolat Tobler to his son Theodor in 1900, there were just 50 employees. Two years later this had more than doubled to 120 and in 1908 they launched their most famous product, Toblerone.

By 1920 the company employed 2,000 people and sold its products in 120 countries across the world. Mr Tobler was so effective at marketing his product that he came to the attention of the authorities, triggering the product placement rules that are still observed today. This story of how chocolate influenced advertising regulation is so amazing, it has to be told.

Why does Switzerland need yet another chocolate theme park?
It’s true there are already a number of chocolate parks in the country, but as these are run by the chocolate companies themselves, each one focuses on just their brand. You don’t get any kind of overview of the whole fascinating history of Swiss chocolate.

At Swiss Chocolate World, we will make connections from across the industry and explain why so many people around the world say that Swiss chocolate is the best. We’re offering ‘cultural fun’: you perhaps come to learn about Swiss chocolate, to hear all the amazing anecdotes and stories we’ve uncovered, but it’s more than that. You will also want to have fun, to taste and smell the chocolate.

Our country has such a rich history with chocolate, yet so few people know about this. I want to bring these stories to public consciousness.

Why did you choose a crowdfunding approach?
Most people think if you have an idea like this you need to speak to the city of Bern, the canton of Bern and the chocolate companies for investment. But consider if you were going to create a museum of German cars: Mercedes would be unlikely to give funding that would benefit Volkswagen, but if the museum were already in place they would be more willing to provide exhibits from their archives.

So I need to pull together the initial funding for the project and have decided to go to the crowd for this. I’m convinced that once we’re off the ground with an initial tranche of funding we’ll have the needed springboard to talk with the next round of investors.

The great news is that I’ve received huge interest in the project, but as I imagine many entrepreneurs discover, that doesn’t always translate directly into money. For a project like this to be successful I believe it requires four elements: a good idea with robust market potential, strong management, location and money. We have three of the four so far, but I’m still very positive. I’m absolutely convinced there will be people out there who will also think this is a great idea and want to support us.

Have you changed your plans in the light of Covid?
Not really. Although life has been difficult, I’m convinced things will get back to normal and that people will have a desire to go out and experience culture again. Although we’ll be monitoring the international travel situation when we open our doors, the good news is that the story of Swiss chocolate is not just something for tourists. It’s become something of a national symbol for us and I believe that many Swiss will want to visit and learn more about their country’s history with chocolate.

When do you expect to start the project?
It comes down to the funding. I’ve done a lot of research into the different options and have decided I don’t want to take the most expensive approach with all the latest high-tech gadgets that quickly become obsolete. In Gstaad it’s normal to work with natural products and that’s the approach we’re taking. I’m far more concerned with the ambience we create and want to work with natural products. Our ideal fundraising target is CHF 2m, but we can get started as soon as we hit the 50% mark. I estimate we will open eight to nine months after hitting our financial target.

What is your favourite chocolate?
I feel I have to stay neutral, but there’s a small, award-winning company close to Bern called Casa Nobile, which creates the most creative chocolates. Consider chocolate with cheese and chocolate with potatoes. You’re probably thinking: what? How can that possibly work? But the result is absolutely amazing. I love their creativity in bringing out new and special selections and I especially love that they combine two symbols of Switzerland: cheese and chocolate.

What are your goals for 2021 and beyond?
My main goal is to get started! I think it’s a real opportunity to make something new and to bring people happiness. The idea of making people smile after such a terrible year is very motivating. To be the one who creates something that gives people joy would mean so much to me. This is a real moment to give back.

Longer term, when I have Swiss Chocolate World up and running in Bern, I’d like to take the concept internationally to major cities around the world. Swiss Chocolate World London springs to mind.

ANNA CHARLES

 

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Issue 6 | 2021

Wait, can this be the last editorial of this summer? Must be because of the relativity thing. Relativity of time – a wonderful concept to toy around with. Not as a theoretical physicist, way too complicated. No, I mean as a layman.