“I don’t know where they all came from,” Griet Lorré, owner of Chocolate by The Shop says with a laugh. The first time Lorré offered special Valentine’s Day packages, a crowd of uniformed high school students descended upon The Shop on Street 240, buying up every last ribbon-wrapped box of handmade pralines.
Eight years later, Lorré’s Valentine’s Day business continues to thrive and she has since established Chocolate by The Shop, Cambodia’s first chocolate production workshop and storefront, which opened its doors in October 2007. It’s located amidst the boutiques on Street 240 in a renovated colonial building next to The Shop, Lorré’s original bakery and cafe, which has been a Phnom Penh fixture since 2001. “As a Belgian, I am convinced that every capital needs its chocolate shop,” she jokes.
At Chocolate by The Shop, Lorré strikes the perfect balance in creating a space that is artfully arranged, yet warm and inviting. “It must feel comfortable for anyone to just walk in,” she says of her shop’s atmosphere. “It should not be too posh, not too elite.” Separated from the front of the store by glass, the workshop is visible from the main display area and as customers browse the finished products, they can see the production staff at work. This open-concept design was intentional. As a former patternmaker, Lorré says, “I’ve always been involved in the production of things. I have a lot of respect for all production people, and I think they deserve to be seen. People will understand your product better if they can see what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Inside the glassed-in workshop the production team works briskly, mixing up mouth-watering concoctions to fill the waiting rows of heart-shaped chocolate molds. The air is aromatic and cool, and the steady whir of the tempering machine can be heard as it churns the rich melted Belgian chocolate to keep it at precisely the right temperature and consistency. The hot Cambodian climate presents some challenges for chocolate-making, Lorré says, as excessive exposure to the elements can affect the gloss and consistency of the chocolate, causing it to “sweat.” As a result, temperature and humidity levels inside the workspace must be carefully regulated at all times to ensure the perfect product.
Valentine’s Day is the busiest time of year for Chocolate by The Shop, and preparations for the holiday start more than a month in advance with everyone working long hours to create a themed collection of specially-packaged chocolates. Lorré’s hand-stitched Valentine’s Day menus are arranged invitingly on top of the glass display counter, and a quick peek inside reveals an array of treats both quirky and delectable. Offerings include a pair of high-heeled chocolate shoes perched on a white-chocolate stand, a wide assortment of ornamented heart-shaped boxes, and the “Magical Book of Love”—a selection of 24 chocolates in a flip-top box made to look like a hardcover volume.
Even a quick perusal of the catalogue shows that the collection has been carefully designed down to its smallest details, and it’s clear that Lorré’s previous career as a patternmaker has influenced her approach to her work. “I often compare this with my previous job,” she says, “because it was about creating a collection, seeing a product through from beginning to end.”
Prices for the Valentine’s Day items range from $1 for two milk caraques, attractively wrapped and affixed with a tiny heart-shaped charm, to $46 for a large selection of pralines contained in an edible rose-adorned box made entirely of chocolate. Customers can also order customized chocolate plates—printed with a message of their choice—to insert into any of the boxed sets. According to Lorré, the overwhelming majority of her Valentine’s Day clientele are Khmer youth between the ages of 16 and 25.
Asked about the rewarding aspects of running a chocolate shop, Lorré responds that she enjoys seeing new customers’ initial surprise give way to glee as they wander in tentatively off the street, not knowing what to expect, and are then presented with an array of delicious confections. “Chocolate,” she says with a laugh, “makes people happy.”