Leaving your old home to set up shop at a new address - that's always a bold move. But Marieke Wijne-Slop was brave. She moved from Holland to Austria with her husband and children. They knew from the very beginning that their future home wouldn't be in the city but in a more rural location, ultimately settling down in the Weinviertel region not far from Vienna. "We were looking for a spot that would work well for both my husband's work and the family. In this respect, Weinviertel boasts an amazing quality of life; in many ways it's the garden of Vienna. Here you can be out in nature and experience the seasons up close, enjoy a sense of security, and teach the next generation where our food comes from." Sounds like the perfect setting, except for one tiny detail that Marieke felt was missing. "I wanted to have a place where you can switch off, a cosy little café with pleasant background music where you can just chill out – a bit like the cafés back home." Plus, it would be nice to nibble on top-quality chocolates rather than the usual selection of cakes and pies found around here.
“I wanted to have a place where you can switch off, a cosy little café with pleasant background music where you can just chill out – a bit like the cafés back home.”
”When you march into the bank as a woman with a business plan for setting up a small café, you're not exactly welcomed with open arms. You have to be willing to put in well over 100 percent.“
Since what she had in mind simply didn't exist in the Weinviertel region, Marieke decided: "Then I'll just have to open it myself.” So she headed off to the local chamber of commerce, and thanks to her degree in hotel management, she had no difficulty in producing all the necessary paperwork. "When you march into the bank as a woman with a business plan for setting up a small café, you're not exactly welcomed with open arms. You have to be willing to put in well over 100 percent." But where there's a will there's a way, and she had the necessary creativity as well, and so the search for a suitable location finally led to a modest old barn in the town of Staatz in Weinviertel, where over the years a small café, a chocolate shop and the ZART Pralinen chocolate makers have all moved in. Because even before planning to open a café, Marieke had started crafting artisan chocolates soon after moving to the countryside. "To keep myself occupied, I started making chocolates even back then. But we could never eat all the chocolate we produced, so I started selling them to a bakery. That was really the start of my business idea!"
“We want to raise awareness for chocolate as a natural product. And for people to buy with their hearts. Nevertheless, purchasing from small regional producers has got to be affordable as well.“
Today, her bars and filled chocolates are available not only in the Weinviertel region, but in Vienna, Germany, Paris and Belgium as well. In total, Marieke's ZART Pralinen has already won 16 prizes at the International Chocolate Awards. "We can proudly say we are among the best in Europe." And talks of expansion are ongoing. "Our capacity has tripled since our recent investment in newer, larger equipment. At the same time, maintaining a balance is incredibly important to me, and growing too quickly can be problematic. I don't want to function merely as manager of the business, but continue to have a hand in it myself and create new flavours and varieties. So the business should continue to strike a healthy balance between being large enough - and small enough."
A bean-to-bar affair
Crafting chocolate in Marieke's shop is a process that takes a whole week from start to finish. Starting out as a chocolatier - that is, someone who works with chocolate - she soon advanced to become a chocolate maker - a manufacturer of chocolate from cocoa beans. In fact, ZART Pralinen is one of the very few bean-to-bar manufacturers in Austria where the chocolate is crafted from the bean. The cocoa beans for this are purchased directly from farmers, without any intermediaries. "We want to support the cocoa farmers in the long term while also enabling the next generation in countries such as Tanzania, Nicaragua, and Ecuador to provide good quality at a fair price. Similar to wine, cocoa doesn't grow everywhere and varies in flavour depending on location, but the care with which it is grown and harvested also affects quality." Marieke buys all of the other ingredients for production from local producers in the Weinviertel region: honey, gin, wine, spices, herbs, Weinviertel port wine, and salted pumpkin seeds - her creativity seems to know no bounds. “We want to raise awareness for chocolate as a natural product. And for people to buy with their hearts. Nevertheless, purchasing from small regional producers has got to be affordable as well“ Apart from the optimal roasting of the beans, you can fine-tune the chocolate by varying the cocoa content or the flavour profile. This approach has paid off: She has bagged a total of 38 prizes at international competitions and as recently as December, the little Weinviertel-based chocolate maker’s white chocolate won the gold medal at the 2020 Academy of Chocolate Awards! For Marieke, though, chocolate-making is still learning by doing even after all these years: "You just have to experiment with a lot of ideas. I often find myself working 80 to 90 hours a week to find out what works and what doesn't. And I don't mind things going wrong once in a while, so that they turn out well in the end."
“In many ways Weinviertel is the garden of Vienna.“
Marieke has never once regretted her decision to move to Austria, to settle in the Weinviertel region, or to open her chocolate shop: "Even if it may have been difficult at first, it makes me all the more satisfied today to see what has become of our little workshop. And though we might be enjoying greater success abroad than at home, neighbours and customers often come round our backyard when the shop is closed to show our location to their friends or family. Which I see as a positive sign that the people of Weinviertel have grown rather proud of what we have managed to build up."