Chocolate makes life sweeter

Club Members Ian and Leanne Neeland’s Yarra Valley Chocolaterie brings joy to people during tough times.

Atop a rolling green hill in the Yarra Valley, there sits a tremendous place with floor-to-ceiling glass and pops of bright pink that brings chocolatey joy to visitors, both big and small.

The Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery is the realisation of Ian and Leanne Neeland’s grand vision, one they began building around nine years ago on 16ha in Yarra Glen.

“We were living in Western Australia and we had this dream to build chocolateries in premier destinations,” says Leanne. “We had travelled Australia looking for the best locations and the Yarra Valley already had an amazing brand with great food and wine and five million people on its doorstep.”

They imagined a family-friendly chocolaterie would entice Melburnians and tourists to the region, and they were right. Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery had 800,000 visitors a year and employed more than 100 people. Then came the challenge of Covid-19.

 

“We had to lay off many staff who had been excellent employees,” says Leanne. “The core team who were left rolled up their sleeves and have been working tirelessly for months to help us save the Chocolaterie.”

Getting creative and taking everything online was the key to sustaining the business during lockdown.

“Less than half a percent of our business pre-Covid was online,” says Leanne.

One of the Chocolaterie’s biggest annual events, the Hot Chocolate Festival, was held online for the first time. The team devised DIY hot-chocolate kits with 31 flavours, so customers in isolation could celebrate the festival from afar. More than 50,000 kits in total – 12,000 a week – were packed and delivered to eager chocolate lovers.

“The response to our hot chocolate kits was overwhelming,” says Leanne. “We had to respond very quickly, and we faced many challenges to keep up with the demand.”

Despite the tough times, Ian and Leanne feel privileged that Victorians have chosen their business as a way of sending joy to others, with most customers asking for a handwritten note to be attached to their gift.

“Writing those notes makes us all a bit teary. You can tell how much people are missing each other,” says Leanne.

Although business owners are nervous about how long it will be until normal trading resumes, especially with the peak Christmas season looming, Ian and Leanne remain optimistic.

“We are confident that our customers will come back when they can and visit the Yarra Valley,” Ian says.

The couple miss their community connections and being able to visit the RACV Club.

“We loved using the gym at Healesville Country Club and dining at the restaurants,” Leanne says. “We miss the simple pleasure of dining out and being served.”

They have their hearts set on enjoying a COVID-normal Christmas.

“Christmas is our peak time, but Christmas Day is our one day off a year,” says Leanne. “Our chocolatiers are from Europe, so we cook for them on Christmas Day and just relax and enjoy the day. We are looking forward to hopefully seeing family and friends and hugging. We really miss that physical contact with people, we just need a hug.”

Visit the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie & Ice Creamery website by clicking here.

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