It is the Friday before a Tuesday grand opening, and the new West Broadway location for Thomas Haas fine chocolates and pastries, complete with cafe, is a model of disarray. Mirror tiles are being implanted in their spots on the ceiling, industrial-size electric cords are everywhere, and the whir and grind of machines big and small are competing for aural space. Not a trace of chocolate or flour yet; not even a bag of coffee beans. But come Tuesday, this space will be pristine, bustling, entrancing aromas filling the air, and shiny happy people will sit and enjoy, or walk out, bounty in hand, into the street. And at the centre of this hurricane of activity: Mr. Thomas Haas, making cappuccinos, ladling out soup, preparing a box of truffles, bussing tables. The only question really, is where did he find the time to actually make the products so avidly consumed by his loyal and expanding customer base?
“That is a good question, and I have the answer,” Thomas says, taking a rare brief break from the hubbub. “In the early days, when I only had the production facility near Park and Tilford, I would do a day shift and a night shift, to get everything done.” That was back when he worked as pastry chef for the Metropolitan Hotel in addition to running Senses Bakery, all while operating his chocolate kitchen (“tiny, tiny,” he says), in order to meet the demand for his chocolate products. “I knew I needed a bigger space, and some of my staff was saying they wanted us to try pastry too, to learn pastry from me, so that was the first step.” So the new kitchen, with state-of-the-art equipment and just enough room to breathe, was opened, not far from the waterfront off Fell Avenue in North Vancouver. “The important thing for me is that I am not interested in expanding for the sake of it. I still need to maintain control of every aspect of the operation, to maintain the quality. That is what makes us unique, after all. And the time, well, I do what must be done.”
He knows a thing or two about high levels of quality. He worked at the Four Seasons in Vancouver, before Daniel Boulud hired Thomas to be the pastry chef for his flagship restaurant in New York, called Daniel. It was a heady time, working alongside a supernova talent in a busy kitchen, celebrities and heads of state an almost nightly phenomenon. “I loved it. And Daniel is a whole different order of talent. He is on some kind of superhighway, all the time. But New York was not a place for us to raise a family.” So he and his wife Lisa, who works with him in the business, came back to Vancouver with their then very young children, and began the operation we now know.
“Valrhona is expensive; basically four or five times the price of the next best chocolate. But it is worth it to me, because quality is the differentiating factor for what we make.”
So the answer then, as it has been from day one, is that it is always about hard work. But, as is usual for Thomas, there is more to it than a simple mantra. “Long hours, and especially with retail, hard work, but by that I mean we do not take advantage of someone else’s efforts to make our own results. No shortcuts, ever. We look first at what is the right thing to do, and then look at the budget, and see if it can work.”
There are Doyon pastry ovens at the new place, but the majority of goods are still made at the North Shore kitchen, including all of the chocolate products. Thomas still sells to a vast array of hotels, including many dozens of Four Seasons properties in North America, although the recession has touched this part of the business. Still, from being 100 per cent wholesale at the beginning, to an operation that is today nearly 70 percent retail in revenues, is a testament to the simple yet eloquent power of a great product, sublime service and resolute word of mouth on the part of satisfied customers.
The chocolate business, although now running an increasingly distant second to the retail side of things, is still vital. Valrhona-brand chocolate, itself a product of pristine quality and sourced increasingly from plantations owned and operated by the company itself in Madagascar, Trinidad and Venezuela, is the raw product Thomas uses in almost all applications. “It is expensive; basically four or five times the price of the next best chocolate. But it is worth it to me, because quality is the differentiating factor for what we make, and Valrhona is a part of that.” And part of it is the chef’s own inventiveness, his remarkably deft touch and active imagination, which contribute to the charm, as well as the great taste, of his products. Organic, local products are increasingly part of the plan as well, and growers and producers are coming to Thomas with all kinds of great ingredients.
“There is no such thing as ‘I don’t care’ in my world. … We try to be perfect in everything we do. But I would not describe myself as a perfectionist.”
“For our business, the goal is really to spoil our customers.” Spend any time at either location on a Saturday morning, and you will need no further explanation of what he means, and why it is accomplished, day in and day out.
The Thomas Haas you meet during any busy business day is pretty much the Thomas Haas you meet at special events, such as the many pastry and dessert competitions he serves as judge for. He is outgoing, indefatigable, charming and almost unremittingly funny. The aspect of him that you will not see is his intricate attention to detail, his always-present passion for doing the job just right, regardless of the amount of work involved. What you will taste is the result of all this work—his pastries and chocolates. “There is no such thing as ‘I don’t care’ in my world,” he says matter-of-factly. “So the work, any work that needs to be done, we do it.” He pauses, then articulates this further. “We try to be perfect in everything we do. But I would not describe myself as a perfectionist. I don’t think my ego is big enough to believe that I am the only one who can do everything just so. I believe in keeping an eye on the big picture. When we hire people, we learn their strengths and weaknesses, and we focus on the strengths. Our staff turnover here is very small, and many have been with us from the beginning, so I suppose it is going well.” As an internationally renowned chef, Thomas Haas is sought after, to train people, to mentor. “Yes, I know there is a role as mentor, or something like that. But the truth is I train people to do their jobs, and the most important thing to learn is that inspiration comes from within. I tell everyone who works here that if you have knowledge, care and attention to detail, no one can ever take that away from you.”
The sacrifices, the long hours, the ceaseless drive to satisfy each and every customer: these are what inform Thomas Haas and his team. He would assuredly not want that to enter into the equation when you try one of his almond croissants, a pain au chocolat, sparkle cookies or any number of the chocolate delicacies on display. Still, perhaps it tastes just that little bit better knowing it is not black magic making this happen, but rather a dedicated, talented, and amazingly personable chef, doing his best and inspiring those around him to do the same. Sea-salted truffle, anyone?
Art Direction: Mark Reynolds.
Styling Assistance: Leanne Trigg.
Grooming: Tamar Ouziel.
Wardrobe: Provided by HUGO.