By By Tuija Seipell
By By Tuija Seipell
After growing up in Germany and honing his skills all over the world, German-born Thomas Haas has created a Vancouver-based chocolate business that speaks not only of his heritage but also of how far he has come.
In late 2004, when North Vancouver's newspapers celebrated the opening of Thomas Haas Fine Chocolates & Patisserie, the newspapers of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) town of Aichhalden in Germany lamented the closing of a local landmark, the 140-seat Café Conditorei Haas.
"My dad did not want to sell the business and see it run to the ground by some stranger, so he closed it," says Thomas.
Closing rather than selling speaks of the care and devotion the Haas family had invested in the business, established in 1918 by Thomas's great-grandfather.
"My friends faxed me some articles from Germany about the ‘legendary bakery closing' and they did make me cry," confesses Thomas.
That Thomas would open his own business is North Vancouver the same week his father closed the family café in Germany somehow seems a fitting "coincidence" in Thomas Haas' professional life, one that has been a bit like a fairytale. The life of a passionate pastry chef has taken him from the Black Forest mountains through some of the world's finest restaurants and hotels, to New York's celebrity restaurant Daniel, and to Martha Stewart's TV shows. And now he is happily making chocolates in a semi-industrial area of North Vancouver where he adheres to the same principles that served his ancestors: freshest possible ingredients, consistency and customer service.
Thomas Haas Chocolates & Patisserie sells high-end hand-made chocolates to consumers directly at the café and select packages online at www.thomashaas.com. A large part of the business is wholesale: Haas couriers chocolates to some of the finest restaurants and hotels as far as Grand Cayman Islands, Palm Beach, New York and Texas. Selling to retail stores is not an option, says Thomas, because he would lose control over the time the chocolates would sit on the shelf. But he is developing ideas for retail as well. Developing new products, finding the best and freshest ingredients and managing a staff of 21 take up a lot of time, but Thomas still seems to be in the café most of the time.
"I love the front end and the interaction with the customers," he says.
Clearly he knows the names and lives of his customers and makes sure everyone gets attention. The café also sells a large variety of pastries, and the wedding cake business has taken off to the point that the business is turning customers away regularly. From May to September, the patisserie does two or three weddings a week.
Well-taught by his family in the classic German tradition, Thomas honed his craft and art all over the world. But, he says, it has been hard for his parents to accept that home for him would never be the Black Forest.
"It's only two, three years ago that my parents accepted that I had actually cut the umbilical cord and that there will be no way back," he says. "I felt guilty for the longest time until I accepted that this is home. This is what I want to do. There is no room for me in the Black Forest. What made me who I am is that I was always independent and on my own and went through my own highs and lows. I could not have gone back and be told that I can only make Black Forest Cake. I left home when I was 16 and my father encouraged me to go and learn from the best."
And that's what he did, apprenticing for three and a half years in a pastry shop in the nearby city of Gengenbach. He worked in the neighbouring countries of France, Austria and Switzerland, and after earning a master's degree in hospitality and pastry, he became a pastry chef in a café in Germany. From there, he went to Brazil to train pastry chefs, and soon he was back in Switzerland, this time as a pastry chef in a five-star hotel. From there, in 1995, he was asked to become the pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver where he stayed until December 1998. At that time, Thomas moved to New York City to open Daniel Boulud's new restaurant, Daniel (http://danielnyc.com), in Manhattan's Upper East Side. Boulud is a world-renowned French chef, restaurateur and author of several cookbooks. Soon after its opening, Daniel was rated as one of the best restaurants of the world by the Herald Tribune. Adding to his already formidable list of awards, while in New York, Thomas was named one of the Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America by Chocolatier and Pastry Art and Design magazine.
Although being the executive pastry chef of one of the most sought-after restaurants is a dream job in many ways, it is also demanding. The exhilarating and all-consuming super-pressure of a high-volume celebrity restaurant in New York City does not leave much time for anything else.
"I knew that with my passion, it was going to suck me right in, so we had to make a decision to manage our values differently," Thomas says.
The decision Thomas and wife Lisa (whom he met at the Four Seasons, where she worked as front office manager) made was to return to Vancouver with their two small children.
And so, as of 2000, Thomas worked as a consultant to many of Vancouver's best restaurants and hotels, at the same time building up his own business.
"I put $20,000 into one room in our basement – with tiles and stainless steel tables – and started making chocolates," Thomas says. "Soon I resigned my full-time job as a consultant and from 200 or 300 chocolates a week, we moved on to 1,000 a week and now we make over 30,000 a week."
In 2004, Thomas and Lisa opened Thomas Haas Fine Chocolates & Patisserie, only a five-minute drive from their house. They occupy 3,600 square feet of space that includes a café with about 15 bar stools and a few small tables outside. The back room space has two separate production areas, one for chocolates and the other for pastry. On the second floor, is a large office and packaging area. They also occupy another 400 square feet of storage space across the street.
Thomas summarises his successful philosophy in his down-to-earth and humble way: "I've never had a budget and I don't worry about the money. I worry about doing things right and with passion. We know we are not perfect, but if we can keep improving consistently, things will go well."
And as for Thomas' parents who still live atop the Café Conditorei Haas in Schwarzwald, apparently, they open the Café about one Sunday a month just to serve the devoted customers who were very upset about the closing. A few decades from now, it is not hard to imagine Thomas and Lisa in North Vancouver doing the same thing.v