As someone who has consumed my weight in chocolate multiple times over, friends tend to take it as a personal challenge to gift me unique bars that will surprise my senses and broaden my taste repertoire.
One of the most memorable gifts I’ve ever received was a ramen milk chocolate bar by Alicja Confections that came wrapped as a postcard you actually could send in the mail. The flavor was a pleasant blend of sweet and salty, and the smooth texture occasionally was punctuated with a desirable crunch. The packaging featured an eye-catching bowl of ramen on a golden background, with space for a message and stamp on the reverse side. It was immediately clear that this bar went well beyond the novelty of a surprising flavor combo to deliver a carefully crafted experience from package to product.
Alicja Buchowicz, the founder of Alicja Confections, actually hated chocolate as a kid. And unlike most chocolate makers, her business was born online and later expanded to a physical store to meet demand. Alicja’s entrepreneurial journey is as distinct as her bars, and she was kind enough to pass down her recipe for creating memorable shopping experiences online and offline.
Ingredients to create and experiment
Entrepreneurship is a road that leads to many different destinations, but there’s one catalyst for building a business we see again and again—a need to break out of complacency. For Alicja, the increasingly repetitive routine at her office job, paired with fond past experiences of working in a chocolate shop, created all the incentive she needed to pursue chocolate making.
“I was just going to work, going home, watching TV. Truthfully, I got bored,” Alicja shared with us. “I didn’t have any formal training, but I bought chocolate, three chocolate molds, and some cocoa butter to experiment at home and made bonbons as my first product.”
At first, it seemed like the only missing ingredient was an accessible sales channel, which Alicja quickly found in her Shopify store. However, she quickly realized her well-received product might not be able to support a business on its own. “Bonbons don’t have a very long shelf life,” Alicja explained. “Especially when selling them online. I found myself making more product than I needed to ensure they were always available for sale, but then I would frequently have tons go to waste. So, I decided to switch to bars because the shelf life is two years, which gave me a lot more time to clear inventory.”
After this small but successful product pivot, online sales of the new chocolate bars began picking up momentum. Alicja decided to test out in-person sales by attending food and craft shows. But she soon discovered that the amount of inventory needed for selling at events created a bottleneck in her production process. Her signature label designs required time-intensive steps of printing, cutting, and pasting for each bar. The identity of her products rested on these designs, but the time spent packaging each bar had undeniably become a problem.
Fortunately, a well-timed dash of serendipity led Alicja to a solution that’s come to define her chocolate bars. Friends at her day job knew how difficult it was to package each piece, so, as a courtesy, they asked to buy bars simply wrapped in foil. Alicja says this simple workaround led to a lightbulb moment. “I just put a bar on a stack of envelopes on my desk, and I realized it was a perfect fit,” she says. Soon after, her postcard-themed wrappers were born.
Techniques for cooking up retail success
Alicja is not one to rest on her laurels. She was keen to expand by trying her hand at in-person selling. After testing out the food and craft shows, she set her sights on a permanent physical location. In 2016, Alicja relocated to Ottawa with her fiance who got accepted into law school there. This move turned out to be an ideal mix of timing and opportunity to test the appetite of the local retail market. “Instead of getting a job, I saved up as much as I could and decided to test the Ottawa market,” Alicja shared. With her online customers being from all over the world, their preferred flavors varied, Alicja tested different recipes with the “goal of seeing if the bars would translate to those in Ottawa.”
With eight months of planning, Alicja successfully transformed her Instagram’s aesthetic into a sleek and photo-worthy shop within Ottawa’s Glebe neighborhood, while tailoring her chocolate offerings to appeal to the local palette. Alicja found that, much like any art form, there was no universal set of ingredients for creating an ideal retail space, but she strongly encourages fellow sellers to consider one piece of advice.
“I don’t think I could drill this into people’s minds any harder, the biggest thing is research,” she says. “And I don't just mean Googling stuff, but literally standing in front of locations that you’re interested in and noting things like, are people walking by? At what time of the day are they walking by? Are people going into other stores in the area?”
Alicja says she’s glad she didn’t shy away from the fact that similar businesses already operated in the same area. “People often wonder how five different coffee shops on one corner can possibly make any sense,” she says. Even though Alicja Confections might be the only chocolate store within the Glebe, but it banks on the complementary businesses to help with foot traffic. “That's why the location works, because there's a lot of complementary businesses, like bakeries, coffee shops, and other gift shops.”
Never too many chefs in the kitchen
Running a successful boutique retail location means being a part of your local community. Alicja Confections has evolved beyond being a local attraction and has incorporated the community back into its products, using produce from local farmers and sourcing ingredients from nearby makers to ensure each bar is comprised of bits and pieces of Ottawa.
“Ottawa is super collaborative. The businesses build each other up. I am so thankful that we ended up moving here because I like to say that part of the success of us even being around is because we’re in Ottawa.”
By keeping eyes toward the community it serves, Alicja Confections eventually was able to garner the attention of Ottawa Tourism and ended up being the face of its City of Makers campaign.
“Ottawa Tourism came over last year and we’ve been working together. They give bars as gifts to people and the ad that we did plays on YouTube in a couple of cities in the U.S.”
As postcard chocolates became an iconic Ottawa souvenir, Alicja added a mailbox to her store. This further extension of her theme and allows visitors to mail their bars immediately, spreading her fanbase even further.
A fusion between physical and online stores
The physical storefront ended up being an important turning point for Alicja Confections, with retail and pop-up sales now driving most of the business’s revenue. However, Alicja’s team is still looking to scale their online sales and maintain a consistently delightful shopping experience, regardless of what storefront customers prefer.
“We’re currently redoing our online and we’re planning to recreate a version of the physical shop,” Alicja told us. “You will see a virtual and live updated version of our bonbon showcase and be able to choose bonbons and add them to a box, similar to our store.”
The Glebe neighborhood shop will remain home to the test kitchen, where new items like cereal milk, cotton candy, and cookie dough are being developed. With more products, Alicja is excited about expanding her online offers beyond postcard bars and tying her retail and online businesses together.
Key ingredient for batches of success
Whether it’s donuts, matcha, cookie crumbs, or ramen, it’s clear the unifying ingredient of these chocolate flavors is the adventurous taste of the founder. With her retail store now fully developed, Alicja is ready to tackle new products, sales channels, challenges.
The one facet that won’t change is the brand’s dedication to experimenting with various, and sometimes unconventional, ingredients in pursuit of the perfect. Regardless of what she tackles next, Alicja will make sure she’ll sprinkle in some fun experiments along the way.