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28 April 2020

Isabel Félez: "Rural Spain has changed a lot in recent years"

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The confectioner and chocolatier says that living and practising her trade in a small town give her an excellent quality of life.

In 2013, after many years working as a chocolatier in some of the best confectionery and chocolate shops in Europe, Isabel Félez opened the Chocolates Artesanos Isabel workshop in Alcorisa (Teruel), her home town, which has fewer than 3,500 inhabitants.

A qualified confectioner and chocolatier, Félez makes bean-to-bar chocolate with raw organic and fair trade ingredients. Over the years, she has also taught at vocational schools and has received numerous accolades, including the Rural Women’s Award for Excellent Innovation and the 2019 Environment Award.

A member of the new Association for the Promotion of Hand Roasted Bean-to-Bar Chocolate in Spain, she says that life in a small town is easier and can be more rewarding.

1.- When and why did you decide to open a chocolate workshop in Alcorisa?

I had always worked in this sector and wanted to strike out on my own. I worked outside Spain for a long time and I saw the opportunities of bean-to-bar chocolate, which was unknown here but taking off in other European countries. So I decided to come home and make artisanal chocolate certified as Organically Farmed and Fair Trade.

2.- What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a chocolatier in a rural environment with a small population?

In my case, there are only advantages. If I had to name a drawback, the only one I can think of is the difficulty of finding trained chocolatiers to work here, so the company always has to take care of training.

3.- Last January you opened a store next to the workshop. What are the secrets to your popularity and how do you attract customers from nearby towns?

We have been making chocolate like this for a long time (bean-to-bar, fair trade, organic ...) and we have been selling through other retailers for a long time, so the next step was to start opening our own stores.

Our workshop is open and the public can see how we work. What’s more, our products are pretty popular, which is why many people from abroad come to buy them.

4.- Does having a chocolate shop in a sparsely populated area mean you need to adjust costs and cater to the tastes of a very specific clientèle or does it give you freedom to be creative and experiment?

Although we have a store, it is not our primary sales channel. We sell to organic and gourmet food stores, not only in Spain, but also in Germany, France and the Nordic countries. Our store turnover is minuscule compared to what we sell through other channels.

5.- How many people are on the team at the moment? What is it like working as a family in a small town?

I think I am fortunate to be able to work here. Our quality of life is far better than it would be in an urban area. We have all the services of any city, but we can also enjoy benefits of walking to work, living surrounded by nature and having closer contact with people. People have a different take on life than they do in big cities.

6.- How do you organise production, orders, schedules, and so on with such a small workforce?

There are 15 of us in the workshop. We are all women and we try to adapt to each other’s needs, so we have a fairly flexible working hours policy. We never work at weekends and we can work either half or full time. Good organisation is important to be able to juggle this with preparing orders within 24-48 hours without having stock.

7. Does not being in a city cause any problems when it comes to getting the supplies you need? 

No, there’s no problem. 

8. Do factors such as the weather influence the normal operation of the chocolate shop?

Well, obviously, when working with chocolate it is important to keep the workshop at a specific temperature all year 'round for things to function correctly.

The weather also influences chocolate consumption. When it starts getting hot, consumption goes down.

9. What tips do you have for fellow chocolatiers who would like to set up shop in a village but haven't done so yet?

I think that people’s idea of towns and villages if off the mark. While there are still some very small towns that are difficult to reach and have poor facilities, in general, rural Spain has changed a lot in recent years and you can get all the amenities that you need to work.

There are other aspects that need to be considered, and there is no question that life in a smaller town is simpler and can be very rewarding.