The Nippon Foundation is engaged in innovative initiatives for finding employment for persons with disabilities, as a way to create a society in which they can live independent lives. One unique initiative that has achieved significant success is the “Training Persons with Disabilities to be First-Class Chocolatiers!” project, which trains persons with disabilities to become first-class chocolatiers. The cocoa beans that are the basic ingredient for chocolate can be transformed into delicious, luxury chocolates as long as the correct recipe is followed and adequate time is spent. By coming up with a production and sales approach that suits the working style of persons with disabilities, the project is creating opportunities for them to lead rich lives and experience the joy of working.
Making Chocolates in a Way that Suits the Needs of Persons with Disabilities
Japan implemented the Services and Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act in 2006, with the aim of creating a society that makes it easier for persons with disabilities to work by creating more workplaces for them and actively promoting opportunities for them to participate in society. However, even though the number of employment-support facilities rose rapidly, average wages paid to workers with disabilities have remained stagnant (according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the average monthly wage in fiscal 2014 for person working in a Type B welfare employment workplace was 14,437 yen). To address this problem, The Nippon Foundation is supporting new initiatives that include developing products that can help raise the level of wages, along with creating more employment opportunities, for persons with disabilities. One initiative, the Training Persons with Disabilities to be First-Class Chocolatiers! project, is a tie-up with a famous chocolatier to plan and develop a business in which persons with disabilities make luxury chocolates. This project has achieved rapid success and attracted attention as a unique initiative.
QUON chocolate’s flagship store is located in a shopping district in Toyohashi City in Aichi Prefecture. On one side of the store, opposite stylish displays of chocolates, is the production area, which is visible through a glass partition so that customers can watch the workers creating the delicious chocolates.
Hirotsugu Natsume, director of La Barca Group and the project’s leader, says the flagship store is a lively workplace and that it has become well known within the local community. Over the past 15 years, Mr. Natsume has launched a variety of employment support initiatives, including the production of bread and confectionaries and café operations, but he feels that none of those projects suited the needs of persons with disabilities as well as chocolate production. He explains:
“Producing chocolate does not require any dangerous machinery or the use of high temperatures. It is a labor-intensive process, and the more time spent, the higher the value of the end product. Also, the production process for chocolate does not require the workers to rush around at all—they just have to melt hard chocolate, or harden chocolate that has been melted. My impression is that pace of the chocolate suits the workers’ own pace.”
Just as described, the atmosphere in the work area is relaxed. The workers, who have intellectual, developmental, or mental disabilities, beam with smiles and offer comments like “the job is interesting” and “I’m happy to work here.”
There is a secret to melting chocolate a number of times without harming the quality. The key is to use pure chocolate without any added oil, because pure chocolate can be repeatedly processed without deteriorating. Mr. Natsume points out that the world-famous chocolatier Kazuo Noguchi has provided assistance in choosing the basic ingredients and also by creating recipes and developing products:
“For chocolate, if you closely follow a good recipe, the end result will always be delicious. Noguchi-san is a person who understands the essence of chocolate and has handled the widest range of ingredients for chocolate in Japan. One major reason that QUON chocolate is loved by so many people is that we have relied on his recipes.”
A Successful Project that Leads to New Opportunities
The “Training Persons with Disabilities to be First-Class Chocolatiers!” project was one of the projects selected by the “Yumecho General Election 2014” to determine the use of donations collected from a portion of the soft-drink sales from The Nippon Foundation’s roughly 4,000 “Piggy Banks for Dreams” (Yume-no-Chokinbako) vending machines around Japan. For every drink sold from these vending machines, 10 yen is donated to a social contribution activity chosen by votes cast by the vending-machine users.
The project proved popular among these voters for the uniqueness of enabling persons with disabilities to produce luxury chocolates through a tie-up with a famous chocolatier, the fact that upscale products could be produced with relatively little investment in facilities, and that the production process suits workers with disabilities by allowing them to work at their own pace. The Nippon Foundation plans to expand this project nationwide and build up “QUON chocolate” as an independent brand, by providing support for transferring technology to employment-support facilities around Japan (by opening branches there), putting in place training facilities and programs, and opening production sites and shops in various locations.
The project has been up and running for roughly two years. The initial plan was to take orders for outsourced products from a company with which Mr. Noguchi had a connection, so that QUON chocolate could gradually build a track record before going out on its own as an independent brand. The brand has become so successful, however, that already around 80% of QUON chocolate’s sales are from its own products.
This became possible thanks to an encounter with tea in Kyoto, where one of the first QUON chocolate shops was opened. The shop used kyobancha, matcha, and hojicha teas from a well-known local tea store to create a unique series of chocolates that won high praise. The products were such a hit that a famous department store displayed the chocolates alongside famous chocolate brands, and the QUON chocolate continually sold out. This experience led to a huge boost in confidence and also inspired the creation of other chocolates that incorporated local delicacies, including persimmons at the Toyohashi store, and rice at stores in Iwate and Fukushima prefectures.
This momentum is also helping to increase the number of facilities, with the goal for fiscal 2016 of having a total of 20 sites (13 production facilities and 7 sites that combine production and retail). QUON chocolate currently employs 80 persons with disabilities, and believes this number could rise to between 300 and 500. The flagship store in Toyohashi has a high rate of spending per customer, at around 1,500 to 1,800 yen, so the profit margin is high, making it possible to increase the number of regular employees and provide a wage that is more than three times higher than the national average wage for persons working under the employment-support model. The project is also receiving offers from overseas, including companies in the United States and Taiwan that have proposed carrying QUON chocolate products or producing them under license. The day could therefore be approaching when the brand is known not just in Japan but in other places around the world.
Mr. Natsume describes one of the goals of the project, which is to establish what he calls a “chocolate fund”:
“First of all, we would like to show all the people who donated via the Piggy Banks for Dreams vending machines that their spirit of kindness has taken a tangible form as a fund. I also want to show that, moving forward, persons with disabilities will not just be in the position of receiving assistance, but rather become investors themselves who contribute to solutions for social problems in the future. At some point, I would like to see the creation of a ‘chocolate fund.’ The chocolate market in Japan has sales of approximately 400 billion yen, and if QUON chocolate could gain a 1% share of that market it would amount to around four billion yen in sales. I don’t feel like that is an impossible goal.”
The QUON chocolate brand name is a creative spelling of kuon, which means to continue forever, reflecting the desire for the project to continue over the long term and create a ripple effect that helps to realize the dreams of many people.
Photographs: Noriaki Miwa