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Virus gives Easter a bitter taste for Belgian chocolatiers

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Brussels (AFP)

In a normal year, Easter is boom time for Belgium's famed chocolatiers, churning out eggs, bunnies and gift boxes for tourists and locals alike.

But 2020 is not a not a normal year. The coronavirus and the resulting public lockdown have melted away their hopes.

"Normally, it's all hands on deck," says Laurent Gerbaud, working alone in his Brussels workshop to pack boxes of treats for home delivery.

"As a food business, I could have kept the shop open. I tried for three days, it was a catastrophe," he told AFP at his premises in the heart of Belgium's capital.

Gerbaud's boutique is well-placed near Brussels' touristy museum quarter and in ordinary times his display of wares catch the greedy eyes of passers-by.

Not so now -- Easter sales are down 90 percent, with the world in the grip of a deadly pandemic, Belgians ordered to remain at home aside from essential errands and Europe's borders closed.

In better days, the businessman employs six full-time staff and 25 students, but he can no longer cover their salaries.

The drop in sales reminds him of the localised lockdown imposed after the 2015 terror attacks -- but this is much more severe.

"In terms of cash flow I can keep going until the middle of May," he said, describing how he's relying on online orders. "After that, it will get very complicated, but you've got to be optimistic."

Gerbaud managed to sell his Easter eggs, and is trying to shift his extra chocolate bars and candied fruits. Treats filled with creamy ganache will not keep fresh, so he has donated them to health workers.

According to the chocolate-makers' guild Choprabisco, Belgium's confectioners have handed over 13 million eggs, rabbits and sweet biscuits to the country's hospitals so far during the outbreak.

- Morale building -

The head of the association, Guy Gallet says Easter normally represents between 15 and 30 percent of his members' annual turnover, so COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time.

Chocolate -- along with beer, waffles and chips -- is one of Belgium's signature flavours, and tourist stores and airport gift shops have been particularly badly hit, with traffic down to almost zero.

Nevertheless, online sales are holding up, as Belgians comfort themselves at home with sweet treats. The products of some star chocolatiers like Pierre Marcolini are now only available online.

Away from the tourist trail, in a quiet residential area of the south of the city, local producers like Jerome Grimonpon are hanging on -- in his case re-opening his store one week into the lockdown.

"I was getting phone calls from customers saying 'We need chocolate in moments like this! Easter is coming'," he said, standing in his bay window workshop with two co-workers wearing facemasks.

All is not as before in the attached retail outlet, however. Opening hours have been reduced and customers are allowed in only one at a time, with an appointment. Deliveries have been stepped up.

"There's a bit of ground to make up," he admits, explaining that sales in this normally busy season are around half what they normally would be.

But he can count on local support. "People still come out from time to time to get food, and I'm not far from the supermarkets," he said.

There were two clients waiting expectantly outside. Civil servant Rita came by bicycle to pick up her order.

"When you're working from home, it's nice to have a choccy box beside the computer. It boosts morale," she explained.

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