If you have read the book, or seen the movie, you will know that in 1986, Isam Hadhad, a young man with deep Syrian roots, began making chocolate in Damascus. He went on to become the best chocolatier in the country. Then in 2012, during the Syrian civil war, bombs destroyed his chocolate factory and the family home. “In the blink of an eye, we lost everything,” his son Tareq said.
The family fled to Lebanon where they lived in a refugee camp for almost three years. In 2015, Shahnaz and Isam Hadhad and their four children learned that they were among the 40,000 Syrian refugees to be given a new home in Canada. Tareq, followed by other members of the family, arrived in Antigonish, Nova Scotia in the thick of winter. Less than a year later, Isam Hadhad began to make chocolates in his home kitchen and then sold them at the local farmers’ market.
Vacay.ca: Losing your home and your business must have been one of the hardest experiences of your life. How did you cope?
Isam Hadhad: I was speechless for three days. Then my faith took over that something would happen that would give everything back. That something turned out to be Canada.
Vacay.ca: You have always had a passion for chocolate. What led you to making chocolate rather than just enjoying eating it?
IH: When I was a teenager, I saw how chocolate created happiness. I wanted to create this happiness all over the world.
Vacay.ca: Shortly after you arrived in Antigonish, you started making chocolates in the family kitchen, selling them at the local farmers’ market. Was that a successful first step for you?
IH: The day I made the first chocolates, friends came by that evening to taste. They loved them and we decided to take them to sell at the farmers’ market. Word spread and there was a big lineup of people waiting to buy.
Vacay.ca: You kept on making them in your kitchen at home. I understand that at one point your wife said her kitchen wasn’t a factory. What happened then?
IH: My wife had been very supportive. It was her idea that I should make chocolate again because she knew it was my passion. But it was such a success at the farmers’ market that I had taken over the kitchen. One day she said, ‘Okay, I want my kitchen back.’ That’s when the community jumped in and raised $25,000 to build a shed next to the house we were renting. It was a big step forward and my wife had her kitchen back.
Vacay.ca: Your story is so compelling, but you wouldn’t have achieved such success unless your chocolates were exceptional. What does it take to make such good chocolates?
IH: They are made with love. That’s what makes them special. Everyone involved shares my passion and love for what we are doing. I brought some of the ingredients I used with me from Lebanon — pistachios, cashews, and hazelnuts. I didn’t believe nuts would be popular here but that’s what I started with. Then I added the sweet Canadian taste, fruit.
Vacay.ca: Of all the different chocolates you make, do you have a favourite?
IH: One with orange and nuts and the gold bar which is gold-covered chocolate with sea salt.
Vacay.ca: Your chocolates are now available all across the country. Where have you travelled to in Canada?
IH: First of all, the whole family went to Montreal. It was an invitation to attend a conference. Then to Toronto when they were making the movie and then we went to Edmonton to visit family members.
Vacay.ca: Where are you looking forward to visit?
IH: Canada is home now and I want to reach every spot in the country. I love to talk to people about our chocolates and hear their opinion about them and how we can enhance them. I take this very seriously.
Vacay.ca: What do you love best about Canada?
IH: The people here. I love living in Nova Scotia and being surrounded by sea. We are very lucky to be here.
Vacay.ca: Your son, Tareq, is the spokesperson for and often the face of the company. What is it like working with your son?
IH: I am very proud of him because he is doing the best job ever. Because my English, isn’t as good as his, I can’t tell everybody our story. Tareq is spreading happiness in a way that I couldn’t while I learn English. So I am the chocolatier, he is the marketer, and the rest of the family works in some area of the business. We are eight Hadhads living and working in Antigonish. I am very proud of all of them. My daughter, Alaa who is translating for me today, came a year after we did. She is the manager of the Peace by Chocolate shop in Antigonish.
Vacay.ca: You see yourself as more than a chocolatier. What is the message you spread with the sale of your chocolates?
IH: Each piece of chocolate is our way of spreading love and peace in a big, complicated world. We want to promote acceptance, peace, resilience, and love. If you don’t have peace, you don’t have anything.
Vacay.ca: You have had tremendous support on this journey. Tell me about that.
IH: The sponsorship group has been wonderful. From the day we arrived, they made sure that we were looked after. Especially our landlord, Frank Garant and his wife, Heather Mayhew. He came to the house the first day I made chocolate and was over the moon when he tasted it. He helped us go to the farmers’ market, then to get all the equipment and supplies I needed. The group raised $25,000 to set up the little factory beside the house. 50 volunteers helped build that. We are so grateful. They are all like family and Frank is my brother.
Vacay.ca: What are your plans for the future of the company?
IH: I want to see Peace by Chocolate as one of the top five or six chocolate businesses in Canada. I want it to reach every store and every home in the country to spread the happiness to each one.
Vacay.ca: What is your biggest challenge in building the business?
IH: Doing it step by step. Like climbing a ladder.
Vacay.ca: What would you like to be remembered for?
IH: As a master of chocolate and remember the pieces as happiness.