Mid-50s Career Changes Lead to Sweet Success for Bebette Smith

February 6, 2019|

Bebette Smith is a testament to the fact that you’re never too old to pursue a dream.

Smith was in her mid-50s, already in a second career, when she decided to become a chocolatier. Now, at 69, she will soon celebrate her 14th year of keeping Augusta’s taste buds happy with her many chocolate creations.

Smith, a native of Belgium but an Augustan for more than 40 years, owns La Bonbonniere chocolate shop in Furys Ferry Station at Furys Ferry Road and Riverwatch Parkway.

Other than eating it, chocolate had not been a big part of Smith’s plans for her life. She was a school teacher for two years in Belgium and 18 years in Augusta. She then changed careers, becoming a fitness instructor in an assisted living facility, a job she enjoyed.

“It was a fun, fun job,” she said.

But then, during her annual trip to her homeland in 2004, she decided to buy chocolates from a local establishment and her career path changed.

As usual when in Belgium, she visited a chocolatier to buy chocolates for her friends in Augusta. The chocolatier’s wife mentioned that her husband was making chocolates in the basement of their combination store-home and invited her to watch. Smith was fascinated by the process.

“Flying back, I was thinking, ‘Bebette, you’re 54 years old, maybe it’s time for a career change,’” she said. “I thought, ‘You’re from Belgium, so that makes sense, and you like chocolate, so that makes sense, too.’”

With the encouragement of her husband, Larry, she called the Belgian chocolatier and discovered that he had gone to school for four years to master his trade. Smith didn’t want to wait that long, so when she found a three-day chocolate workshop for homemakers in Belgium, she went back to learn the basics.

“I guess I’m a big dreamer, because on the way back I was already saying I was going to have a store,” she said.

La Bonbonniere started in a 400-square-foot space across the parking lot from her current location. Success came at the price of many long days.

“I started with the basic home stuff, and I sometimes worked from 5 in the morning until 10 at night,” Smith recalled. “I don’t know how I stuck with it.”

But after three years she felt successful enough to move into her current location and buy better equipment. Now she makes a wide variety of chocolates — in many different shapes — for all occasions. Her chocolate golf balls, for example, are popular during Masters Week and are featured at the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau on Broad Street.

But while Smith’s creations have been popular in Augusta for more than a decade, she has also gained recognition on an international stage. Last year, she learned that chocolatiers from outside France could submit their samples for judging at a Paris chocolate show she had enjoyed. The best would be listed in the international section of The Guide for Chocolate Aficionados.

Smith flew to Paris in May 2018 to hand-deliver samples of four of her creations – red velvet, peanut butter, gingerbread and key lime. In October, she learned that she had earned a silver rating and is the only chocolatier from the United States to be listed in the guide. The judges wrote that Smith is “a great discovery in a country not known for its chocolate.”

“I was on my little cloud,” Smith said, after learning about her selection.

But she wants more than a silver rating, and she plans to enter the 2020 contest.

“I’m determined to prove a point; I want to go for the gold,” she said.

For the next few weeks, Smith and her assistant, Haley Newton, will be busy getting ready for the annual Valentine’s Day rush. While Christmas is busier over a four-week span, Valentine’s Day sales are crowded into a four-day period, thanks mainly to a lack of planning by men.

“There’s not even time to eat or answer the phone,” Smith said. “Every year I tell them to place their orders ahead of time.”

In her own words:

What are you passionate about in your business?

“The creation. I love creating things, and it changes all the time with the holidays. After the hearts, it’ll be bunnies, then high heel shoes (for Mother’s Day). I’ve always had a little bit of an artsy thing. My grandfather was an artiste. I also love to see people really enjoy my chocolate and then come back. We have a Rolodex of the favorites of our regular customers. It’s nice to make people happy. A doctor makes you healthy, I make you happy.”

What made you stick it out in the early years of your business?

“Maybe to prove a point. I didn’t want to lose. I’m a sore loser. I wanted to prove that when a woman wants to do something, she’ll do it.”

What would you say to someone considering a career change in their 50s?

“Go for it. Do it while you’re still physically and mentally able. It’s better to not have regrets. Imagine if I hadn’t done this, I’d still be teaching water aerobics to 90-year-olds.”

What have you learned about yourself by being in business?

“That I’m tight with my money. I’m a penny-pincher in business, but I can be generous with my family and employees. For somebody who’d never been in business I learned a lot about finances. The first thing was to not spend the money you make. I never pay interest on a credit card. I only order stuff when I know I can pay it off, so I’ve never paid a cent of interest on a credit card. And when you have the money, don’t think you’re rich, because you never know when something will be broken.”

How do you unwind?

“We’re always in the air going somewhere. My husband is retired and I’m going to be 70 this year, so we’re going to do it while we can still enjoy it. Last year we went to China; in June we’re going to Italy and Greece; in September to Iceland and on Feb. 29, 2020, we’re going to South America. I can do it because I have great help.”

How do you give back to the community?

“I give to Golden Harvest Food Bank, that’s one of my favorites, and we do the Art of Chocolate for Child Enrichment. We give chocolate to churches, the Boy Scouts, the Blind Bowling League, a lot of charitable organizations, for fundraisers and silent auctions. It doesn’t seem like much, but when [you] give to 20 or more of those it can be significant.”

What does the future hold for you?

“I don’t have a deadline because I love it. My assistant says I don’t have time to die. I’m always thinking about this store and coming up with new designs. So, I’ll do it as long as my body is able, until I die in the chocolate. Oh, wouldn’t that be a wonderful death. But retire? Gosh, I would be so bored.”

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