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the ladder

Juliette Brun, 36, began Montréal-based Juliette & Chocolat in 2003. The company operates eight restaurants featuring dessert, and a chocolate laboratory dedicated to experimentation and handmade offerings.

I came to Montreal in 1998 from Brazil on a student visa. My parents lived in Syria. My sister lived in Montreal and I liked that Quebec was francophone and anglophone, the best of two worlds. I don't speak Portuguese any more. I finished my Bachelor of Commerce at McGill University, always very keen on numbers, loved and comfortable with numbers. But I love cooking, I love anything food-related. I thought after my career, I'd have a restaurant – my house up top – meet people and cook. It wouldn't be for money because I'd have retirement pay.

After graduating was the best time to start a business. My husband and I were dating and I could give my energy to a business. We didn't have a house. We didn't have kids. We had no restrictions. Coffee-shop businesses were popping up everywhere. Coffee's great, but in Montreal, it's so cold you want something comforting. I thought a coffee-shop concept with chocolate a good combination. Restaurants can be tough. It's all the time, holidays, nights, days and weekends. It's all the time. In packaging and branding, I knew what I wanted. My husband had been in graphic design. He said if he didn't stop what he was doing and work with me we'd be completely disconnected; we needed to work together.

We have maybe 300 staff. I ask, "Do you have ideas? Go! Try different things and discover." I usually start with an idea, then we find a way to make it work. Teamwork and getting everybody stimulated by a product is more fun when you're participating and creating. My advice is to focus. You have a tendency when you run your own business to be enthusiastic and want to do everything yourself. Focus on what you're best at, then delegate. Every time there's a new menu coming out, I'm in charge.

We work with different chocolate companies, last year buying 33 tonnes. Suppliers tell me, "I'll give you a super price," but I don't want to be committed to one. I want to be able to discover different kinds of chocolate. If I was bound to one, I wouldn't be able to buy from somebody else. We have chocolate from many countries: Asia, South America, Africa.

You want something special when you're eating. When we started, 75 per cent of people asked for milk chocolate. Now it's about 50/50 and people are trying different dark chocolates. There's a world of a difference between chocolate from Madagascar and Peru. It's like wine. You discover a whole set of tastes. I try to be first in a trend … make it our own because you don't want to be like everyone else. Why would customers come to us if they can get it everywhere else? For our dark-chocolate balsamic-vinegar dressing, if customers don't like it we'll bring a new salad.

We use real ingredients, like in my raspberry and my passion-fruit chocolates. When you order lemon meringue pie, you don't expect it to be super sweet, you want to taste real lemon, tartness and sweetness at the same time. Sometimes, a real ingredient is not strong enough, you need to add a natural essence, like blueberries – they're overpowered by chocolate.

Everything is homemade. It's labour-intensive and how we run the restaurants. For example, we make marshmallows. It's a lot of work, but I want people to bite into my marshmallows and go "oh, wow, it's like biting into a fluffy cloud." We mix brownies by hand and cut them by hand. Things are done by hand because we want to keep the quality. We package online and corporate orders like gifts. Even if it's for you, it's like Christmas; half the fun is unwrapping presents to see what's inside. For me, every day needs to be fun. I tell my team, I tell my kids: "Make every day special."

I eat chocolate every day. I love my cocktail chocolates. I have five kids and didn't drink for five years. You need energy when you're pregnant.

If I'm not eating chocolate, I'll eat anything with nuts. When I'm invited to dinner, my friends are … "Juliette could you, hmmm … bring dessert?"

As told to Cynthia Martin. This interview has been edited and condensed.