CEO has a sweet recipe for success – and peace

By Kelly Ryan

November 1, 2022


It happened in a second. One moment the Hadhad family was one of the most successful chocolate makers in Damascus. The next, their factory was destroyed by bombs from the Syrian war and the Hadhad family fled to the basement of their apartment building for shelter.

An escape to Lebanon and three years of refugee camps later, the family moved to the small town of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where they worked from nothing to rebuild the business.

They say their chocolate is a way of spreading joy in a world that could use more. The company name says it all – Peace by Chocolate is now the subject of a full-length feature film and a book.   

Business Edge publisher Rob Driscoll and I sat down to ask CEO Tareq Hadhad 20 questions about the power of immigrants, the horrors of war, and, of course, the business of making chocolate.

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1.  I want to take you back a long ways because there will be a lot of people in our audience that haven't heard your story, which, of course, started in Syria. Was your family chocolate makers your whole life?

Tareq Hadhad:  They have been actually, yes. Our family comes from the heritage of making chocolate as a way to spread happiness into the world. As my dad said, ‘Everyone (who) eats chocolate will be happy. No one who eats chocolate will be sad.’ It started in 1986, started with my dad because all the other family members and the generations in the family were doctors, lawyers, judges. No one really wanted to take the risk of being an entrepreneur or starting an entrepreneurial path in life. So my father started this by himself. Then my mom joined him a year later after they fell in love, over two boxes of chocolate that my father gave to her. And that's how the story of my family began.

2.  What is chocolate to you?

Chocolate is universal. Chocolate is like music. Everyone understands it, right? You don't have to know the lyrics of an Arabic song to really feel the emotions, even if you don't speak the language. The same thing for chocolate, because everyone really enjoys it the same way, but also it brings different memories. When you try a dark chocolate bar or a dark chocolate piece that reminds you of something, with a flavour that can take you, with an orange peel, to your first visit to the Middle East or to Spain, or somewhere. I think it brings back all this sweetness of memories and connections. And at the end of the day, I think the world can use more sweetness in the time of darkness and anxiety and hatred. And I think, you need the world to come back together. You need people to come back together.

3.  How much does Peace by Chocolate build on the company your family had in Syria?

Actually it's the same flavours – but in Syria, we just didn't know that the world can lose peace. At the split of the moment … we were living in a peaceful country. My father built that business. There were wars around us in Syria, for example, in Iraq, in Lebanon. Palestine … all over. But we didn't know that we can lose the peace ourselves, and we took that for granted. So the business grew to become really the second largest chocolate manufacturing facility in the region at that time. In 2005 – between 2005-2008 – the company was exporting chocolate everywhere in Syria. So from Syria to even European countries like Belgium were importing chocolate from my father's company. And I'm like, ‘They don't need more chocolate. They have enough already.’

4.  What was it like for you growing up in Damascus – as a child, it doesn't sound like you were concerned about wartime, but how do you compare that life to what life is like for children in Canada?

Growing up in Damascus, there was a big thing for us, which is family. We used to say, in times of tests, family's best. In times of anxiety, in times of unrest, in terms of conflict, you'd always go back to your family. You'd always really just try to seek peace and safety with them. And that's why we were growing up all in one building. My entire family, my father's side of the family – 60 members of my family were living in one building of 10 floors. My grandmother was on the first floor. We were on the second floor with my uncles and my aunts, and my cousins were all above us. And then every Saturday we used to have the supper together. Coming together as a family has meant the world to us. It meant that we have our family to protect us from any dangers. You never know what life is gonna throw at you. And we have learned actually in Syria, if life throws bricks at you, use those bricks to build a foundation, so it doesn't hurt you anymore.

5.  Were you expected to take over the factory at some point?

When I was born, it was just fascinating how the culture there takes you in different directions towards a career in life. Ninety-nine percent of Syrian mothers, they want their kids to become doctors, and 1% of them, they want them to be engineers. So, I was from the 99%, and I grew up with the love of medicine as a passion for my life at that time. But at the same time, I think for me to grow up in one of the, if not the most ancient city in the world – Damascus is the oldest inhabited city around the globe. It goes back over 12,000 years. And as a child, I did not participate much in the social life as other children because I was too busy studying – because I had a goal in life to become a doctor. And that was always my vision. But at the same time, comparing it to the life of children in Canada … it's very different in many ways. Canadians are very lucky. Canadian children are very lucky to know different cultures and different people, in their schools and their growing that they come from different backgrounds, and different ethnicities, and different countries. I love the quote that says, ‘Canadians are born everywhere across the globe. It just takes them a little bit to get here.’

6. It took a war to get you here. What was it like going through war?

All my little cousins and my little siblings were crying, and they just didn't know what to do. They were just hearing the explosions around the building, hearing the helicopters that were hovering over us. And the soldiers were just shooting everywhere, on the streets. And I was looking at how scared they were, and it just hurt so much, at that time to really feel helpless, to feel useless, to feel that you cannot do anything to alleviate the stress and anxiety and the pain from those kids. And … we ran to the basement at that time. We were stuck for five days as family members without food, without water, without electricity. And, yeah, the only thing that we could hear at that time were kids screaming. And then they were scared to death, as they were saying. So, on the sixth day, we just rushed out of that basement and we headed out of the building. Then we became called refugees.

7.  I find it incredible that you moved from being in a refugee camp in Lebanon, to Antigonish, which is tiny. It’s a tiny little place dominated by a Catholic University and some small-town thinking.  How did you make the transition? We’ve seen the movie, and it didn’t look easy, but you seem so good with it now.

Absolutely. I was pretty skeptical. I was very hesitant about the idea of moving to a small town. That's why when I when I did the interview with the Canadian Council back in Lebanon, I told him, ‘Can we go to a big city like Damascus?’ And he said, ‘Let me check.’ And then he said, ‘Actually, if you arrive in a small town, you're going find a sense of family. You're going to find people who are going to take care of you. You are not going become a number as if you land in Toronto, or in Vancouver, or anywhere across in Montreal, anywhere else across the country. And it's funny because I was always persistent on going to Toronto. I only knew from Toronto Bay Street. And it's funny because we are not living on Bay Street in Toronto. We're living on Bay Street in Antigonish.

8.  How much do you still feel like an immigrant?

If we are not indigenous, then we came from somewhere. Our grandparents came from somewhere. Grand, great grandparents came from somewhere. So, I really believe in the power of immigration to transform communities. And that's what happened in the town of Antigonish. My family and I, we did not choose to go to Antigonish, Antigonish chose us, but if we have the choice right now, we choose it again and again. And I think the beauty of the town continues to shine as an example among other small towns in the retention of immigrants and newcomers, because whoever comes there, they just don't leave.

9.  There must have been some pushback from people in the area. There is a phrase used in the Maritimes for people not born there – they’re “come from aways.”  Did you encounter that attitude?

There was, I think, a story just in the beginning when I arrived in Canada, when I arrived Antigonish, when someone just came to me who was skeptical about us being able to be self-employed as family. And he was saying, ‘Tareq, why did you come to Canada to take our jobs?’ And I actually went to him and I said, ‘We did not come here to take jobs; we came here to create them.’ I had no clue at that time what we were going to do. But I believe that we had brought our skills and our talents as people, who probably lost everything in the war, but we did not lose our skills and our talents. So we did not arrive here empty. We brought something with us. And yeah, we actually started hiring in the community within only eight to 12 weeks after arrival, getting help with people that were helping us making chocolate again, and selling it at the farmer's market.

10.  So individuals welcomed you – how about the system? How hard was it to get settled in that way?

When I landed in Canada, I had the same rights as every other Canadian, as if I was born here. With my permanent residency, I had every right, I had every responsibility. I was able to access everything else – my right to healthcare education. Even starting a business is not different if you are born here or born away, if you live here. Then you have access to the same resources like everyone else. And that's really why you find many immigrants, they're willing to take that risk to become entrepreneurs because they believe in it as a transformational tool to their communities. And for immigrants, when they arrive in these smaller towns, they scan the gaps and then they see what is missing. So when we arrived in town, we said I think what was missing at that time is a little bit of opportunities with jobs in the community. And that's why we just decided that entrepreneurship was the way to go in a time of uncertainty.

11.  The movie that we watched indicated that you fought the chocolate idea and wanted to really focus on your medical plans. Is that an accurate representation? How is that for you in terms of going from the desire to become a medical doctor, to being the CEO you are now? And is the medical world in the future?

Yeah. The movie was not accurate, I think it was not a documentary. Almost 60% of the movie was correct. All the rest was a dramatic addition, I think, to just give a bigger picture of kind of the conflict within the immigrant community.

Canada does not make it easy for newcomer doctors or medical students who need to get back to where they left back home. And I think that was the disadvantage, and the discouragement point for many newcomers. I reached out to many universities to get back to medicine, and they all said, ‘Sorry, but you have to do high school again, and then do the undergraduate degree, and then do the MCAT, and then you can go back to med school.’ I'm like, this is another 10 years of my life…. I think the frustration lasted for almost three months, and then I decided it is a time to make that the turning point in my life. After three months, I just decided that probably focusing on entrepreneurship, focusing on building the chocolate business for our family was the right thing to do. I decided to not give up entirely on my dream to become a doctor, but then I decided to just look at things differently, and say it's never too late. I think I can prioritize my life now in a different timeline than what the expectation was, because I think when we are born as human beings, we are put into this one mould of people, to go to school,  graduate high school, go to university, undergraduate degree, then do something else, do masters or whatever, buy a house, get married, do all of this, do all of that. There was that clock that we all follow in life. And then I was like, but the clock broke. The cycle broke since I left Syria, since I left my homeland, since I left my med school. Since I left that. So I think I need another clock. And then I started having my own clock, and then I realized certainly that entrepreneurship should be my full focus. I have to make sure that the company is growing, that the company is giving back to the community, that the company is doing the right partnerships. And I think it was the most rewarding decision that I've ever taken.

12: How successful is Peace by Chocolate? Will 2022 be profitable?

Just to give you a little bit of perspective, we started in 2016 with probably five employees spending the year. Now, we have around 78 employees. The company has grown significantly. The road was not easy for sure. We reached the peak of the growth in 2019. We had to scale back in 2020 after we shut down our factory for almost three to four months after the pandemic started, because we were changing our production stations and we had to rebuild our teams all over again. So that was a little bit of pain for sure. But the company in general has been growing steadily since we started from only two stores by the end of 2016, now our products are available in 1,500 stores across Canada. We have three major sales channels in the company. We have our robust e-commerce business. We have our own stores. And then the third part is our partnerships with national chains like Sobeys, Loblaws, and Hudson’s Bay Company as well. And we are going to be hitting more shelves across the country very soon. We're working on major national partnerships as we speak.

2022? It'll be profitable, yes ­– in many ways. We look at profit in a different lens than just the net income at the end of the year, for sure. I think what matters to us is – is the company growing sustainably? Are we making enough money by the end of the year to refuel the growth so we can put it back? To buy new machinery, or to invest into a new department, or create a new product that is going to help us spread the message even further and further.

13.  How would you describe yourself as a CEO?

We have been doing that with different approach – humans first. Once we put our team members as the top priority for us, that was the goal. But for me as a CEO, a lot of people really think about the CEO as the one person who has to take care of the customer, has to think of the customer first. But I think, that's not true because for me as a CEO, I don't talk to customers. I talk to my team. And I think my responsibility has always been to take care of the team members. I take care of my team members, who take care of team members, who take care of the customers.

14.  What is it that sets Peace by Chocolate apart in terms of the product itself?

What we try to do differently is be unique and be remarkable in the fillings that we use in the chocolate, the taste. And certainly for our products, it starts with all the roasted ingredients that we use, like pistachios and hazelnuts, and all kinds of fillings that we use as well (what comes from) Nova Scotia, where we belong. Nova Scotia sea salt and dried blueberries, and using only the freshest ingredients, and honey, and the artisan line that we just created. And it's all handmade as well. You would feel the difference, and the customer feels the difference when they know there is a human being, a human touch, in something that they eat – or it's made entirely by machines, by a massive factory somewhere. And I think that's really what that difference is. We are growing; we are not that small, tiny business anymore, but we did not lose our originality. Every chocolate you would eat is made by hand, from people who are scraping those moulds, and putting these fillings into the chocolate, and freezing it, and cooling it down and then getting it out of the moulds, to the packaging where you would find people just wrapping these chocolate bars and getting them into cartons ready to ship out. And I feel that we kept that originality because who are we without the people? Who are we without that touch?

15. Why so many different products?

I think having a huge variety within the flavours is giving us an advantage point because we don't follow the 80/20 rule – we don't have that one top product that other companies do. You would find certain companies, mass producing certain products, and then they have that 20% when they just make the other products. We do not have that. We have a lot of products that they are popular, the same that they have, they have been part of our classic introductions as well that we have brought into our product mix since 2016 and ‘17.  And they're still there until now. But at the same time, we are adding new products every time. And I think that's what we really expect from a company like ours, is how are we renewing ourselves. I think renewal is the key to set yourself as remarkable, and to set yourself up for success and significance.

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16. Obviously, war is a big topic of discussion these days, and I think a lot of Canadians think it's still really far away …

Absolutely, and that's why we call the company Peace. We settle with Peace. We do not call it Chocolate for Peace. We call it Peace by Chocolate for that reason. Peace is at the essence of everything. Without peace, you cannot go to work, you cannot build businesses, you cannot raise family, you cannot do anything. We cannot actually record this interview without peace. So I think celebrating peace as the forefront of our existence is very crucial. Now, many Canadians take this for granted. A lot of Canadians, they have never tried war. They don't know what it means. So many of them, they felt that the pandemic could be worse than war. But I said no, actually. Because in 2013 during the war that tore my immediate family apart, we lost everything. We were forced to leave our homes. We were forced to leave everything behind. During the pandemic in 2020, we were asked to stay in our homes, and we were asked to stay safe. I would take a million pandemics over one war, to be honest, because I think wars are the most atrocious cruel form of expression of conflict that any human could live in. There's nothing good in war except its ending.

I think Canadians have to understand that we need to work. We need to create that sense of harmony in our society, because without harmony war can start any moment. I became a Canadian citizen only a few years ago, and, I said, when I became a citizen, I did not just sign up to Canada's excellence. I also owned its mistakes and failures. So it starts right there. It starts when we all own its mistakes and failures, when we all realize that this country, it's a great country. It's a great place to call home. And we have a lot to celebrate. Armed conflicts are only one ways of wars. There are words and conflicts that just doesn't take mass killings or rockets or guns or shootings, to happen. There are wars that can happen, when we know that there are other community members who are suffering while we are living in our comfort zone, and we are enjoying all the privileges. Let's make sure that our society is harmonized. Let's make sure that we are all siblings under one family. We are part of a big Canadian family, so let's make sure that no one of this family is hurting. Let's make sure that everyone in this family is represented and has a voice at the table, and they are not getting decisions made on their behalf.

17.  You have, as a company, made a commitment to hire and to mentor refugees. What is the scope of that program?

We made a commitment to hire refugees. So, I have 50 refugees in the company, mentor 10 businesses started by refugees and help poor businesses, started by refugees in distribution and marketing. We were just saying that whenever we have a resume from a refugee, they're not going to be discriminated against based on their experience, because they need a place to start. They're going to have a fair judgment based on their character, based on what they can offer, and based on where they can work. And we're going to support them, we're going to mentor them, we're going to train them. So that's really where the commitment came from.

18.  We have trained people – immigrants – not being able to become doctors and scientists, even though we have so many brilliant minds that are ready to step in. What would your advice to the federal government be in terms of how can we streamline this to take advantage of the unused beautiful minds that are all over this country.

Remove the barriers. I think there are a lot of barriers, and I feel like everyone is throwing the responsibility on different levels of government. When you talk to mayors, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is a provincial government (matter).’ You talk to provincial government – this is a federal government thing. It's not actually; it's a cross-governmental issue. Society needs doctors. You need healthcare workers, you need nurses. When I started the business, I called a friend of mine in Toronto, and he said, ‘Tareq, what do you wanna do?’ And I said, ‘I wanna be a doctor. And I am trying to get back into medicine again.’ And he said, ‘Do you know that 60% of cab drivers in Toronto are immigrant physicians and nurses?’ And I said, ‘Actually, no, I didn't know that.’ He was like, ‘Those people, I think, are going to protect your life if you had a heart attack in their taxi.’ But imagine that the government is not willing to give them a chance to be there in the emergency rooms where they belong. And it just, it broke my heart since then, because I know how severe the healthcare crisis is across the country. I remember one day, just this summer, my fiancé and I, we were driving in Cape Breton, and she had low blood sugar and she fainted. And then I drove to the emergency room at the hospital. The emergency department was closed for Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. And I'm like, ‘What's the hospital without doctors and without emergency room?’ It's just a building. It's not that healthcare is a kind of privilege that some people might need. It's something that's at the soul of any society, at any community, at any government. I believe in Nova Scotia alone, there are like at least a thousand doctors that can step into the system right away.

19.  Are you following what's going on in Syria? Would you go back?

Things got a little bit better between 2018 and 2019. And then when the pandemic started, and all the crisis that just happened recently, I think people there are just living because of the lack of death. It's like living in hell. A lot of people just cannot leave the country. The economy took a huge downturn since the war started, and now people just cannot find enough food to feed their families. I think it's a pretty dire situation in the country right now. And it's unfortunate because, the world is living through trendy news, and it's sad because Syria is not on the trends anymore. Like the refugee crisis – when was the last time you saw a story on the news about refugees living in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey? And I think that's really the reason why we have that apathy sometimes because people get their priorities on their news just from the trends. A lot of people ask me if I would go back to Syria ever. Canada is my home by choice. Syria is my home by birth. I would stay in Canada because Canada has given me the chance to be alive again. And I always say that Canada is not like a hotel or a hospital that I leave after I recover. It's my home.

20.  You are a proud Canadian. You are a CEO. Are you a future politician?

You can’t imagine how many times I get this question. It’s really fascinating. I would do everything that Canada would ask me to do. Now, I feel that we are creating the difference, we are making change, we are spreading awareness, we are creating that power machine that is changing perspectives around immigrants. In general, the approval rate for immigration in our region was less than 30% when we arrived, and now it's over 80%. And working on changing mindsets – it's much more powerful than anything else. Yeah, if Canada needs me to be a politician, I would be a politician. If Canada needs me to be a soccer player, I will learn how to play soccer – although I hate it. But I will try to. I think there are ways for all human beings in this country to be who they want to be. But again, all the doors are open for me, for sure. 

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