It isn’t a stretch to say that Marie-Hélène VandenBrugge-Smith, who goes by Bébette, is like a sweet-toothed, Augusta-based Julia Child. Talented and passionate about her culinary work as a chocolatier, Bébette has charisma in spades, offering up her charming personality right alongside her delectable chocolate. Since opening her shop in 2005, Bébette has rooted herself firmly in the community by making some of the best chocolate this side of the Pacific, while forging and maintaining relationships that are somehow sweeter than anything that leaves her kitchen.
Born and raised in Belgium, Bébette married and moved to the United States, eventually settling in Augusta with her husband. Bébette taught second grade for twenty years, but after two decades as an educator, she was ready for a new adventure. While visiting Belgium one day, she saw a chocolatier at work and stood mesmerized. She knew she had found her calling. Bébette signed up for classes at the Chocolate Academy in Wieze, Belgium, and after graduation, returned home to Augusta to begin practicing her craft.
At first, with minimal equipment and experience, Bébette dealt with a steep learning curve, but charged ahead, determined to learn everything she could to become a master chocolatier. She became adept at the craft, and opened a small storefront called “La Bonbonnière” in 2005. A few years later, she moved to her Furys Ferry Road location, where she has been for over nine years. Since the inception of her store, Bébette has continuously furthered her education by attending workshops and training with chocolate masters all over the world. Bringing her newfound knowledge back to Augusta, she elevates the culinary landscape of the region each time she returns, and the locals have caught on in a big way. In an era where small businesses often rely on heavy foot traffic or a strong online presence to survive, Bébette credits her success to a very supportive community.
“Even though I don’t have a location that is in a very walkable area, the customers come,” says Bébette, smiling. “People enjoy coming to little shops, to shop in places where they know you. I know what is going on in my customer’s lives; they tell me about their dogs, their husbands, their families, and I enjoy talking with them about it. I think that is why we have been successful here: because people like what we offer, and that’s more than chocolate.”
Like the aforementioned Mrs. Julia Child, who once received an award from the Office of Strategic Services that cited, among many other virtues, her “drive and inherent cheerfulness,” Bébette is a delight to behold as she toils away in the kitchen. She moves effortlessly from station to station tempering, molding, stirring, and shaping, all while laughing, sharing stories, and offering samples. It is here that she and her crew will fill thousands of chocolates in preparation for Christmas and Valentine's day, and where they make their signature bonbons, chocolate bark, and custom creations like chocolate business cards, chocolate wrapped wine bottles, favors galore, and unique chocolate art. During the busy seasons, the work can pile up, but no matter how many tasks may be on her agenda, Bébette always embraces the day.
“I don’t drag my feet in the morning,” Bébette says. “I like where I am going and I like what I am doing. I like my customers and I like my employees. I am not sure it could be any better of a life!