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A week ago I spotted a headline in my newsfeed that Tony's Chocolonely had commissioned a wacky chocolate factory and visitor experience. Curious, I contacted Tony's Chocolonely and they sent me a link to coverage in Time Out. I drafted a blog post but before I could smash the 'publish' button, I saw an alert in my Twitter feed - the Chocolate Circus project was no more. Well, at least not for the moment.
Blaming COVID-19 (Coronavirus) amongst other things, the company has had to shelve the project, although it does seem optimistic the delay is just temporary.
"Our big dream, Tony's Chocolonely Chocolate Circus, a mission-driven chocolate factory with visitor centre and roller coaster, is on hold for now. Temporarily, we hope!"Tony's Chocolonely
Along with the statement, the company released a video rendering courtesy of Storyland Studios of the proposed chocolate factory - and it looks seriously EPIC!
What is Tony's Chocolonely Chocolate Circus?
Picture Bournville's Cadbury World but on steroids - and then some! This is the Dutch interpretation of what a chocolate factory and visitor experience should look like, and it boasts, amongst many things, its own high-speed roller-coaster!
Tony's Chocolonely states it wants to raise awareness about the inequality in the cocoa industry through an interactive chocolate experience. It will follow the cocoa supply chain from bean to chocolate bar examining topics such as modern slavery.
The location, an industrial zone north of Amsterdam, might not scream 'fun chocolate factory tour' but Tony's Chocolonely had already thought about that. Visitors would sail from Amsterdam city centre (so there's a bonus canal boat tour right there) to the more glamorous waterfront side of the building in Zaandam. As such, paying guests would never really glimpse the industrial rear end of the site.
The chocolate factory will also become the Tony's Chocolonely headquarters, so will be home to the corporate offices too.
The company promises that the entrance hall into the "faceless automated chocolate factory" will be filled with the satisfying aroma of chocolate.
The wow factor will undoubtedly come from the chocolate waterfall. There's a twist though as it's just a video projection and it will suddenly be replaced by imagery of a cacao farm in the Ivory Coast. It's here that Tony’s Chocolonely will explore the reality of the modern day chocolate supply chain, including issues such as child labour and modern slavery.
A botanical cocoa garden follows, which the company intends to use as a backdrop to learn about the role and lives of cacao farmers. It would be great if the microclimate here could sustain cacao plants, allowing tourists to see them in the flesh. It's one thing looking at pictures, it's an entirely different proposition being able to experience the crop first-hand.
A series of interactive educational experiences follows, with a hands-on look at the fact and science of making chocolate. I love the idea of finding out how many cocoa beans I weigh, or how many cacao pods I can open. My son would adore this fun-filled zone.
One of the standout features for me is the ability to peer into the factory itself. Cadbury World does a great job at shielding its guests from seeing the factory floor (although I don't believe that was always the case). Rather than cloaking their production area, Tony's Chocolonely will put it front and centre, explaining the process of turning cacao into chocolate bars in a very visual and very real way.
The finale of the tour - and the aspect that will grab the most headlines - is the chocolate factory rollercoaster. Yes, a real rollercoaster, dubbed the Tony's Factory Express! The coaster will simulate the experience of a cacao bean being roasted, pressed, mixed, moulded, and wrapped, before you hurtle out of the smokestack.
Before you ask, no, it doesn't zip through the factory itself (could you imagine the health and safety regulation hurdles to overcome to do that?!). It does, however, cut through the complex bolted onto the rear of the De Vrede Building.
Also, I'm sure there'll be a bypass for us vertigo sufferers, younger kids, and those less mobile, although I doubt that'll be as quite as thrilling. I'm sure Tony's Chocolonely would find a way to put a spin on this and jazz up the walk of shame in a way only they can do.
No chocolate factory tour can end without a visit to a shop, and the factory shop looks like it ticks the bill. Expect the biggest collection of Tony's Chocolonely bars on planet Earth, along with gift packs and tourist bundles. I'd hope to see factory-only offers and discounts, as well as samples to nibble on. That colourful chocolate library wall will undoubtedly become a hit on Instagram too.
Pakhuis De Vrede, Zaandam
Part of the original plan by Dutch architects SeARCH was to renovate the Pakhuis De Vrede building, a listed red brick warehouse on the banks of the North Sea canal in Zaandam.
It's a beautiful building, named Vrede (or peace) as its construction was completed just as World War I ended. It started life as a flour mill in 1918 although production ceased in 1926 due to an influx of cheap flour into Europe from America. After a few chequered years, the building changed hands in the 1930s. It was used as a storage warehouse during the Second World War, after which, it began to frequently catch fire. ZaanWiki recounts at least four major incidents between 1949 and 1968.
At one point in time, the mill was due for demolition to widen the canal. In the mid-80s, grain transshipment company De Vrede purchased the site. The company was already resident in part of the site since 1943. In 1996, the site became renamed Container Terminal Vrede, with a gantry crane installed and much of the site paved for the handling and storage of shipping containers.
Then in 2018 came news that Tony's Chocolonely planned to redevelop the site, preserving this historic structure for many more years to come. Looking at the photos on Google, it will take a significant amount of time, money, and effort to achieve.
The Roadmap So Far
The project was first unveiled back in 2018. In January 2020, Tony's Chocolonely announced that the Zaandam municipality was happy with the Chocolate Circus plans in principle, green-lighting the option to push for full planning permission.
Then Coronavirus (COVID-19) became a global pandemic, touching many lives and impacting on many businesses. This new venture would have seen Tony's Chocolonely enter the tourism and entertainment market, one of the worst affected markets right now. Plus, renovating a 100-year-old building isn't the cheapest activity in the world. The estimate build cost for this project was pegged at €100 million (about £90 million or $113 million). The original plan projected a footfall of between ¼ million and ½ million visitors per year.
The original opening date was scheduled for 2024, so delays now will push that date further back. My keen maths skills suggest we're looking at a build timeline of four years from the date they dust the plans off and start development.
Fingers crossed this project will see the light of day. I'm sure it'll quickly become one of Amsterdam's top tourist attractions. I for one look forward to receiving my golden ticket to tour the most fun chocolate factory in Northern Europe, if not the world.
Would you visit Tony’s Chocolonely Chocolate Circus in Amsterdam if the project goes ahead? Let me know in the comments below.