The story of the world-famous Leonidas chocolates and pralines is as rich as the confections themselves. It all began with a Greek chocolatier who created the great confections because he ultimately just “wanted to spread some happiness.”
The noble name of the irresistible chocolates comes from Leonidas Kestekides, a young confectioner born in the Cappadocia region of Asia Minor. Born in 1876, at the age of 17 he emigrated to the United States where he quickly learned the art of chocolate making.
As soon as he arrived, he began working as a chocolate maker in New York City, and stayed there for five years. In 1898, Leonidas moved to Paris, where he practiced the finer arts of chocolate making for another decade.
In 1910, he traveled to the World’s Fair in Brussels, where his chocolate confections won the bronze prize. Three years later he went to Belgium again for the World’s Fair in Ghent. While there, he married Jeanne Emelia Teerlinck and he ended up staying in the country for good.
Kestekides opened his first tea shop in 1910 in Ghent where, in addition to tea, he served his already-famous chocolate sweets. More tea shops followed in Brussels and Blankenberge, and the Leonidas chocolate empire was born.
Kestekides said after his chocolates became as legendary as the great Spartan warrior on the trademark, “I didn’t do it for the money. I didn’t do it for fame. I did it because I wanted to spread some happiness.”
In 1922, after the political turmoil in Greece following the Smyrna Catastrophe, Kestekides’ nephew Basilio moved to Ghent to live with his uncle. Leonidas then took it upon himself to teach Basilio the fine art of confectionery. The two complemented each other perfectly: one was a born salesman and the other was a creative spirit. Together, they created delicious pralines for an ever-increasing market.
Basilio made it his personal mission to further expand his uncle’s business. In 1935 he moved to the capital city of Brussels and walked the streets selling his uncle Leonidas’ pralines. After troubles with the police, he decided to open his own shop.
Basilio’s first store was so small that it did not even have a door. It was essentially just a glass window with a narrow corridor.
This was the beginning of selling through a sliding sash window, which later became the trademark of Leonidas Chocolates. In a completely unique twist, the chocolates were made right in front of the prospective customer.
In 1937, Basilio finally decided to legally establish the family’s popular chocolates with a brand name. He honored his uncle by using his first name, and placed an image of the Greek warrior Leonidas on the logo. The name Leonidas was then registered with the city of Brussels.
The Leonidas Pralines company was even able to survive World War II, with Basilio somehow finding sources to buy cocoa and making the chocolates himself. He had procured such a large stock of sugar and cocoa ahead of time that he had enough to keep production going all during the war.
At that time, the Leonidas pralines were no silly, trifling indulgence as they may have been in prewar times. They were made especially for children because they contained cream and sugar, as well as necessary vitamins and minerals, which were very scarce during the war years.
Afterward, Leonidas Kestekides started withdrawing from the company, gradually paving the way for his favorite nephew Basilio to take over. Leonidas Kestekides passed away in 1948.
Basilio builds the chocolate empire
Leonidas had laid the foundations, and Basilio built the strong walls, of the Leonidas chocolate empire. Leonidas’ nephew retained his vision to make luxury products which everyone could afford.
Basilio moved the famous chocolaterie from Boulevard Anspach 58 to 46, which is still used by the Leonidas company to this day; it has become a place of pilgrimage for chocolate lovers.
The first Leonidas store outside Belgium opened in 1969 in Lille, France. The company then expanded to Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands, England and later to Athens. Soon afterward, the famous pralines conquered the U.S. and Africa.
Basilio Kestekides died in 1970, the year the company was first listed on the stock market. However, the family retained an important role in the company’s management. After his death, “Confiserie Leonidas” passed to Basilio’s brothers and sisters.
Jean Kesdekoglu-Kestekides took over and after a while his daughter Maria Kesdekoglu-Kestekides began helping out.
From that time on, things really took off for the Leonidas confectionery empire. Production expanded, and Confiserie Leonidas bought the old Crown-Baele factory in Anderlecht, Belgium at Graindorlaan 41-43, where the Leonidas company also has headquarters.
In 1980, Leonidas introduced white chocolate to their vast menu of delectable sweets. Still, only a few of Leonidas Kestekides’ original recipes have changed over the years, and even then this was only done for practical purposes.
Leonidas pralines are still made from the best cocoa, while the fillings are made from choice ingredients such as fresh butter, fresh cream, Turkish hazelnuts, Morello cherries, Italian almonds, Grenoble walnuts, and Valencia oranges.
Such was the popularity of the pralines that until 1983 the Belgian government had even placed a cap on their price, just as nations do for bread and milk, considering Leonidas’ treats an absolute necessity for life.
In addition to the original recipes of Leonidas Kestekides, his successors added new ingredients and products over the decades, and today the stores offer one hundred different types of chocolate confections.
New inspirations have come along, from different sources, and these are combined with the original chocolate recipes to tempt palates all the way from Brussels to New York, and from Paris to Hong Kong.
The company opened another factory in Anderlecht, Belgium, upon the arrival of the new millennium to meet growing international demand, as the U.S. and countries in Asia have completely embraced Leonidas pralines.
The largest store under the name Leonidas is in Rue au Beurre in Brussels. The Leonidas brand has 350 stores in Belgium and over 1,200 in fifty countries around the world.