In the French city of Noisiel, the old Menier chocolate factory is a grand architectural landmark of the industrial age. It's now the luxurious headquarters of Nestle France.
Paul de Coustin
August 11, 2013
NOISIEL — A large window with exposed metal beams connects two noble, historic buildings of red and white bricks, symbolizing the transformation of a 19th-century industrial complex into a contemporary office campus. This extraordinary mix of old and new can be seen in Noisiel, a city just 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside Paris, where the dozen buildings of the former Menier chocolate factory sprawl over 14 hectares (34 acres) and are now the French headquarters for Swiss-based Nestlé.
The history of the Menier chocolate factory is intertwined with that of a family business that grew over three generations. At the beginning of the 19th century, a pharmacologist named Jean-Antoine Brutus Menier was using cocoa in the Marais neighborhood of Paris as a healing product. But Menier was convinced that the product could be used for commercial purposes too. So in 1825, he purchased a small water mill on the Marne river in Noisiel, and used it to crush his beans and make chocolate.
The idea proved successful, which led Menier to extend the mill, increase production and devote himself exclusively to chocolate production. In 1842, he left his booming business to his son Emile-Justin. Thanks to 8,000 hectares (19,700 acres) of Nicaraguan cocoa plantations and factories in both London and New York, the company's production rose from 4,000 tons in 1853 to 25,000 in 1867. During the same period, architect Jules Saunier was charged with rebuilding the mill. It was completed in 1872 and is a quintessential model of industrial architecture. In 1992, it was listed as an historical monument.
It also symbolizes the brand’s influence. The exposed metal structure is unique and the colored flower-shaped patterns on the bricks, luxurious. More building were added to the campus in 1900, when the company controlled more than 50% of the chocolate market. The newer buildings, called “la cathédrale”, were construced with reinforced concrete. The patios were joined together by a bridge called on which small carts carrying the chocolate could roll. Today, more than 30 years after the factory ceased production, the rails remain as a symbol of the once-vibrant industrial activity here.
Offices have now replaced the machines. After World War II, the Menier company had trouble competing with American chocolate companies, so it was eventually bought by Rowntree-Mackintosh in 1971, and then by Nestlé in 1988. The Swiss settled its French operations in Noisiel but moved production to Dijon, in eastern France.
Initially, then-CEO of Nestlé France, Yves Barbieux, hoped to sell it. But after studying the project for three months, architect Jacques Lissarrague shared his plans for the new campus and convinced Nestlé to turn it into offices.
Barbieux decided to consolidate all seven of the company's French subsidiaries into one office in Noisiel. It took three years and 100 million euros to complete 60,000 meters (196,850 square feet), one-third of it new construction. In 1995, Barbieux considered the project a solid investment, saying that in any other city closer to Paris, it “would have cost twice as much.”
The lobby was remodeled with big glass walls built between two old buildings. From there to the new atrium, the materials are all glass and brick. The mill has been preserved and remains the centerpiece, glowing on the river Marne. The only area left untouched is the below-ground engine room, as all the floors above have been turned into meeting spaces. The “cathedral” is now a training center for new employees. Today, 1,700 people work on the campus, and more than 15,000 visit each year during the “Journées du patrimoine,” a French heritage day when people can freely sojourn to historical monuments.
France's top business daily, Les Echos covers domestic and international economic, financial and markets news. Founded in 1908, the newspaper has been the property of French luxury good conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy - Louis Vuitton) since 2007.