Two French siblings find a way to work together in an innovative business highlighting the beautiful products of monasteries.
French siblings Côme and Astrid Besse made the decision to work together to create the Divine Box. It’s a simple, but unusual concept that highlights the delicious creations from various monasteries dotted around France and beyond.
Subscribers can sign up and receive a monthly box that comes filled with goodies, including some French delicacies, candles, beauty products, and an interesting array of drinks. (Their service is currently not available to North American customers, but they hope to eventually expand.)
We took some time with Côme to discuss their work of showcasing the delights of some very talented religious men and women, and asked what it’s like to work with a sibling — after all, it’s not always easy to work with those we love!
Aleteia:How did you come up with the idea for the Divine Box?
Côme Besse: 5 years ago, for Christmas, our Mum offered our brother Hilaire (a wine and cheese lover), a pâté from the Abbaye de Bricquebec. French people give weird presents, am I right? Anyway, we were all surprised to discover it came from an abbey! As we already knew about monks producing beer and cheese, we instantly thought about combining these three elements to create a “pre-dinner drinks set” made in abbeys. That sounded odd, but after all, why not give it a try?
From there, we started by reaching out to about 300 abbeys, telling them about our project, asking them about their products, their production capacity, etc. We then realized the large variety of products it represented (from beer and wine to soap and candles, as well as jams, cookies, mustard and plenty of other goods).
This looked awesome, but we figured nobody around us knew about these delicious products “made in abbeys,” even though it was exactly the kind of food we would buy ourselves. So it became more and more obvious that we needed to do something. And that is how we came up with Divine Box.
Were you always particularly interested in promoting monasteries?
Quite frankly, no. We are Catholic for sure, but our understanding of the monastic world was very limited before launching Divine Box! That said, we have 3 aunts that are nuns and as kids we used to visit them once a year. The most exciting thing about these visits was going to their shops and asking our parents to buy us some food (usually candies shaped in a monk-shaped mold, how cool was that ?!).
So we knew monks and nuns were producing things, but our knowledge was narrow and limited to what we saw as children: candies, candles, honey. Besides that, we wanted to have a job with meaning, and launching Divine Box seemed to be the perfect way to do that. It was an opportunity to showcase delicious products made quietly with love and prayers, while helping monasteries pay their bills.
When we receive an email from our suppliers (monks and nuns) that says “God bless you” at the end, I think we have reached our goal.
Do you have a favorite product?
I could easily say “all of them”! But my top 4 would be: a marzipan with honey and nuts, from Le Barroux abbey in Provence; a salted-butter caramel cream from Landevennec abbey in Brittany; pure arabica coffee from Koutaba abbey in Cameroon; and yellow Chartreuse from Grande Chartreuse monastery in the Alps.
Do you know what the impact of your work has been on the monasteries involved?
A good one I hope! To be honest it’s not easy to answer that, for many reasons: Abbeys don’t readily communicate their figures and revenues, so it’s quite hard to know our impact, but on the global monastic scale, we think we represent around 2% today — our impact varies a lot according to each abbey. For instance, we know that a big order placed to Thiais monastery near Paris will mean a lot to them; meanwhile Le Barroux’s abbey (in Provence) could easily continue if we were to go bankrupt.
That being said, more globally, I think we don’t aim to grow too much, for different reasons. Our goal is to help monasteries and abbeys distribute their products: if we grow too much, our needs may overcome their working capacities, and that may lead to an unreasonable amount of pressure on their shoulders, which we would prefer to avoid.
With my sister Astrid, we feel better in a friendly and stable environment: currently, we have only 3 people working with us. Maybe we will need to expand a bit in the future, but it will be on a human scale. Also, we care about our freedom, and if one day we feel that a monastery depends on us (meaning they need our orders to survive), I think our relationship would become imbalanced.
On this question, let me tell you something that people usually don’t know. St. Benedict, in his rule written in 529, says that the life of a monk should be prayer and work. The work part is here for many reasons:to help the monk develop his skills; share any human condition by working with his own hands; help the monk have a stable life (praying 24/7 is not human); and, above all, because St. Benedict wanted the monasteries to be independent, without being a burden on the society it belonged to. Monks then had to work to earn money to be independent and pay the bills, like every family, company or community.
Do you think in the future products from monasteries will become even more popular?
Yes, I am convinced of this. Even if I don’t like to talk about monastic products from a “marketing” angle, I must admit that they meet every expectation from consumers today: local products; we know (and show) exactly were the products are made; they’re made ethically, with prayer and dedication instead of stress and noise; they’re well made — monks really care to highlight God’s creation by making high-quality products with their hands; the products have a meaning — they help abbeys to live and pay their bills.
People are longing to know more about these products. For instance, last April we helped Jouques Abbey (in Provence) to sell their first rosé wine, Exsulta. France’s leading TV channel, TF1, passed on the info, and we sold about 15,000 bottles in two days. So yes, monastic products have a great future ahead!
And for the important question … Working with family, would you recommend it?
Well, it’s a double-edged adventure. I must confess I am lucky with my sister Astrid because we got along very well before Divine Box, and even after five years, we’re still able to work together, as well as enjoy personal moments with friends and family. The biggest benefit is that, between us (maybe because we are siblings, or maybe thanks to our easy-going personalities), when something needs to be said, you get straight to it, sometimes without diplomacy, and we don’t get offended. The point is to be efficient and we both know that.
On the other side, the inconvenience is that we sometimes speak crudely to one another: it’s okay for us, but it may confuse the three people working with us. I guess our brother-sister life still goes on. I would recommend it only if you can have this freedom of speaking frankly to each other!
How do you resolve disagreements?
An important thing is that on one hand, when it comes to cost and calculations, we are both very demanding, and we crave precision. So the one that has the most accurate numbers wins. On the other hand, when it’s more about intuition, we follow the one that has the strongest. I have followed Astrid’s feminine intuition many times!
For instance, at the beginning, we wanted to ship each month 3 difference boxes: one would have been for those with sweet tooths, one more savory, and another one to promote only one abbey each month, with various products. But Astrid quickly realized that this would be a nightmare to handle every month, and right before launching our website, we talked again about it. She has a strong intuition, I didn’t have it, so we followed her idea. Thankfully!
What have been the benefits of working with your sister? How has your relationship changed?
I must say our brother-sister (family side) hasn’t changed a lot, and we still love to bother and tease one another. But indeed, our working relationship is new, and gives us depth as well as a serious tone sometimes. But overall, it’s a good thing.
Would you like to work with any other members of your family?
Well, I guess, no! To be honest, even before Divine Box, my sister and I have always been very close. We had even talked about “one day, founding our own business together,” but it was more a random thought. However, I have never thought that with my two other brothers. I guess our personalities are too different.
And finally, for our readers across the pond,do you think you can expand to the USA?
Yes, we think it is completely doable to work with American abbeys, and handle all the logistics there! However, as for now, we still have a lot to do in France and Europe, so we prefer to focus on that first — today, shipping to the US (especially food) is not an easy task — the custom formalities are quite heavy and complex and shipping costs are unreasonably high … but we deliver everywhere else, except the UK and a few African countries.