by Shelly Preston•20th January 2012
I am the founder and head chocolatier at Boutique Aromatique, a chocolaterie, patisserie and sweet pantry situated at the entrance of the Welbeck Farmshop in the courtyard of the Welbeck estate in rural Nottinghamshire. I have a passion for natural ingredients, botanicals and perfumery - all which inspire and inform my work and are at the heart of everything I do. I employ two members of local staff, from Sheffield and Nottingham, one of whom is part-time and the other has recently been promoted to full-time, Junior Chocolatier.
I trained as a chocolatier and qualified as a patissier following a career as a Product Developer in the natural beauty and wellbeing industry. I had an unusual trajectory into chocolate, the main challenges being that I had never worked as a pastry chef. There are difficulties when entering any industry later on in life and chocolate is no different. It can be hard to penetrate and you must have courage if you want to be taken seriously.
Originally, I was living in London around the time of the British artisanal chocolate and specialist chocolatier explosion over ten years ago. Alongside my work as a product developer I had a burgeoning passion for ‘real’ chocolate and spent a lot of time roaming the chocolate department in Fortnum & Mason, eating up wonderful artisan chocolate bars. On paper my first foray into business would have been a natural-organic skincare range, but ultimately my passion for chocolate took hold. I knew I could transfer so much of my knowledge about essential oils and natural fragrancing into chocolate. My attention immediately switched to food grade versions of the ingredients I knew so well and I was conjuring-up flavours in my head from that moment.
Getting from that point to the realities of a business was a very long and sometimes heartbreaking road. I knew early on that being the sole producer, retailer and running a business would be at best exhausting and at worst virtually impossible. The original plan was for my brother (a keen foodie) and I to both train as chocolatiers and patissiers. If at that point we thought we were anywhere near good enough to have shot at making it we would then become partners, share the physical load and divide responsibilities. But it was not meant to be. There’s no doubt in my mind that my brother would have been a very good chocolatier but when facing the financial realities of being a father of four, he took a hard decision and did not continue. This was a huge blow and one in a catalogue of curveballs that forced me to change the course of the business along the way.
My business plan changed so much (from month to month in fact) that ultimately it became an exercise in how things weren’t going to happen. After agonising over every possible way in which I could kick-start my business, I built a lab on the 3rd floor of my house and locked myself away for a good few years until I felt deserving enough of even referring to myself as a chocolatier. I then began to tiptoe my way into local, speciality and farmers markets.
We initially trickle-invested £15 000 of our own savings. I was very determined on doing things properly so I attended as many shows in the UK and Europe as I could, I took courses and I was constantly researching, developing and practicing. It was expensive! Building my lab and the capital expenditure required for it was the biggest expense but it was the wisest move. It has now paid for itself over and over again. Very simply, had I not been able to keep my running costs to the absolute bare minimum through having my lab and office at home, my story would be a very different one. Who knows? Boutique Aromatique may never have seen the light of day.
In terms of finding business help at the beginning, the banks were abysmal. Their advice was always the same, “Come back once you have a solid sales history”. The truth was I needed funding in order to create the sales. I went down every financing road I possibly could: business angels, local funding groups and other potential investors but I drew a blank every time. I had to give up all hope of receiving any kind of financial help but it was the best that could have happened. It forced me into a fiercely belligerent ‘can do’ phase and slowly, but surely, I clawed my way into the industry by making chocolates for friends’ weddings and getting subsequent recommendations, attending markets and fairs and putting myself into situations where I could meet people. Luckily I soon had a dedicated group of customers, which have remained loyal to this day.
There was help along the way. We have a funding group in the Midlands (I-Net Food and Drink Forum) who after an arduous, almost two year process, awarded my business funding (in part) for a website and photography. Michael Boyle, Managing Director at Welbeck Farm Shop believed very early on that Boutique Aromatique had something distinct to offer. He played a big part in kick-starting our retail operation by allowing me to take over the vestibule area of his award-winning shop and converting what was previously unoccupied space into our first chocolate boutique.
We sell the chocolates via mail order (updating our online menu daily) but mainly we sell to our customers at our boutique at Welbeck Farm Shop. Our online boutique will launch pre-summer 2012. We have an interesting mix of customers and thankfully a high proportion of real food enthusiasts. Chocolate is an affordable luxury that most people can enjoy but it’s a luxury all the same, particularly in a mixed economy area such as north Nottinghamshire. Our ambition is to educate, change people’s buying habits and have them view and purchase their chocolate in the same way as they would say a speciality cheese or real ale. Depending where one is situated demographically there can be all kinds of obstacles and negative connotations to selling fine chocolate - too posh, too expensive, too exclusive or too calorific. It’s these kinds of misconceptions that we try and break down.
In terms of the use of social media, I love Twitter and I engage a lot as it is really a shop window in which people can browse. It is mainly for “business to business” so I use it more for presence and networking. I also have a blog which I update as and when I have the time and inspiration. One of my other passions actually is writing and I have a monthly column published in Great Food Magazine called The Practical Pantry which brings together everything I love about ingredients and how they can magically transform a meal, our mood and our wellbeing. I also hold sell-out, quarterly demonstrations and tasting evenings at the boutique and I will always do a kitchen demonstration at a food event when asked.
For the future, I plan to open a second, larger boutique within the Midlands where we can extend our offer and broaden our customer base. Plans are also afoot to launch our wholesale business with a range of flavoured bars; which I am very excited about. If the wholesale business ignites it will become a significant, perhaps game-changing element of the business. I like to take my time with each new phase and this philosophy has served me well in the past. I would like the current business to fund these next stages so there will be a great deal of careful and cautious financial planning involved.
If I were to give advice to anyone thinking of setting up an artisanal chocolate business like mine, there are so many things I would suggest.
Be prepared to work 100% harder than you ever have ever worked in your life. Accept that your business plan may not go to plan. Allow it to take its natural course – with firm guidance from you. It is ultimately your customer who will determine where your business heads so make sure you do everything you can whilst steering them in the right direction.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and tell people who may be able to help if you’re struggling. Moving house or breaking up with the love of your life is a doddle in comparison to setting up and running your own chocolate business.
Don’t rely on funding. Try and fund your business yourself. It may take longer to reach your goals but being debt-free and answering only to yourself is gratifying, and a great deal less stressful.
Be ready. There are experts, chocolate connoisseurs (and snobs) at every turn who are fiercely knowledgeable and devout to the fight for real chocolate. Winging your way in to chocolate is simply not an option. If you don’t know your onions you will be sniffed out and spat out quicker than you can say ‘ganache’!
It is very, very hard to make a living as a chocolatier. It takes passion, skill, physical energy and metal in truck loads. It is not enough to love chocolate…don’t we all! It’s about digging away at a bottomless pit that gets deeper and deeper the more you dig. It will honestly test every cell in your body to its limits, but if you have the stamina and the courage you have a shot at success. If it comes, it will be immensely rewarding.
Follow Shelly on Twitter @BAromatique