How I Set Up My Chocolate Company
Five years ago I would never have imagined I would own my own chocolate business. Yet now it all makes sense, as it brings together the varied strands of my professional experience. I trained as a qualified aromatherapist, I studied herbal medicine and nutrition, I worked for a short time managing a Deli and also as a manager of a busy doctors’ practice, doing their accounts and HR.
I applied to go on Masterchef in 2006, having seen Thomasina Meirs win the competition. It was the only episode I had watched since the Lloyd Grossman days. I had recently split up from a boyfriend and thought I needed a challenge and so I applied.
I got on the show and felt totally out of my depth but I managed to win the restaurant round and get through to the stage just before the quarter final. The presenter John Torode came back stage and said that he had never seen anyone with the ideas I had and that somehow I should get some training. I went back to my day job and felt flattered.
A year later I was called up by the Masterchef production team who said they wanted me to go back on the show. This time I decided to go part-time in my job and invest the teeny bit of capital I had made on the sale of a flat to go on some courses to learn how to cook.
One of the key moments of my destiny as a chocolatier was going up to Eric Treuille at Books for Cooks in Notting Hill in London and chatting to him about thinking of finding a day a week working in a chocolate shop.
He immediately suggested I should go to Valrhona and so I did. Nowadays everyone knows so much about chocolate but back then I don’t think very many people did. I was amazed what scope and depth chocolate had as an ingredient. Immersed in it for five days, all day long, I was truly captivated.
I fancied myself as a food journalist and so wrote to a highly respected food editor to ask for their help. To my delight they said I could meet them and they would offer whatever help they could. I knocked up some of my truffles to take along to say thank-you. Apparently to succeed in journalism I needed to get a degree and I had no time for that. They then tasted my truffles and said ‘This is it! You are the next Juliette Binoche!” and they propelled me on the television to appear with Tana Ramsay, making my truffles in Market Kitchen.
I had a unique vision of crystallised rose petals dipped in dark chocolate and decorated with either gold or silver leaf. Not having ever trained as a cook, I had no idea how to crystallise anything. It took three months of experimenting and working it out. A friend then suggested I drop the end result off at food editors’ offices and I may get one mention in six months if I was lucky. I also dropped off some truffles which had previously won some awards along the way.
To my great surprise, the crystallised rose petals and truffles appeared in Stella magazine, most national papers, magazines, TV and were spoken of on radio.
I had no kitchen, no packaging and no financial backing. Yet that moment began the journey and here I am today with four awards from the Academy of Chocolate this year, retailing in some wonderful shops, my chocolate is in boutique hotels and I have really appreciative and loyal customers.
Running a chocolate company is tough and at times I could have easily just walked away but something inside me makes me continue. When one door closes, another door opens, or I get a great e-mail from a happy customer who loves my chocolate, and so I keep going.
Patrick Reeves has been one of my greatest mentors. He set up the company Deliverance and more recently www.sofa.com with his business partner. He had the vision of making an Amelia Rope chocolate bar with kraft paper a couple of years ago and initially I just said no, the idea was too boring. Yet I was persuaded, and I brought the same values of my company (taste, quality, purity and hint of luxury) from the truffles to the chocolate bar product.
Other key players have guided me along the way with business plans, contacts and ideas. It is really entrepreneurs who I feel have taken me round the initial difficult curve as they know what it is like to have their own business. They understand this burning desire to take a product out there and the roller coaster ride in the early stages.
I am very protective of my recipes but my sourcing is really down to making sure the cocoa beans are ethically and sustainably produced and that my chocolate has the true taste of quality. It must leave a clean taste in your mouth as well as interest and character.
I could compromise to make a rather nice profit margin and drop the single origin chocolate, but that would also compromise on the taste. Even in the flavoured range, if you put my organic aromatherapy oils in cheap couverture, it has a film and a tacky end note. Being given my chocolate initiation at Valrhona, the only way in terms of flavour and quality is up rather than down!
In order to sell my chocolate to the best retailers I just went out there to see them all, and have been very fortunate. My first major retailer was Selfridges who saw the first two bars I had at that time (Dark Edition 01, Pale Edition 01) and immediately said they would stock them. I launched there in September 2010 and introduced my flavoured range and it seems to have opened up the demand with other retailers.
I want to support the range in the major premium retailers and so take them on at intervals. I am very happy to have Wholefoods and most recently Liberty, a store I have always truly loved, as well as Rick Stein’s Deli in Cornwall.
I am very behind in the world of IT and have only just started Tweeting a couple of months ago. I don’t do Facebook personally or for the business and the cost of investing in SEO’s is far too high for my small company. I desperately need an IT guru or student to give me a day on the world of the internet.
For the future, I plan to continue to build my business slowly and securely within the UK and also export as well. For me, being a good chocolatier is all about integrity and the consistency of quality, purity and taste. Being proud of what you produce and fronting the product are also key.
At the moment the total number of staff in the business is just me and the lady who helps make the chocolate bars. I have always thought of myself as a multi tasker but nothing could have prepared me for this level of work. I am now at the stage where I hope to have some help, possibly an apprentice, and a bookkeeper. I am much better at the work-life balance now after nearly a year of launching the bars and make sure I see my friends, family and have odd weekends too.
If I had to advise anyone who is thinking about becoming a professional chocolatier, and creating their own chocolate business, then I would say that the business is tough, with small margins, as cocoa is one of the most expensive commodities in the world. You need a USP (unique selling point) and a lot of determination, dedication and also good humour. If it is in your heart and soul to do it, then go for it, as whatever happens it will open doors which you never imagined. If you do not succeed it may well lead you on to something else, and you may well succeed at something else thereafter.
I have had my business now for nearly four years. I built it on my own, on a tiny budget, at one stage moving fifteen times in fifteen months. Finally I have arrived at a place in my life where I feel the product is right, the market place is right and I am a teeny bit proud!
Follow Amelia on Twitter: @ameliarope