Reviving the golden age of British chocolate making
After opening a new chocolate production facility this summer, York Cocoa House has brought manufacturing back to one of Britain’s traditional confectionery centres. Neill Barston reports.
“Everyone thought we were crazy opening our store, as there was austerity with shops closing all over the place, but when we started, we had to queue to get in through the doors,” recalls Sophie Jewett on her ambitious early experiences unveiling the York Cocoa House during Christmas, 2011.
As the managing director explains, seven years on from setting in motion the multi-purpose site that operates as a chocolate restaurant, shop and confectionery school, still finds it surreal that the company has delivered its second location in the city.
This Spring saw York Cocoa Works take its commercial bow, serving as the company’s main base for chocolate manufacturing activities, which has sparked major media interest.
The £750,000 investment marks a long-term dream of the company’s owner, whose passion for her work came across vividly during her appearance on a BBC documentary last month exploring the history of chocolate making within the city of York.
While it may not lay claim to the very first confectionery factory, there is clear heritage for chocolate production dating back to the 17th century with its first confectioner John Reilly.
Subsequently, Mary Tuke, from a family of Quakers in the city, took up the area’s chocolate story further, running a grocery store included cocoa sales.
This would eventually lay the foundation for the Rowntree’s chocolate empire (that would go on to employ 14,000 people in the area, before it was finally taken over by Swiss firm Nestlé.
The city’s other famous business, Terry’s, most celebrated for its chocolate orange, was also bought by overseas investors in the form of Kraft in the early 1990’s.
As my host explains, the city’s surprisingly long heritage with chocolate proved an inspirational natural fit for her, having grown up loving all things connected with cocoa.
“I have always loved chocolate and in loving it, I would make things, play with it and make gifts and cakes, I remember growing up on the Isle of Wight making Easter Eggs, and read a recipe in an old book talking about chocolate tempering, which I didn’t really understand.
“I had seen lots of recipes that had all these shiny glosses on things, and I was getting annoyed that my efforts did look like they look like the pictures, but I kept on making things as presents,” explains the director of her original inspiration.
Fast forward a couple of decades and she studied for her masters qualification in York on international event management, which drew her to studying the confectionery heritage of the area.
So, it appears far from chance that this would eventually open up doors in being able to forge her own company after spotting a clear gap in the market.
After much research, including analysing product trends in France, as well as in the UK, she eventually plucked up the courage to leave her role with York St John university in cultural and community development, and set up her business.
“I kept asking people in York why we don’t do anything with Chocolate in York and people just said ‘that’s someone else’s job, Nestlé, Kraft or Terry’s or we’ve lost our time, and it’s not going to work. I didn’t think those responses were adequate enough for me, so my masters dissertation ended up becoming the business,” adds the director, on the breakthrough moment that led to her eventual career.
The business now consists of a team of eight working across the two sites, across its activities including working in its store, restaurant and production facilities.
By the company founder’s own admission, there’s been a steep learning curve, but she says that the challenges of driving the business forward have proved rewarding.
This has included equipping the new 3,000 sq. ft city centre works with a major investment for a chocolate production line capable of delivering its self-produced series of confectionery, handling up to around 50 tonnes of chocolate on site.
“It’s exciting, but to be honest It’s also very surreal – two years ago we were saying at events that we want to bring chocolate making back to York, possibly at the former Terry’s site. But we’re now not just making chocolate, but cocoa trading as well, direct with farmers.
“It’s felt like so long to get here, though I am absolutely glad we’ve done this,” reveals its founder, who admits that she had previously felt uncomfortable using other brands’ chocolate, and says that producing their own products was of significant importance.
She says that Cocoa House has found particular success with its afternoon teas, with chocolate and cherry scones (as well as a fine dining chocolate menu), that have established it within the city centre.
As she enthuses as we tour the site, the business has built a strong following with some of its staple favourite flavours including Yorkshire Blue cheese, York Chocolate Stout which is made into truffles, as well as marmalade inspired varieties.
The director says that product development has been something that is close to her heart, and one of her main tasks besides overall management is in supporting the operations of her colleague Georgia Victory, who is the firm’s production manager.
Jewett explains the company continues to place significant energy into working directly with farmers, and over the past two years has struck up direct trade with co-operatives in Colombia.
It may have been a long-term project to see her ambitions come to fruition, yet there’s still very much a sense the business is constantly evaluating new possibilities.
“There’s a chocolate I tried today that came from a friend that came from beans in Peru, and it tasted just like Turkish delight, though it was just cocoa with nothing else, which really surprise me.
It made me realise that we knew nothing about chocolate compared to what we know six months later. But that’s exciting and there are so many new things to learn about it all and to share with people,” adds the creator of the company that is proving that producing on a comparatively smaller scale placing ethical sourcing high on its agenda is entirely possible to deliver.