Luxury chocolatiers weren’t a common sight in 1983 England. Stalwarts like Thorntons and Prestat were around but, save imports from the continent, it was a market waiting to be tapped. And 24- year old Chantal Coady realised this.
The founder of Rococo Chocolates was then participating in the Youth Training Scheme, an on-the-job training course lauched by Margaret Thatcher to get young people into business. It was a time of “punks, unemployment and revolution,” says Coady, who had been squatting as a struggling Arts student. Opportunities for young entrepreneurs were emerging, and Coady knew she was doing something different: “There was a need for a magical chocolate shop.”
For someone who “was not particularly numerate”, Coady “got quite good” at manual cashflow forecasts. Having learnt how to present a business plan, it was her student bank manager she first approached and who, to her astonishment, agreed to lend her the money. With no assets to secure the loan, there comes an incredible twist to Coady’s early fortunes. For reasons she “still doesn’t really understand”, her mother let her pledge the family house as collateral. “I suddenly had this massive responsibility of making the business work. Looking back, without that support, I just couldn’t have done it.”
ROOTS AND GROWTH
Today, having weathered three recessions in as many decades, Rococo has four shops in enviable London postcodes, and supplies the likes of Selfridges and Liberty. Its e-commerce business accounts for half of sales – an easy route for returning customers to get the chocolate they want.
Most of its suppliers are in the Dominican Republic, but Rococo also has a special relationship with the Grenada Chocolate Company (GCC), a firm which is creating a microeconomy on the Caribbean island, growing beans and making chocolate. The companies have been working together since 2002, but the catastrophic consequences of two hurricanes, and the tragic deaths of two out of three of GCC’s founders within the space of a year, have seen the relationship intensify. Grococo is their jointly owned farm. It’s a small operation, but Rococo buys back the chocolate it produces and blends it into their products.
But not all relationships have gone so smoothly. The firm started supplying a well-known high-end supermarket around ten years ago. “They’d never had a box of chocolates retailing at £15 and we’d never supplied anyone so big.” But now, 300 stores strong, Coady feels they’ve lost their intimacy: “Things have really changed. If they want something, they’ll tell you and expect you to act very quickly”. Coady says it was “a great thing to have done,” but might just not be the right fit anymore. “Their demographic seems to have shifted. People aren’t spending as much as they were.”
For those that do buy Rococo, the taste is incomparable. Coady’s creativity sees original ideas spring from life. “I think we can probably say we were the first people to create salted chocolate,” she muses. Back in 1999, she was eating an (inadvertently) salty icecream on a beach – the best ideas for new chocolates often come to her “quite far away from the business,” she admits.
But Coady also knows the chocolate market inside out. “White chocolate used to be incredibly sophisticated. Now some chocolatiers won’t go anywhere near it, and we’ve shifted towards dark.” An insight for the layman, though: contrary to popular belief, cocoa content is a bad yardstick for measuring good chocolate. Wine is a good analogy, says Coady. You wouldn’t go for a bottle just because it had a high alcohol content. “And if that was what you were after, you’d probably consult an expert to make sure you got it right.”
Of course, Coady’s not the only expert in her field – the competition has just grown and grown. “We were a mini-monopoly for while, which was fantastic, but I’m also really delighted to have competition. There’s nothing really like it to make you up your game.” And if anything, UK chocolatiers have formed something of a support network: “We came from a dark place, but most fine chocolate people I know quite well, and they’re good colleagues.”
She’s not so complimentary about the big players. The UK now has over 4,500 certified Fairtrade products, but Coady says there’s “a lot of smoke and mirrors. It ticks boxes for consumers and supermarkets, but it’s an absolute scandal.” The industry “needs to work out how value can be added at the farmers’ end. People really need to think about how much they’re prepared to pay for a bar of chocolate.” Things are getting better, she says, but, particularly in such a social media-heavy world, there’s no excuse not to look closely at your supply chain.
In fact, it’s Coady’s work in Grenada which may be her step away from chocolate: “I’d love to help develop business skills in the country,” along with making the most of her passion for art. After all, it’s passion that she puts down to becoming successful in business: “It’s about having a real love for doing something, and it’s not driven by money. That’s where iconic businesses come from.”
CHANTAL COADY CV
Company name: Rococo Chocolates
Job title: Founder & creative director
Number of staff: 50
Born: Teheran, Iran
Lives: Vauxhall, London
Studied: Fashion & Textile Design at Camberwell School of Art
Drinking: Leaf tea, water, decent wine. Hot chocolate occasionally!
Eating: I love most things, especially fresh, unprocessed stuff – organic if possible.
Favourite business book: It’s a film: Man on Wire. Not really “business” but vision, creativity and challenging orthodoxy.
Talents: Creativity, lateral thinking, eating, drinking and enjoying life.
Heroes: Mott Green, founder of Grenada Chocolate Company, Philippe Petit (Man on Wire)
First ambition: To be the first woman on the moon.
Motto: “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
Most likely to say: “You will not regret doing this.”
Awards: Coady and Rococo have both won numerous industry and brand awards. Most recently: 2014 Ruby Award and 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Coady received an OBE “for services to chocolate making”.