Start up Business - Starting a chocolate brand. Sara Colohan (published Sept 2020)

 Starting your Chocolate Brand

If making chocolate is your passion and you’re determined to go it alone and work in the chocolate industry, we have sourced some expert advice from raw chocolate guru Amy Levin, the owner of a 17 year long success story in Suffolk and we get exclusive advice from the marketing manager of vegan mega brand Booja Booja.

Starting a vegan chocolate brand is an exciting and creative process. I know because its exactly what I did just over 3 years ago. I was a freelance journalist and working part time in theatre production at the time, but longed to work with my hands and create something tangible. I had done a few raw food courses over the years and was very keen to incorporate raw chocolate into my plans, so I experimenting for a few months creating my very own vegan, raw chocolate, created some simple, plastic free packaging designs and London Maker was born. 

With lots of encouragement from my friends and family I took the next step and rented a little premises and set about growing my brand. Three years on, I’ve learned a lot from my mishaps and mistakes and although there are things I would do differently if I had the time back again, I certainly don’t regret creating the brand. 

Ask an Expert 

 2019 saw the hugely successful vegan brand Booja-Booja celebrate its 20th birthday. Since its humble beginnings, The Booja-Booja Company has won more than 100 awards from the Academy of Chocolate, to the Guild of Fine Food, Great Taste and numerous organic and free from accolades. We chatted with their head of marketing Simon Middleton and asked some key questions about how to launch a successful brand. 

Before joining Booja-Booja, Simon had spent much of his career as a brand strategist and an entrepreneur and had previously worked with food and drink brands.

“What I learned from all of that was to succeed you have to understand that building a brand isnt really about a nice logo, or even a unique product. Its about the creation of meaning. All brands are really just sets of meanings. If enough people share enough positive feelings about a distinct small set of meanings which you can be identified with then you have a brand. Otherwise you are just another runner in an over crowded race.”

He told us all brands have to have these 4 things in common - 

“ 1.  Authenticity. Great brands are authentic and true to themselves. They tell great stories but are always rooted in truth. They dont lie.

2. Distinctiveness. All winning brands are different somehow from the competition. Something about them has to stand out.

3. Be emotionally compelling.You have to make people actually feel something. Because people buy with their hearts and senses. Dont be dull!

4. Strive for excellence. This might mean constant innovation or it might mean always refining to perfect your offering.” 

Make a plan and get a mentor.

My advice to anyone starting out today is to have a strong business plan! Try to map out a general 5 year plan, then break it down and try to have a detailed business plan for 6-12 months. I remember when I started out there was another start up in the next premises to me who had a great mentor. She had regular meetings, her mentor was very well connected and really helped her create an action plan. I would go as far as saying choosing a mentor is a crucial part of any start up. Finding a supportive, strong voice with experience in the business who may have the contacts to take you to the next level. Ask around. The worst that can happen is they say no. Some successful people are very keen to support start ups so keep knocking on doors. 

Borrowing Money

Business loans can be expensive and no matter how they dress it up, they are a business and want their money and interest paid back. Don’t be blinded by all that VirginStart Up programme offered new start ups - their mentor programme and support network is tempting but ask yourself if you really need to borrow the money. (Most start up loans come in slightly higher than government interest) Maybe consider putting the money a loan would cost towards paying for a mentor. By all means scan the VirginStartUp website for great information, but I would suggest only borrowing money if you really need to.

Most start up business advisers (who are not trying to sell you something) will advise you to try your friends and family first. See it as your first sales pitch! Sell your idea to friends and family - ask them to invest a set amount for 2 years and offer to pay them interest on their loan.

Are you a Chocolatier or Chocolate Maker?

There are chocolate makers and chocolatiers in the world - decide which you want to be.

A chocolate maker makes chocolate from scratch - bean to bar. It feels like a labour of love a lot of the time as you winnow and stone grind your chocolate but very rewarding if like me, working to create something from scratch is a huge part of the draw.

The chocolatier sources chocolate already made - usually shaped in small chocolate drops often called couverture or callets. They then mould and flavour and re package that chocolate.

The latter is generally more cost effective and much less time consuming but your chocolate is not bean to bar, so you must be transparent with labelling. The Mast Brothers famously had to navigate huge issues once their investors heard they had used couverture in production, albeit in the early stages of the business. Their high price tag was based on the ‘Bean to Bar’ premium market so the revelation was taken so seriously it put a halt to their global development plans and closed their shop in London.

Registering your business, Labelling: Free From, Vegan and Organic.

The Vegan Society website will offer a step by step guide on how to get your registered Vegan trademark. will guide you on all you need to register as organic. These official labels cost money, so until you get on your feet, vegan and organic certs can be obtained from some suppliers (if they are a strictly organic, vegan company). Check for up to date UK food labelling requirements and plenty of other support. 

Cheryl Brighty started her chocolate business Artistry in Cocoa in Suffolk 17 years ago.  She sold chocolate at local delis and at farmers markets before moving into her own shop. To keep revenue coming in she diversified into making ice cream, teaching workshops and giving masterclasses. Cheryl’s advice  “You will have to register your business with the local council to be able to legally trade, and you need to get your labelling correct especially as so many people have serious food allergies. Consult your food hygiene inspector when they visit – its always better to proactively consult them as they will have to inspect your premises even if its your home and give you that all important rating.  They are also source of vital advice and can often steer you towards other resources.”

Getting Started

Amy Levin is a trained chef and raw food consultant who has been teaching raw chocolate classes since 2009. If you want to know exactly how to make great chocolate Amy will steer you on getting the right kit to set you up. I’m sure some chocolate makers will tell you they started with a stainless steel bowl and a good spatula (LondonMaker wasn’t far off that starting block!) Thanks to a tip on one of Amy’s raw chocolate courses I discovered the wonders of a stone grinder and I invested in one immediately. (Approx £140 on Amazon) If you are making larger quantities of chocolate you will need a tempering machine. This could warrant a whole feature on its own but my advice is buy a recognised machine ideally from Europe or Uk so you can get it serviced easily. I bought a machine from USA and struggled to get a part for it when it failed. 

We asked Amy for words of advice when starting a chocolate business. “The first thing I tell students is to think about all the downfalls and difficulties. If they preserve despite that, they're ready to embark on that journey. If the prospect of challenges and difficulties puts them off, it's not for them. Chocolate is a labour of love. It has very specific needs. As long as you respect those needs, you'll be a chocolate making super star.”

There are lots of individuals and institutions out there who can offer support and advice. Young Foodies, Bread & Jam,  Allia Business centre, Cocoa Runners, The Food Hub (on FB) and if you do an Amy Levin Fundamentals of Raw Chocolate course you’ll automatically join her Facebook group of start up chocolate makers offering lots of free support to each other. Maybe you will be the next global chocolate success story - and goodness knows, in these uncertain times there is one thing the world needs - plenty of delicious chocolate!

Published Vegan Food & Living Magazine