When looking at chocolates, we take in the presentation, the chocolatier's name and then our thoughts turns quickly to the little shapes, their flavour and the promise of delights to come. At that stage, very few people think about the origin of cocoa and definitely none of us consider the distribution.
But how do the ingredients get to the chocolate factory? Chocolatier.co.uk spoke with Tony Mycock, co-founder with wife Kath of HB Ingredients, the UK's largest independent chocolate distributor with a turnover in excess of £10 million and almost 40 employees.
What led you to start HB Ingredients?
I have been very fortunate in that I have always worked in the food ingredient industry, selling glucose, native and modified starches, chocolate and sugar. In the mid '80s, I became the UK agent for Callebaut. At the time Callebaut was an important, but Benelux-focussed, chocolate producer with sales agents based in most other important European countries.
Callebaut sales were very modest in the UK at that time and mainly due to a very small handful of chocolatiers that were beginning to emerge and flourish. However, it was a great time to be selling chocolate couverture and dealing with small and start up companies as they developed and grew. Callebaut chocolate couverture was a huge step up for British tastes and became the mother's milk for the new generation of chocolatiers and high-end bakers and patissiers in the UK.
What happened after the takeover of Callebaut?
After another 4 years heading up the UK sales, I moved to Tate & Lyle. Working in a blue chip organisation was very different, I sorely missed the entrepreneurial days developing and growing a business alongside many and varied customers - all of us in the same boat!
Business, like most things, runs in cycles and during the mid-to-late nineties the medium and large food manufacturers tended to be inward-looking, focussing on IT and business systems and reducing headcount etc and inevitably the first thing that happens then is that customer service levels drop. This followed the recession in the early '90s and all recessions spawn new start-up businesses, and they always have a hard time sourcing the right ingredients at fair pricing.
I assume 15 years ago, there wasn't many business models for independent chocolate distributors?
Apparently Belgians are born 'with a stone in their stomachs', which means they all want to eventually buy land and build their own houses, and I suppose my entrepreneurial equivalent was eating away at me. So I saw the opportunity to set up HB Ingredients and I left Tate & Lyle to start working from home, sourcing and supplying small & medium sized artisanal producers with the sweet side of food ingredients.
The rest is history: the expansion in 2002, a new warehouse facility and a business partner, Carl Martin. These days HB Ingredients employs 39 people covering the whole of the UK, based in a 20,000 sq ft premises in Lewes. We now stock over 1400 SKUs and still find it hard to say no to a customer looking for something unusual!
Your company supplies bakers, wholesalers, artisans. What is the place of chocolatiers?
Chocolatiers have always been, and always will be, a hugely important customer sector for us - we are the largest independent supplier of chocolate couverture in the UK. Chocolate and Cocoa products account for around 60% of our sales, and we supply chocolatiers throughout the UK.
Since expanding and taking on warehouse premises, we were expanded the range of ingredients on offer, and due to the fact that we find it hard to say no, we have became almost a one stop ingredient shop for Chocolatiers. We have a web shop and supply around 20,000 parcels a year to small serious and hobby customers throughout the UK and Europe as well as over 5000 mixed & full pallet consignments.
In the past 30 years the industry has changed profoundly, can you talk to us about the evolution?
Since the mid eighties, chocolatiers have come and gone - making great chocolates does not mean that you are necessarily good at running your business, so sadly many creative companies have fallen by the wayside. However, over the years, many of the little acorns have grown into mighty oaks, and we are very proud to have been, and still be, associated with many of them.
Chocolatiers have a much larger range of chocolate and ingredient options these days, and these allow them to produce products that differentiate them from the mainstream boxed producers as well as between themselves. Also there are many more options in terms of routes to market and packaging types and formats, so with a combination of creativity and business nous, there is plenty of scope for chocolatiers operating in the middle and top end of the market.
It is important to know and understand your market. The top-end London chocolatiers sell at prices most of us cannot believe - they deservedly get huge publicity for their creativity, but it must be remembered that this is a very small part of the overall artisanal market.
What is the future for the industry?
The future is very bright - despite the economic climate.
And what about the products and the consumers' taste?
Unfortunately the 'Belgian Chocolate' quality cache has been eroded over the years, with many inferior Belgian-made retail products in the market, however the vast majority of chocolatiers still use Belgian couverture.
Like a lot of things, there is still a load of nonsense talked about chocolate and chocolates. Many 'experts' nowadays turn their noses up at Belgian or chocolate produced by any of the larger couverture manufacturers.
Unfairly, some deride most artisan chocolatiers using mainstream couverture, which is unfortunately just a snobbish viewpoint and unrelated to the taste, functionality and consistency of the chocolate in question. Tellingly, these purists seem to forget that also the most important skill the chocolatier has is to produce a visually exciting and tempting end product, whilst carefully balancing the choice of chocolate with the subtlety of the centre.
The back story and product description is very important and helps drive the consumer to make a buying decision but also importantly, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The appearance, aroma, flavour and mouth feel of the finished product is the real key - and fortunately there is a huge choice of producers and products out there in the market - because taste is subjective and all of us have different views and opinions about what we eat.
It is always the chocolatiers choice to decide which particular chocolate they select and this wide choice allows them to continuously explore and develop new and exciting products and target specific niches in the market.
Is Fairtrade an important unique selling point (USP)?
I have very specific views on Fairtrade since the day that Fairtrade International (FLO) allowed the use of mass balance.
The aims of the Fairtrade movement are laudable, however it is vital that product labelling cannot be compromised, and in the case of mass balance, I believe the consumer is being misled. There is enough "shock, horror" about the scandal of horsemeat in burgers, but personally I feel that allowing mass balance compromises the bond of trust between the manufacturer and the consumer in an equally unacceptable way.
The mass balance system was introduced to allow companies that claim to be unable to segregate and separate Fairtrade products through their supply and manufacturing chain, to buy a quantity of Fairtrade products, like sugar or cocoa, and use this in production. They can then label an equivalent quantity of finished products with the Fairtrade logo, although the end retail product may not contain 100% Fairtrade cocoa or sugar - in fact, the retail product may have none at all!
The thin end of this particular wedge is that small chocolatiers, who championed Fairtrade from the outset, have now had the rug pulled from under them. Fortunately organic beans do have to be segregated and the supply chain is sound and auditable from farm to consumer, which does beg the obvious question as to why FLO waived the rules for the multinationals. Of course origin beans are also segregated as a matter of course!
So, and as with many foods, provenance is becoming more important than being able to use the Fairtrade logo on their products. We see this with chocolate and companies like Luker in Colombia and The Grenada Chocolate Co, who have developed bean-to-couverture models that involve massive investment in programmes to train and develop farms and farmers and by producing actually in the country where the beans are grown, ensure that the value-added steps - processing beans and producing finished couverture - benefit more than just the farmer and his family. Much, much fairer than Fairtrade!
I expect to see more bean-to-chocolate companies starting in cocoa-growing countries in the coming years. Also origin bean producers will really start to take hold in Europe as they have in North America. It is a logical step for artisanal chocolatiers to start actually processing and producing some of their chocolate from beans. We intend to be at the forefront of this trend and can supply beans from many origins and there is now small scale chocolate production equipment available which we can help with.
Many thanks to HB Ingredients' Tony Mycock.