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Kate Johns – The Great Chocolate Communicator

Known to many food journalists through her highly-respected PR agency Nudge PR, which she founded in 2004, Kate Johns has been a leading player in creating Britain’s now vibrant quality chocolate scene. Much of Kate’s work has been behind-the-scenes, using her communication skills, considerable organisational flair and drive, as well as her impressive contacts book, to promote chocolate. A naturally modest person, Kate herself has rather stayed out of the chocolate limelight, but were keen to learn more about her achievements.

539630_408106685868007_200387493306595_1592190_1453577685_nA lover of good chocolate herself, Kate has been working with chocolate for over 10 years now. “I started off  doing PR for Pierre Marcolini when they opened in London years ago,” she explains. “I went over to Brussels to visit them and saw that the Belgians had completely different approach to chocolate from the British. They eat far more chocolate that we do and it’s something they buy frequently, sometimes every day. They treat chocolate shops like bakeries; Pierre would make chocolates every day and be sold out by the end of it.”

Prompted by her work with Marcolini, Kate founded Chocolate Week in 2004 to promote fine quality chocolate. “There weren’t a huge amount of ‘weeks’ then,” she observes, “and only four quality chocolate shops took part because that’s all there were: Artisan du Chocolat, Charbonnel, Rococo and Pierre Marcolini.”  Since it was established, both Chocolate Week and the UK’s quality chocolate scene have grown considerably. “Last year there were over 350 weeks taking place in the UK. It’s been voted the public’s favourite themed week,” she laughs. With characteristic shrewdness, Kate set up Chocolate Week partly “to educate people that chocolate shouldn’t be so seasonal. That’s why we had it in October. We didn’t want it around Christmas or Easter or any of the traditional seasonal buying times.”

As the scale of events demonstrates, Chocolate Week has really taken off. “People do love a hook,” she points out, “they do love to be part of something. A big part of it is people running their own events; they can upload their own events to the website. For years it was me doing that job, which used to take hours and hours,” she laughs, “but we’ve moved on. We pull it all together, do all the PR. There are always a couple of highlights, events like when Rococo did a chocolate wedding dress or William Curley launched his chocolate book.” Adding considerably to her workload, Kate also set up Chocolate Unwrapped, a consumer show, as part of Chocolate Week. “Everyone assumed there would be one, so we set it up three years ago. That’s a massive amount of work, as you have to get all the exhibitors on board. Last year we had 65 exhibitors and a quarter of those were international, which is fantastic. What I love is that some of those exhibitors don’t retail over here, but they come over because they enjoy the show and they can see there’s lots going on in the UK market.”

As one would expect, considerable forward planning is needed for both Chocolate Week and the consumer show. “It’s a nine months’ run-up to the event, especially for the show. We do have sponsors – Divine Chocolate and Hotel Chocolat have been massively supportive.” She’s seen for herself how the interest in Chocolate Week has grown. “We get a phenomenal amount of PR. We’ve found with that the publicity has increased for Chocolate Week. It used to be the broadsheets, it used to be the glossy magazines -  now a lot of the weeklies and mid-market ones pick up on it.”  This year, Kate is pleased to tell me, in place of Unwrapped, Chocolate Week is partnering with the highly respected Salon du Chocolat, to offer Salon du Chocolat  London. “Salon du Chocolat has an enormous pedigree in the chocolate industry, hosting  more than 23 shows around the world,” she explains. “The partnership will be of huge benefit to the UK chocolate industry.” Kate is visibly excited at the thought of this year’s Salon du Chocolat London event  - “We had 5,500 visitors last year and we’re aiming for 10,000 this year.”

Among the roll-call of chocolatiers whom Kate knows, is the award-winning Paul A. Young, one of Kate’s PR clients. “Chantal Coady introduced us years ago. I’ve been with Paul before he opened his first shop. He was creating a chocolate for her; that’s how he got into chocolate from being a pastry chef. I’ve been on the whole journey with him to where he is now.” Working with talented, creative people such as Paul A. Young or Pierre Marcolini is, for Kate, part of the pleasure of her job. As she talks about Paul, her face lights up: “Paul is an incredibly talented person who’s done a huge amount for the chocolate industry. He’s got an amazing understanding of flavours and how they can work together and really innovates, pushes the boundaries, which has been very good for the industry, getting it a lot of attention.”

Kate’s latest big chocolate project,  working together with chocolate expert Martin Christy from Seventy Percent, has been to launch the International Chocolate Awards, which were set up in 2012. “Having, together with the Academy of Chocolate, set up the Academy of Chocolate Awards a few years ago, Martin and I wanted to take chocolate awards at a more international level and we had partners who were interested in doing that as well,” she explains. “In the first year we had rounds in Canada, America, UK and Italy. This year, through Yael Rose, we added Israel to that, where there’s a growing chocolate scene.” She reels off a globetrotting itinerary for this year’s judging process: “We’ve done Italy, Israel and the European semi-final, now we have New York in June, Canada in September and the World Final in October.”

With both Kate and Martin fully aware of the importance that winning awards can make to chocolatiers – confirming established talent, creating a buzz about new chocolatiers – she highlights the “huge amount of work we put into the judging, especially, so that all the products are given the respect they deserve.” The judges are “a good mix of experts and people with good palates and we have a fantastic International Grand Jury who travel around”. All judges are briefed beforehand with thorough judging notes and, when judging, use a carefully constructed scoring sheet. Kate has enormous respect for her colleague Martin Christy, co-founder of the International Chocolate Awards. “He’s very well-known internationally as a leading expert on chocolate and is hugely respected.” She feels that holding the international dimension to the judging stages is a very important part of these awards. “Judging in different countries means that we get a lot of people entering the Awards because of that. Another reason we like to go to the other countries is that you get judges from different countries, so you’re selecting the palates of that country, rather than London.”

The aim of the International Chocolate Awards is to promote fine chocolate on a global stage. “The finest chocolates in the world are being entered into the competition and it is a really tough competition; we only award one gold in each category. Entry is about ingredients – that sets the barrier.” What does winning an International Chocolate Award mean?“Great marketing,” replies Kate promptly, “and confirmation for the chocolate maker that they’re creating a fantastic product. Personally it’s good for them but also good for their product.”

Creating awareness of the work and skill that goes into fine chocolate is a way, Kate feels, of increasing our respect for the chocolate makers and, importantly, the cocoa farmers. “There’s a serious side to getting people to pay more for their chocolate so that the cocoa farmers are paid more. We’re involved in Direct Cacao which aims to connect farmers with chocolate makers.” The International Chocolate Awards will play its part in spreading the chocolate message. “Our short-term aim is have a round in a growing country, because raising the profile of growing countries is really important to us. That’s our next step, as well as growing the Awards into other countries. I think more people will be making chocolate in country of origin.” Given Kate’s track record for creating successful events – Chocolate Week, Chocolate Unwrapped – it will be fascinating to see how the International Chocolate Awards develop. An enormous amount of sheer hard work goes into all of these events, something which Kate laughs off when the subject is raised. One senses that here is a woman with long-term vision, the capacity to see that potential in both ideas and in people. “I’m a big believer in doing things properly,” she says simply. “if you’re going to start something, do it well.”




1 Comment

  • Really daft question but do you know where the Pierre Marcolini outlet is in London? We discovered the boutique in Brussels (worth visiting for the hot chocolate alone) but discovering there may well be a UK branch has made my day :-)

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