Claire Burnet is a woman with a mission. Her mission is to bring high quality, fresh chocolates to the UK. Many said it couldn’t be done; most chocolatiers are looking for ways to increase the shelf life of their products, but Chococo has stayed true to their values and consistently brought delicious, high-quality chocolates to their customers and their customer’s friends for 6 years. Chococo is a fantastic example of how you don’t need to reduce your prices to stay ahead of the game in the current climate. So far, they are not experiencing any reduction in production as they lead into their busiest time of year. So what is her secret? This interview with share with you some insights and experiences that Claire has had along the way and we close with her top 5 tips for succeeding in business.
Somewhat counter-intuitively the chocolate industry is quite male dominated (women may love to eat it, but don’t necessarily want to make it). The starting point that most chocolatiers come from is a culinary one, from a chef or restaurant background, and in the same way that most celebrity chefs are men, most successful chocolatiers are men. There are a few lone women leading the way in chocolate in the UK, of which Claire is one.
In the beginning
Claire founded Chococo in December 2002 with her husband Andy. The decision to create Chococo was born both from a passion for great chocolate and a belief that she could do it better alongside a strong desire to get out of the London rat race and move the country and raise a family.
Her qualifications for creating this fantastic business were growing up in a family who adored home-made chocolates and used to buy it regularly while her parents lived in Brussels. Growing up she learned to make chocolates for Christmas in her mothers kitchen and learned the foundations of chocolate making which she still uses in her business today. Prior to starting Chococo Claire worked as a professional marketeer having with Shell, Procter & Gamble, Disney Channel and then as a marketing freelancer for ?Whatif! One Christmas she received some fine chocolates, which she felt was less than fine and thought to herself “I can do better than that”.
She started out by doing some research in London on the market for fresh chocolates and felt there was a gap for a producer that could distribute fresh chocolates all across the UK. Most chocolates are created to be on the shelf for up to a year, lots of ingredients are added to increase the shelf life, so she decided to turn the paradigm on its head and create a business where the chocolates are so fresh that they need to be eaten within 2 weeks. They have family in Dorset, so chose to set up their business there. Claire decided early on that they wanted to source most of their ingredients locally and has developed a great relationship with local suppliers in their community.
The journey has not always been an easy one, particularly as they had a young child at home. Claire and Andy decided early on that he would have to take on a significant role in caring for their daughter; this allowed Claire to spend her time developing the products and managing the business. For their first Christmas they went through a massive learning curve, totally underestimating how long everything would take. They started out on December 5 by opening their shop for 3 days per week. Demand far outstripped supply and 12 days later Claire was packing 175 chocolate boxes until 4 am, having called on her sister to come down from London to help them ship out their orders for Christmas. Today, Chococo can make and pack hundreds of boxes of chocolates a day. From those humble beginnings Chococo has gone from strength to strength, having won 21 awards and now have a team of 14 staff with up to 35 people during their high seasons.
According to Claire, the biggest challenges that they faced were under-resourcing and lack of experience. These things did not stop her though, they just fuelled her desire to succeed. Claire and Andy chose not to seek out any external funding, rather deciding to grow the business organically
Right from the beginning Claire had an obsession with quality. This can be seen not only in the quality of the chocolates, but also in the quality of the packaging, the branding and the quality of the customer experience.
Secrets of success
Chococo pride themselves on consistently providing a premium product. Claire states that as a premium brand, quality is integral to everything they do and in all stages of the process. She refuses to compromise on this and lives and breathes this ethos. Their creations reflects the excitement and joy that Claire and her customers get from eating truly fresh chocolates (because chocolates should always be joyful!)
The whole package: The packing and packaging reflect the quality of the product inside. Claire spends hours training her staff on how to present the product well and the importance of consistently delivering at every point that the customer touches the business (they even have a packing bible!). Everything needs to reflect that premium quality of the product. The customer experience begins when they receive the brightly coloured boxed and colourful bags. Each item is carefully placed to make sure none of the chocolates get damaged or crinkled. This comes from the belief that eating chocolate should tap into all of the 5 senses and this begins from the moment that the customer receives the package.
The customer experience: The customer experience doesn’t stop there, if she is in the office, Claire will often be the one who answers the phone at Chococo. This kind of personal contact with the owner is hard to beat.
Creativity: Chococo are innovators in their field. Claire puts this down to the fact that she is not formally trained, I would also put it down to the fact that she is a woman who knows and loves chocolates. They are brave with some of their choices and want their customers to feast with their eyes as well as their palettes. They offer truffles rolled in crushed raspberry pieces and another bright green truffle which is rolled in cardemon and pistachio. Chococo create the WOW in everything that they do.
Marketing & PR: There is no doubt that this is a key part of Claire’s success. When they first launched their business they sent out a mailing to everyone they knew. This was what resulted in the initial influx or orders from which their business started and they have just gone from strength to strength from there.
Advice for new businesses
- Read the E-myth Revisited by Michael Gerber (this is one of our favourite books as well for any business at any stage in their development).
- If you are a mother as well as a business owner; get the support of your partner, otherwise you will find it very difficult.
- Have a good financial and strategic mentor; it can really help to talk things through with someone impartial
- Start with the process in mind; everyone who is running the business is running the system
Going into the current economy.
Chococo are still expanding and going strong and not yet feeling the effects of the current economic climate. Claire is finding that customers want reassurance and having someone to talk to on the end of the phone makes a big difference. Their online business is going very well and they are still able to make their products to order.
Claires’ tips for dealing with the current climate
- Be brave
- Watch your costs
- Don’t compromise
- Keep investing – marketing / PR
- Still reassure consumer – keep talking to people
- Keep your presence out there
- Innovate or die – keep it fresh and keep it relevant
- Be creative on cutting costs – but don’t compromise on your offering
- Hard work & finesse
Everything Claire tells you and what you glean about her points to her sheer hard work smart intelligent and marketing and strong ethical drive and enormous regard to the local communities she services. Not easy. Not only has she had to take the plunge, re-locate, training in something entirely new but she has also had to juggle her own childcare for two young children, budding enfant chocolatiers , Lily 7 and Max 3, as well as showing sensitivity to the needs of Chococo’s own staff.