Drinking, dining & disruption
In days gone by, the Food & Drink sector was fairly static. The shelves were filled with heritage brands, many going back decades, and things changed very little in terms of products, methods of manufacture and so on. Not anymore. We have grown increasingly used to seeing a constant stream of new brands, new technologies and new kinds of food and drink – all of which make this a really exciting sector for consumers, companies and IP attorneys alike.
But these aren’t the only changes. It’s no longer enough to have a product which looks and tastes good. These days, social responsibility and sustainability are key to the success of a brand – and authenticity is an absolute must.
So how do disrupters in the Food & Drink sector see things themselves and what do they think the future holds? We decided to speak to some of the sector’s most innovative and passionate founders to find out.
Our third revolutionary
We all love chocolate. Even (or especially) the Dragons. So it was no surprise to see Peter Jones and Steven Bartlett leap to invest in fresh chocolate brand Russell & Atwell. But how are co-founders Giles Atwell and Steve Russell using their 35+ years of experience working with world-famous chocolate brands to take on the big boys and disrupt the industry? What are the challenges and opportunities of launching a new brand during the pandemic – and how does wearing a woolly jumper make your chocolate more sustainable? We caught up with Giles to find out.
Q. If anyone knows the chocolate industry inside out, it’s you and Steve! But what made you finally decide to set up your own business selling fresh chocolate to the masses – and why do you think no one had done it before?
In short, why now and why fresh?
On ‘why now’ - I vividly remember my Dad sitting me down when I was about 9 and telling me that our family chocolate business was going to be sold (he continued working in the enlarged business for about a decade) and thinking I would start my own chocolate business at some point – it took me nearly 40 years to get up the courage to do so, but the ambition was there since childhood! For Steve, as a chocolate scientist, I know that he had long wanted to create his own chocolate recipes ‘without compromise’, having spent years working on big brands for big businesses.
On ‘why fresh’ – with our combined 35+ years of experience working in chocolate, we knew we had to find a powerful, but easy-to-understand point of difference. We knew also that the number 1 driver in chocolate purchasing is taste – and we knew that nothing tastes as good as fresh, from pasta to orange juice to chocolate puddings – so why not bring this to chocolate?!
Q. What have been the biggest challenges so far and what (if anything!) would you do differently if you did it all again?
Steve and I often discuss that we know how to run a big chocolate business, but not a small one. We’ve learnt like every startup that while we are small, everything needs to be done by the two of us – and this was compounded by launching in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve learnt that every day we make decisions, some right and some wrong, most with immediate implications – but to keep moving forward at all costs.
I don’t really believe in regrets – I’m sure there are a myriad of things we could have done differently and maybe better, but we’re pretty happy with where we are today.
Q. Sustainability is a real buzzword right now. How important is it to your business and how much do you think it matters to your customers?
Sustainability is really a table-stake for any new business, especially in the consumer space.
It's difficult to know where to start when talking about the environment and the responsibility that we all have to look after it without sounding preachy or somehow as if we are trying to 'greenwash' our business. But it’s important to note that neither Steve nor I are environmental experts. We're people with loads of experience in chocolate who want to make a ridiculously tasty product, as sustainably as we can. We constantly try to do the right thing from a sustainable perspective, which for us involves making a myriad of little choices on a day-to-day basis. We know that not everyone will agree with these choices and we know we can always do more/better.
So when it comes to ingredients, we source locally and sustainably wherever we can e.g. British organic cream (instead of palm oil which has huge sustainability issues) and wildflower honey. We also buy the majority of our cocoa from a family business in Columbia called Luker who work directly with over 50 cocoa farmer cooperatives to train, educate and promote sustainable and profitable cocoa models that increase their income and quality of life. In 2011 they started to plant cocoa forests in regions of Colombia heavily impacted by armed conflict.
On packaging, we try to minimise the use of plastic and maximise the use of recycled and recyclable materials.
Good environmental practice for us is also good business practice, especially with current energy prices, so our cool-room has extra-thick walls to reduce energy consumption and we do simple things like wearing a thick jumper vs turning the heating up in our operations centre.
This keeps the chocolates extra-fresh and reduces our heating bills too!
Q. How do you see the chocolate and confectionery market changing over the next 5 years?
I think the existing big trends will continue:
More natural ingredients, less processing
‘Worth the calories’ – consumers still seeking indulgence, but happy to have a little less for better quality
Protein and more functional benefits
‘Better business creds’ in everything from sustainability of ingredients and packaging to how you do business more holistically
Beyond consumer trends is the new/ delayed HFSS legislation (high fat, sugar or salt) that will impact instore location and promotions for a number of categories, including chocolate
Where it gets more interesting is how well these trends hold up in the new volatile and high-inflationary environment. Chocolate tends to be recession-resistant, but it’s certainly not recession-proof and as household and business budgets get squeezed, compromises will need to be made. Only time will tell as to what those compromises look like.
Q. And lastly, what were the most fun and unexpected parts of your time on Dragons Den?
We were pleasantly surprised by just much we actually enjoyed the filming for DD. Once we’d made it through the various hurdles, we knew we needed to relax and enjoy the last bit (the filming) and, above all ensure it made good TV viewing. As we waited for filming to start, the sheer number of touch-ups/powder applications to the top of Steve’s head to stop it from shining under TV lights became a running joke that helped to relax us both.
The most unexpected part was the overwhelmingly positive reaction to our little business once we had aired. We had taken advice from several brands who’d been on The Den, but none were even close to the number of orders made. We sold two years’ worth of chocolate in two hours and unsurprisingly struggled to deal with the demand that was created.
So, after 4 days of explosive sales, we had to close our website for nearly 3 months while we made, packed and sent out all the unfulfilled orders. We were grateful first for the orders, secondly, for the team of consumer responders, we rapidly had to recruit to deal with questions and thirdly for the support and patience shown by the majority of our new customers.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride since March, but we are finally getting ‘back to (our new) normal’ and planning the next big steps for our business – watch this space!
So there you have it: fabulous tasting fresh chocolate with sustainability at its core. If only we could make the packets last as long as the 3 days these artisanal beauties take to make…maybe we’ll just have to order more in bulk (we’re all about being more sustainable and reducing our carbon emissions for deliveries here at Kilburn & Strode!)
If you would like to carry on the discussion, please contact Rowena Tolley.