Business auteur Anne Weyns demonstrates that being a luxury chocolatier in these times means putting in some hard labour in a Columbian cocoa farm one day and taking phone orders from Sir Elton John the next.
Despite having worked as a business analyst for a decade, or maybe because of this, Anne Weyns doesn’t go down the traditional market research/competitor study/data analysis route when it comes to creating new chocolate recipes for Artisan du Chocolat. She sits glazing out of her office window and day dreams as exotic flavour combinations coalesce inside her head. It’s a skill some chefs have to train for years to perfect it; for others like Weyns and her friend Jo Malone (yes, that Jo Malone who incidentally created the chocolate perfumes that are used in all Artisan du Chocolat stores) it’s innate and so natural that it’s impossible to explain the process. A stroll through Souq Waqif, she says, inspired her to tryout a white chocolate and black pepper cashew combination.
Before the days of Artisan du Chocolat, engineer-turned-business consultant Weyns would come home after 12-14 hours at McKinsey and help her then-life partner/chef in the kitchen in piecing together the beginnings of their business. Even then, before she knew that she was going to have to commit full time to chocolate, she took her “training” very seriously. “We all have reasonable choices in life, in principle,” she says. “So my philosophy is that if I was going to spend my time learning to make chocolates, I’d rather do it to my absolute best level. I am quite obsessive like that.” When they decided to open their first store in 2002, she thought (somewhat naively, she adds) that she’d take a year or so off to get the ball rolling and then get back to work. “When you are a consultant, you advise businesses at high strategic level and don’t often see the nitty gritty.” So armed with her to-do list for her new business, which could fit a single side sheet of paper, she jumped in head-first; and never went back to her work at McKinsey.
“Weyns’ team helps her bring her creations to life, ironing out the technical aspects of how to incorporate certain flavours into chocolate or streamline mass production.”
And now, 15 years later, Artisan du Chocolat has opened its first international outlet in Qatar at the Doha Festival City (with another to open in Saudi Arabia soon). Even though the region was a natural next step for expansion beyond the UK, according to Weyns, she put off the decision for long. Not being the in same time zone meant she couldn’t obsessively keep track of the business minutea, as she is prone to do. “It was like giving away my baby,” she says. But she eventually caved in. “We know we have a strong client base in the Middle East because a lot of our London clients are from this region and so know the products resonate well with the customers here,” she says. Also, in line with her philosophy that the products should speak for themselves, she spends very less energy and resources on marketing; which means much like her customers, her partners too are those who come to her because they know the brand from word-of-mouth.
“Our Saudi partner is someone who has been a customer for many years at our Chelsea store. Neebal Ali bin Ali visited our store in London, loved it and asked his team to get in get in touch with us. Apart from that, the region also made a lot of sense for us. Our factory in Kent is a Halal-certified site and our range of products that are also suitable for the consumers here. We are a good fit. These moves are a lot about the right time, right place and the right partner,” she says. Artisan du Chocolat has brought to Doha most of their core range of products. Pearls, which are popular favourites back home, are also best-sellers here not least because of their visual appeal. Weyns wants to create more Middle East-inspired recipes like that incorporate local favourites like pine nuts, pomegranates, smoked almonds, pecan and caramel.
There are still a couple of exciting products that are yet to make their way across to Doha. “Functional Chocolates” is one of them. “It’s one of my side projects,” Weyns says, lamenting that she has so many of these ideas but no time to execute them. This range has two line for beauty and well-being that incorporate essential vitamins and nutrients into the mix. “I wanted to do this because I am one of those people who every new year resolves to be healthier and stock up on vitamin supplements which end up behind the drawer within a few weeks. No one comes home and says, ‘I am really looking forward to that pill.'” So she worked for 18 months with supplement developers to come up with a new delivery mechanism that will be more palatable than a pill. “If you like dark chocolate, these are a nice way to have you essential supplements. A lot of people love chocolates. These are chocolates that love you back,” she says.
The chocolate factory
Essentially, her organisation is very flat. It’s Weyns, a few heads of function like production manager, accountant, etc. and the people who man the 20,000 square feet factory at kent which hugely varies from 30-60 depending on the season. During peak seasons like before Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day, they often have people working in two shifts. Packaging, she says, is the most time-consuming operation and the only thing she would let temporary staff be involved in. “We are lucky to be situated near the Gurkha barracks because we can recruit among the wives and daughters of the soldiers who are staying there. Most of our temp staff are Nepali who have been with us for many years. They are wonderful people,” she says, “Dexterous and precise and they enjoy it the work.”
Getting the right staff takes a while, she says, because most of them have seen the movie Chocolat and have a romantic notion of chocolate making. But it’s not like that at all; at the end of the day it’s food production and is very controlled. “So if we decide to make Pistashio Pearls today, they will have to do it for eight hours. But they can’t lose focus because in this environment things can wrong really fast either with the food or the machines. So we need people with a specific kind of mentality – someone who is happy with a job that has element of repetition, but can put all their attention on what they are doing,” she says.
Also production at this scale requires a degree of automation. Making dome-shaped truffles was all alright when they were making them in a tiny kitchen with a single fridge and a marble table. “When you make them my hand, you make the soft mousse-like mix, whip it, put it in a vacuum bag and pipe it by hand. The first few won’t look good because it takes a while to get the feel for it, then you have good results for two hours and then back to misshapen truffles because after that your wrists start to hurt. Machines are more consistent and there is no added-value for the customer in someone making it by hand.
“What matters to them is the quality of the ingredients and technical competence that goes into the recipes. We don’t automate for cost savings, but for consistency and quality improvement. We still make the ganache by hand but have replaced hand-dipping with the chocolate curtain,” she explains.
She quotes one of her first clients, Gordan Ramsey, who is known to have said that almost anyone can create a Michelin-star meal once with enough practice. The trick is to do it every single time. “It’s the same here. We are not a biotech company, there is no secret to our product. The challenge is to be consistently good while producing large volumes. It’s all in the management,” she says.
The behind-the-scenes chocolotier
“Artisan du Chocolat relies purely on word-of-mouth advertising. In fact, some of her more prolific customers were invited to model for the packaging on their new range of chocolate bars.”
Wayns can’t, on the top of her head, tell how much chocolate is being produced in her factory, because Artisan du Chocolat produces a lot of chocolates for other brands like Harrods and restaurants run by celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsey and Heston Blumenthal. This is not necessarily public knowledge; in fact, Artisan du Chocolat supplies a version of their famous salted caramel chocolates to Parisian hot chocolate-haunt Angelina. Waynes enjoys sharing this piece of tit-bit; it’s surreal that the 200-year-old business with a strong Parisian heritage gets their chocolates from a 15-year-old British company.
This part of the operations is almost as old as the business itself. When they started supplying chocolates for Gordan Ramsey, he wasn’t yet quite the celebrity he was today. “He had just left Aubergine and his new restaurant in Chelsea was barely a couple of months old. It hadn’t yet heard its Michelin rating. “When we approached him, we didn’t think we’d end up supplying him,” remembers Weyns. “We knew of him because we knew his fiery personality and we wanted an honest view of the quality of our chocolates. At that time in the UK, there were a couple of chocolate shops who were importing but not manufacturing. They products were either very sweet, milk chocolates or old English desserts. We were making different flavours and using dark chocolates and a lot of people had told us that this wouldn’t work in UK like it would in mainland Europe. So we were looking for something who would tell us yay or nay. But we started supplying him two weeks after our first meeting.”
It was for Ramsey that Artisan du Chocolat invented their now famous salted caramel chocolates. “Our brief for Claridge’s from Gordon was this – I have a round silver bowl of this size; so I wanted something round that can endure the ravages of a busy restaurant,” she laughs. “So we started working with caramel dark shell with liquid caramel inside but it was too sweet. In Brittany they used salted butter with caramel so we tried that. It was still too sweet so we ended up adding salt directly. I reckon it’s the first time real salted caramel was made. And then it went everywhere from there. Now it’s very popular.”
Slowly, through word-of-mouth, this side of the business grew. “Chefs move around. So some of his younger chefs went on to work at other restaurants and bit by bit, we had new owners and chefs calling us. Kitchens at restaurants are tiny because they want to maximize the real estate available for the front end. And making chocolates is a very specialist job – you need a large place with no humidity or other smells,” she says. Soon Heston Blumenthal was on the client roster.
“Heston’s style is completely different from Gordon’s. He is much more experimental; so we did chocolates with unusual flavours like fresh cut grass, leather and wood. We work closely with the chefs, because the chocolates have to complement their menu and should also be cost-efficient – it’s a discussion.” Their client list continued to evolve organically to include British Airways. “We supplied chocolates for the last Concorde,” she remembers. “It was a very British range with flavours like Earl Grey, rose and fresh mint.”
Ensuring quality at the source
“Weyns designs the packaging which incorporates both her creative and obsessive compulsive side. She hated to see wonky ribbons on the chocolate boxes and solved it at the design stage by printing ribbon patterns on the box.”
Most cocoa production happens in the narrow belt five degrees to either side of the equator, and usually by small farmers. They sell these to a cooperative who sell to a national account, who sell them on to stock market and the international market. They are bought by traders and sold to big chocolate manufacturing companies, who make the basic chocolate ingredients and sell them on to chocolatiers. “Everyone along this way-too-long a chain makes money except the farmers,” Weyns explains.
“With final price being finite, they are the ones who end up suffering the most. And the people who make chocolate know nothing about cocoa growing and those who grow the cocoa often don’t know where their product ends up. I was in Trinidad which is known for their very old cocoa trees and I couldn’t find chocolate anywhere apart from imported Kit Kats. There is such a big divide and it has always been strange to me. Because if I get bad beans or cocoa liquor, there is nothing I can do with it. It’s my most important ingredient and I need to understand where it comes from and want kind of agricultural practices go into it. When a farmer is paid the bare minimum for his product, there is no incentive to grow it better. They take shortcuts or completely stop if it isn’t viable enough. A lot of farms in Trinidad are abandoned because there is not enough money in it. So the knowledge of how to manage plantations is also dying. And for the young people, this is not a very enticing career choice,” she says.
That’s why she decided they were better off buying from people closer to the source. These are not necessarily fair trade registered but cooperatives that have good social policies. “We were lucky to come across such a company in Columbia.” Columbia is strange animal in the middle of South America, she says. Columbian families drink hot chocolate every morning. They make it differently across the region. “Which sometimes can lead to divorce,” she laughs but it’s a staple. So they have always used the beans they produce and so have developed an amazing knowledge. While they started exporting recently, they make cocoa liquor locally. Weyns visited one of these farms and worked on their lands for a few weeks. She came to realise that fair trade farmers aren’t that much better off; but if the farmers are taught to farm better, they can increase their output by 4-5 factors in three years.
“Cocoa is a very low yield tree. The tiny white flowers are pollinated by mosquitoes. Only 1 in 1500 flowers yield a pod and 50% of pods are lost to bacteria or monkeys and birds who love to snack on it. So effectively it’s only 1 in 3,000 flowers that will give you pod each of which contains 50-60 beans. So the yield is very poor. That’s why in Africa, they use trees that are more robust but produce low quality, commodity cocoa. But if you tell farmers about the different types of trees, give them seedlings, teach them to prune them to the right size that makes it easy to spot and eliminate rot, teach them to intercrop etc, you can make it more sustainable for them. Cocoa farming is hard work,” she says, remembering her time pollinating flowers by hand in the sweltering heat among the creepy crawlies. “But they are very proud of their job and they deserve to have a better life.”