the column of lasting insignificance: January 20, 2018
by John Wilcock

The Candy Store

In England, a candy store often means it is owned by an individual rather than a candy company, which means of course individually-made candies. One such store in my birthplace of Sheffield, is owned by Kate Shepherd, 33, who talked to me about her beginninings in the job that she loves.


First of all introduce yourself, who are you, where are you based and what do you do?

I'm Kate Shepherd, owner of Cocoa Wonderland, a chocolate shop, café, and traditional sweet shop nestled in the hills of Sheffield on the famous Ecclesall Road.

What is your work / creative background?

I have been working at Cocoa since I was 20, so apart from casual weekend jobs in between studying it has been my only 'proper' job. I come from a long line of entrepreneurs and I have always been fascinated by food. The thing that makes me happiest is making things for people that make them happy. As a child I didn't eat a lot of sweets but I remember being given lots by my granny who lived across the road. I used to save up all my treats in a secret cupboard in my bedroom then bundle them up into pretty little packages to give to friends. Kind of like what I do now!

The Cocoa Wonderland adventure started over 13 years ago when I was a student at Sheffield Hallam University. My best friend and I both took jobs behind the counter of our favourite little sweetie shop. We were very happy there until the day Rachell, the owner, told us she was selling up and asked us if we would buy it. Two 21 year olds with no money or experience and still with finals to revise for and dissertations to write? There was no way we could possibly buy a business... or could we....? We knew we couldn't imagine a life without Cocoa, neither could the customers we'd grown so fond of. After ignoring advice from others and being intimidated by lots of men in suits (Solicitors, Landlords, etc.), we followed our hearts and went ahead with the purchase. How could we resist being the owners of the most enchanted shop in the world?! Literally the day after our last exams, we walked into our very own chocolate shop. That summer Anne and I graduated (but were too busy to attend our graduations!) and set to work growing the business.

When did you start making chocolate, how did it come about and when did you decide to launch it as a business?

Since taking over the business, back in 2006, we have immersed ourselves in all things chocolate. We spent hours swotting up on every aspect of chocolate in our library of chocolate-themed books covering topics including the cultivation of cocoa, its history, the art of tasting, and played around with all sorts of recipes. We loved our little shop but we always felt there was something missing... our own range of chocolate.

The time came when reading about chocolate wasn't enough, we wanted to experience cocoa farming and chocolate production within real communities, real people, and in real life. So we began saving for a trip of a lifetime. One snowy January Anne and I embarked upon a great adventure and travelled to a tiny island of Grenada, West Indies, to visit the smallest, most politically correct chocolate factory on the planet. We stayed on a cocoa plantation, helped pick the pods, collect the beans and take them to the Island's very own chocolate factory where we saw the cocoa being processed into chocolate. This was an experience the I will treasure forever.

Seeing the chocolate making process in real life - not a just in a book - from tree to bar was magical and inspired us to make our own chocolate. So we booked ourselves in at the Chocolate Academy (what better education could there be than actual Chocolate School?), and learned how to become chocolate makers. After years of carefully considered chocolate concocting, I can't believe we have our very own in-store chocolate factory where we temper, blend, mix, and make the most luxurious of chocolate.

What do you love about working with chocolate?

Chocolate is extremely difficult to work with. It is messy and very fussy! I have experienced so many upsetting and frustrating days in the past where none of the chocolate I made set properly and 'bloomed'. But when things go right there's nothing more satisfying than the crack of beautifully tempered lustrous chocolate popping out of a chocolate mould. Working with chocolate is lots of fun. Concocting new flavours is my favourite part of the job, I literally feel like a kid in a sweetshop - the options are endless!

Do you have a shop / cafe / do events? If so tell us more!

A couple of years after we took over the shop we set to work decorating our unused upstairs and back room. We called them the 'Cocoa Lounge' and 'Cocoa Den' and began serving loose teas, homemade cakes, and of course hot chocolate as well as hosting evening events.

Cocoa then became not just a place to pop in and to buy a luxurious treat but a place to make friends, escape, relax and unwind at one of our Chocolate Lock-ins, Knit Club and Book Club (with a cup of our truly decadent thick Hot Chocolate!).

Tell us about your studio / kitchen / place where chocolates are made

A couple of years ago we took the plunge and opened a chocolate making studio at an old cutlery factory in town. Unfortunately that didn't work out and we had to move out.

But where were we going to make the chocolate then? Whilst on holiday I had a brainwave to transform our back room into a little chocolate factory this would mean all our customers would get the golden ticket and be able to see chocolate being made before their very eyes... I was so excited about my idea so as soon as I returned home my mum, dad, and I got our hard hats on set to work erecting stud walls and pulling up floorboards. It was super hard work (I even broke my wrist) but it was all worth it and the little chocolate factory opened in December 2016 just in time for Christmas.

Now our factory is quite exposed, anyone could walk in and see right in through the big windows but I really like that. It's like putting on a chocolate show for customers every day! When we were in our old studio tucked away making chocolate on our own I really missed the interaction with people. Opening the little chocolate factory has added another element to the cocoa wonderland experience and means that customers can see that products don't appear at the push of a button and can appreciate the work and skill involved in manufacturing by hand. I love giving out spoonfuls of melted chocolate for people to try whilst telling them all about what we're making that day.

How many people are in the team?

We are a very small team of 3 core staff members (including myself. We like to keep it in the family - I have lots of friends and family who love to help out and our shop manager Emily is the daughter of Rachell Cocoa's previous owner.

Talk us through an average day in the studio / the making process

First of all we make a pot of tea, I feel the best ideas are fuelled by tea! Mornings are usually quite quiet in the shop so we get our making done then. Emily bakes all the cakes and prepares for any evening events and I get the chocolate machine going. Whilst the chocolate is melting I pack the day before's chocolate that has been crystallising over night. We do a lot of multi tasking in Cocoa and spend most of the day juggling making things and serving. We are busy all the time but it is very important we stop for lunch and eat otherwise we get tired and tempted to eat all the chocolate!

Tell us about the different products you make

Our flavours are either based on the traditional sweets you can find on the shelves of Cocoa (e.g. rhubarb & custard, fruit salad) or capture feelings (e.g. Campfire, which is designed to summon up that feeling of sitting around a fire at night, toasting marshmallows). They kind of tell a story. We make bars of chocolate and chocolate domes (bitesize versions of the bars). Because Sheffield is a hilly city our chocolate dome shapes are meant to be like little hills.

Do you have a favourite product in the range?

My favourite depends much on my mood and is often weather related... so they're all my favourite at some point! My favourite today is the fruit salad.

What are your best sellers?

Most people come in for gifts or because they're celebrating something special so our 'party popper' chocolate(milk chocolate with popping candy edible glitter & confetti) has proved to be the most popular so far.

Do you like to bring out seasonal flavours and specials?

Yes at Christmas we brought out 3 special flavours 'nutcracker', 'mint jingle' and 'winter wonderland'.

Where do you find inspiration for new flavours? What is the process from idea - testing - final product?

Cocoa Wonderland' is a magical place where people go to escape the stresses of life and feel like a kid again so it's really important that our flavours unleash the fun and kid inside. So I always look to my friend's children for inspiration! I have a team of kids who are more than happy to help brainstorm ideas with me and offer their expert opinions on the flavours.

Do you use a lot of local suppliers for your ingredients? Is this important to you?

Unfortunately chocolate doesn't grow locally but our main chocolate distributor is Sheffield based. I also use 'Shepcote' for some of our flavours - my great-grandfather used them too decades ago! Our local printers print the wrappers. Our main supplier of truffles is based in the Peak District.

Your packaging is gorgeous too!! Tell us about the designers you work with?

We work with Camilla Westergaard, a good friend of ours and one of our favourite customers. Her family pops by Cocoa every Friday for after school treats in celebration of the end of the week.

Camilla has a real eye for beautiful things and making things beautiful. We were having an identity crisis a few years ago and felt we lacked brand identity, we had lots of eclectic designs and a huge variety of products (not just chocolate) and felt that everything was all a bit jumbled & made no sense to us. So Camilla came up with the 'Cocoa Wonderland pattern' (featured on some of our packaging) that united all our ideas and helped make sense of our brand. Since then she has spruced up our website too and designed a whole new range of chocolate bar wrappers to complement our brand.

Future plans for the brand / new products?

I'd love to expand the range to truffles and grow the wholesale side of the business selling to more shops around the country.

Kate can be reached via Cocoa Wonderland.

1/13/18



National Weed (1974, issue #3)
.

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