We spend a little time with Louis Barnett, chocolatier extraordinaire, terrifyingly young person and the guy behind the…straightforwardly named Louis Barnett Chocolates.
Starting out at the tender age of 12, with just a loan from his grandparents towards his first chocolate machine and the help of his Mum and Dad to get him going, Louis has built a nationally recognised business that now has distribution with the likes of Waitrose and Selfridges. He’s also a recipient of the Lord Carter Memorial Award for outstanding contribution to the food industry at the house of Lords – amongst a fair few other accolades.
And did we mention he makes damn good chocolate?
Louis is also the archetypical entrepreneurial success story – diagnosed late with dyspraxia and dyslexia, conventional education wasn’t working out for him – so he dropped out and decided to do his own thing.
We ask him about why he hates palm oil, the business of keeping eagle owls and what it takes to get past the naysayers…
Full name: Louis P Barnett
Title: CEO & MD
Fun fact: I am a grade 3 in fencing (sword)
Jack: What’s a ‘day in the life’ of Louis Barnett like? Could you give an insight into the chocolate business?
Louis: There is no normal working day for me. I can be developing new products and packaging for seasonal products, working on new chocolates or in meetings with customers, travelling to London several times a week, speaking at events, delivering corporate speeches up and down the country or boarding a plane. This constant change in my working day certainly keeps me on my feet.
As an officially licensed chocolatier how exactly did you go about getting a license and what does it allow you to do?
There is no such thing as a license to make chocolate. I am however a World Chocolate Ambassador which is very prestigious within my industry. This is something that is by invite only.
You’ve come so far, so young. Has your age affected your business trajectory?
Not at all, my age is something I never think about. In the early days when I started out I did get some odd looks but it comes down to knowing your subject/industry very well. The business world has changed dramatically so being young is very much an advantage.
What makes a good chocolate product and what makes a bad chocolate product?
As our strap line says “It’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out”. We believe in using only the best quality ingredients, never allow palm oil in our products, and only use natural flavours. Most of the chocolate that consumers buy every day is very low in cocoa with vegetable oil added and this is certainly not there to enhance taste! You wouldn’t add water to the finest champagne, would you?!
Did you always know that the food industry was where you were going to make your mark?
No, not when I was young. My first love was animals and conservation but I have always loved cooking and using the best ingredients, so what started out as a hobby ended up turning into a business.
You’ve got to where you are, completely without the need for a formal education. If you’d have stayed in school, how do you think that would have affected your success in business? What’s your opinion on formal education in relation to entrepreneurship?
The reason I was taken out of main stream education was because the system was failing me. I had no support and it was not until I turned 11 that I was diagnosed with Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and other learning difficulties. I also had a high IQ, which was something I was made to feel ashamed of. If I had stayed in school I wouldn’t have gone in to business.
I do believe education plays a vital role in your pursuit of a career, however I am not sure it is possible to teach entrepreneurship. Research has shown you are more likely to become an entrepreneur if you have learning disabilities (for me they are more of an ability). Some of the most wealthy and successful people were school drop outs! [Ed: agreed!]
How does recipe development work? Do you hold taste tests? How long does development take?
We are constantly developing new products and new tastes. It can take just a few days but sometimes you don’t get the right result until you have repeatedly revised the recipe. We have products under development that are taking a month to get to what we want.
As you can imagine working with chocolate we get a lot of offers for tasters! Any new products we send out to our tasters give us honest feedback. However, taste is very subjective – some people want stronger tastes others who have a more trained palette want subtle tastes. We go through all the feedback and ultimately it comes down to my final decision.
Suppose I wanted to start manufacturing my own chocolate bars (quite unlikely since I’d have no idea what I was doing) – what would I need, what would it take and how much would it cost me?
Anyone can make a bar in their home, but for quantities you would need the right tempering equipment. Chocolate is a very complex ingredient. If you want to begin to manufacturer bars then I would say you need to spend at least £80,000 to get started.
What did they teach you at the Callebaut Chocolate Academy? How do you continue to sharpen your culinary skills?
I studied chocolate at the Callebaut Academy from the age of 14 at molecular level [Ed: we’re not sure what that is]. I have been trained by the best of the best from all over the world. The courses range from chocolate sculpturing to patisserie, bakery and gelato – all at a very high standard. I regularly go down for top up courses.
Could you outline in a nutshell how you choose and source a chocolate supplier? Do you use one or a few?
I have been using the same supplier for nearly 10 years now. They source ethically grown chocolate from all over the world. This ensures quality and continuity.
Could you outline your opinions on palm oil?
Palm oil is simply not needed in chocolate and is only used to enhance shelf life or water down chocolate/ingredients. It is cheap bulk filler and is not put in to enhance flavour. Let me ask, would you add water to a quality expensive bottle of fine champagne or wine? Palm oil use is contributing to the destruction of rainforests and driving many species of animals to the brink of extinction.
I would recommend that if anyone wants to understand why I don’t allow palm oil in any of our products just Google “palm oil destruction2 and you can see for yourself how the rapid growth of this product is causing our rainforests to disappear. Farmers get a higher yield growing palm oil so I predict chocolate will become a rarer, more expensive product.
8 out of every 10 products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil and it is getting increasingly more difficult to find products that DON’T contain palm oil. I would like to see a change in legislation so the consumer knows that “vegetable oil” is actually palm oil! [Ed: we like this idea]
How many Willy Wonka comparisons have you had to endure so far?
A few thousand!
How, if at all, have dyspraxia and dyslexia affected how you do things?
They haven’t, I see them as an ability. For me they have had a positive influence on my life and make me see things differently. Over the years you just learn to put in place systems that enable you to be efficient.
How do you get new clients? You once dropped off a package at Waitrose, which landed you your spot with them… what about Selfridges and the like?
My attitude is people do business with people and if you don’t ask you don’t get. Always make an approach with a buyer directly.
Slightly off topic – you own an eagle owl, called Jewel, right? Is it hard to keep one?
Sadly he passed away, but I had him from a chick and taught him to fly to the glove. They do take time to train and look after correctly but I enjoyed his company and I miss him.
What advice would you give to aspiring food entrepreneurs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Hard work, dedication and passion is what drives you. You have to be prepared to work for delayed gratification for many years. It takes years to become successful and the passion gets you through the down times – don’t have a backup plan as that means you will walk away when times get tough.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Probably something to do with animal conservation.
If you could make a one-off, bespoke chocolate for anyone – who would you pick, and what would you make for them?
Heston Blumenthal – I am a big fan of his and admire his way of thinking differently. I’d probably make him a saffron pancetta truffle.
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for your business? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
You can never know for sure what the future holds for you as opportunities can change your direction in life. I do know however the success of my business growth will be made overseas as the UK is too saturated with chocolate at the moment.
Where next for you and your business?
The focus this year is exportation and we are working on many exciting projects that will see me spending a significant amount of time out of the UK! My goal is to open key flagship stores/restaurants in key cities around the world.
And the three customary ridiculous questions…
If, for some reason, you were forced to turn your business into a travel agency, what would you call it, what types of holidays and locations would you specialise in and what would your game plan be?
The name would be “Green star”
I would offer luxury eco holidays, conservation get always, and get involved with like-minded people.
If you had to have any character from Egyptian mythology come and work with you, who would you employ?
Absolutely no one! But if you were to talk about Aztec/Mayan times then there are many who I would love to sit and chat with about the history of chocolate. Beam me to Mexico where the chocolate story began and I would be in my element!
If you were forced to convert your business from a purveyor of excellent chocolates into a defense contractor for the British Government, what would your new company specialise in?
Sorry but I make chocolate not war!!!!!