Full name: Helen Pattinson
Birthplace: Sutton, Surrey
Twitter Handle: @chocolatehelly
Fun Fact: Helen is the Women’s UCI World Masters CX Champion
J: I know that you met your partner whilst working in law, and, whilst travelling in Argentina, was inspired by another kind of chocolate entirely. But let’s go right back to the beginning. Could you tell us a little about your formative years? Did you always know that a career in food and drink was for you? Could you tell us about your journey up to today?
H: My career in food is as much a surprise to me as anyone I grew up with. My passion was always for sport; those were the lessons I enjoyed at school. It was fortunate that I did well enough academically to stay under the teachers’ radars!
Fast forward a few years and after falling flat on my face with pretty poor A-levels, I re-took a couple with the stark realisation that I couldn’t keep passing exams on the night-before revision strategy which I had previously pursued.
I managed to land a place at King’s College, London to study Maths and Business Studies and learned to love studying and became pretty good at it, walking out of King’s with a First. I still had no idea of what I wanted to do, except that my Business Studies had included a couple of courses on Law which I had really enjoyed.
After a two-year conversion course at the College of Law, I finally entered the ‘real’ world of work as a trainee Solicitor in a London law firm.
I absolutely loved studying law; it really involves reading a lot of case law which translates as a whole host of stories about things that have gone wrong and ended up in Court. As soon as I started my trainee contract I could see that the road to the interesting cases and clients was an extremely long (and not a very exciting) one.
When Simon joined the same firm we quickly talked each other out of our legal careers and gave it all up to embark on a life-changing trip to South America.
Originally, you guys handmade all of your chocolates in a converted stables. Could you tell us a bit more about that? Did you have to learn it all from scratch? What’s the process of coming up with a recipe like, and do you still have a hand in it today, considering how massively the company has grown?
We became manufacturers by accident, having written a whole business plan around a retail business model, sourcing all of our products from chocolate makers in the UK. In hindsight, that would never have worked as we tried to scale the business so it was probably fortunate that the largest producer we had found went bust before we’d even opened the doors to our first store in Brighton.
We had a ridiculous 24 hours after discovering this, during which we worked out what on earth to do and then decided that the only way forward was to make the chocolate ourselves! We taught ourselves to make chocolate with the help of ingredients, machinery suppliers and the very basic internet as it was then.
It was awful and so frustrating – as anyone who has worked with chocolate will know how hard it is to get it right, but when you do, it feels like a miracle!
Yet making all of our own products has given us a full understanding of the process and a lot of credibility along the way so we have never regretted it – it has just made the business a lot more complex than we originally planned.
Simon and I still dream up most of the new product ideas, with a lot of input from customer feedback, staff ideas and considering foodie trends. We rarely make chocolate anymore but sometimes I long for those days of hand-making bars of chocolate to shiny perfection!
You guys have rare longevity and insight into the high-end chocolate business. How have you seen things change since you started? Are there any big trends or things that you think we should be looking out for?
We have always tended to keep our heads down and focus on what we’re doing rather than worry about the rest of the market. But yes, things have changed dramatically since we started in 2000. Back then, there was only one chocolate retailer on the high street, Thorntons, who had done a fantastic job at making higher quality chocolate more mass market.
A load of smaller producers have come and gone during our time in business and I imagine that’s because it’s not as easy as it looks to make a sustainable profit. If you’re not producing it yourselves I would say it’s impossible.
We enjoy our food and particularly do look towards the high-end chefs to see what they’re experimenting with, but we do also pay attention to our own customer data – we launch small runs of products in our own stores and gather customer feedback without risking a huge amount of resources on a full product launch.
This was the case with Absolute Black, our 100% cocoa bar; we were amazed when they started to fly out of our stores but it gave us the confidence to launch them to the whole market and they have since become some of our best-sellers.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the business of chocolate making?
It usually begins early – getting three girls up and ready for school, along with the right combination of bags, musical instruments and sports equipment! Coffee is always needed. When I eventually get to my desk at 8.30am it usually feels like I’ve already done a full day so more coffee and some chocolate (scavenged from the tastings boxes) follows with a chance to catch up on emails and have discussions with some of the team.
It is varied but in the office I usually work on some new product designs or have meetings about the next season (we plan from 18 months ahead). In the afternoon things might be more operational – a chance to catch up with our retail manager to hear about how the shops have been performing and discuss their next focus themes.
I also regularly meet with our E-commerce manager to discuss online performance and strategy. More chocolate (and probably coffee) will be consumed throughout the day and I will try to head off at 4pm so that I can be home for the children. However no day is ever the same!
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
In 2013, I won a NatWest everywoman award. I had never been nominated for an award before and didn’t expect to reach the first stage so it was a real honour to win.
As an entrepreneur, you don’t have a boss who can tell you that you’re doing a good job, and everyone expects you to have all the answers so it was a real vote of confidence to know that people outside the business felt I was doing well. I am now a judge for these awards and love seeing the boost of confidence it gives to all the entrepreneurs who we see.
Where do you get your ideas?
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
In 2008 we suffered a real cash crisis, compounded by the banks going through their own disastrous time. It was an awful period but we learned from it – disasters are often the making of a business, so long as you survive them!
We made it through by drawing on the very good relationship we had with our bank manager at the time and by instilling discipline into the whole business, creating a structure of management reporting and strategic Board meetings to help us better plan and project. They’re not the most exciting things about running your own business but are entirely necessary for its long-term health.
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from, or do you have any specific influences?
I was always a big Anita Roddick fan, right from an early age. What she did to create The Body Shop in the 70’s was ground-breaking in so many ways. I read all of her books while I was growing up and my only regret is that I didn’t get to meet her.
Coincidentally (or maybe not!) I am now a trustee of the charity she set up, the amazing Children on the Edge, which is an incredible entrepreneurial charity helping marginalised children around the world.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
I love going to our stores and seeing our customers enjoying the products we’ve dreamt up. It still gives me a buzz that we’ve made people happy with a simple bar of chocolate!
There is genuinely nothing I dislike about what I do, I suppose I’m in a privileged position that I’ve delegated a lot of the nitty gritty of my role now. But I don’t like not having enough time to get out to meet our customers!
What advice would you give to aspiring chocolate entrepreneurs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Love what you do, it’s a hard enough road if you’re not passionate about your product and how it’s created.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Something in sport I imagine, but definitely not a lawyer!
If you could get anyone to try your chocolates (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the chocolates would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
Anita Roddick would have been a great brand ambassador. From what I hear, she had strong views on most things so I’d want to make sure I found out about her chocolate preferences before I offered her anything!
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you had to eat one food for the rest of your life (assume that your metabolism becomes specially adapted and this is literally the only thing you could eat) – what food would you pick and why?
It would have to be chocolate! This is easily the food I eat most.
If you had to found a new country based around Montezuma’s principles, what would you call it, where would it be, what would it’s capital be called and what would it’s chief export be?
It would be called ‘Pifffe’ after our values Passionate, Innovative, Flexible, Fun, Friendly and Ethical and would be somewhere in the world where the mountains come all the way down to the sea. It would have to be within 10 degrees of the equator so we could grow our main export of cocoa, and the capital would definitely be Montezuma after our founding father.
If you had to get into a no holds barred, 20 round fist fight with any fictional character, who would you square off against?
Err, Batman. Or maybe Robin, but I wouldn’t fancy my chances against anyone in a fist fight!