Sara Colohan shares expert advice from chocolate makers and shows you how to start your own vegan chocolate brand
Starting a vegan chocolate brand is an exciting and creative process. I know, because it’s exactly what I did just over 3 years ago. I was a freelance journalist but longed to work with my hands and create something tangible.
I had done a few raw food courses over the years and was keen to incorporate raw chocolate into my plans. I experimented for a few months, creating my own vegan, raw chocolate and plastic-free packaging designs, and London Maker was born.
Three years on, I’ve learned a lot from mishaps and mistakes and, although there are things I’d do differently, I certainly don’t regret creating the brand.
Ask an Expert
2019 saw the successful vegan brand Booja-Booja celebrate its 20th birthday. From humble beginnings, it has won more than 100 awards from the Academy of Chocolate, to the Guild of Fine Food, Great Taste and numerous organic and free-from accolades. I asked Simon Middleton, head of marketing, to share some advice on how to launch a successful brand.
Before joining Booja-Booja, Simon had spent much of his career as a brand strategist and an entrepreneur and had worked with food and drink brands.
“What I learned from all of that was to succeed you have to understand that building a brand isn’t really about a nice logo or even a unique product. It’s about the creation of meaning.
“All brands are really just sets of meanings. If enough people share enough positive feelings about a distinct small set of meanings, which you can be identified with, then you have a brand. Otherwise, you are just another runner in an overcrowded race.”
He told us all brands have to have four things in common:
- Authenticity. Great brands are authentic and true to themselves. They tell great stories but are always rooted in truth. They don’t lie.
- Distinctiveness. All winning brands are different somehow from the competition. Something about them has to stand out.
- Be emotionally compelling. You have to make people actually feel something. Because people buy with their hearts and senses. Don’t be dull!
- Strive for excellence. This might mean constant innovation or it might mean always refining to perfect your offering.
Booja-Booja started small and has now won more than 100 awards for its chocolates
Make a Plan, Get a Mentor
My advice to anyone starting out today is to have a strong business plan. Try to map out a 5-year plan, then break it down and have a detailed business plan for 6-12 months. I’d go as far as saying choosing a mentor is a crucial part of any startup.
Find a supportive, strong voice with experience in the business, who may have the contacts to take you to the next level. Ask around. The worst that can happen is they say no. Some successful people are very keen to support start-ups so keep knocking on doors – www.meetamentor.co.uk
Business loans can be expensive and no matter how they dress it up, they are a business and want their money and interest paid back. Don’t be blinded by all that VirginStartUp programme offered new startups – their mentor programme and support network is tempting, but ask yourself if you really need to borrow the money. (Most start-up loans come in slightly higher than government interest.)
Maybe consider putting the money a loan would cost towards paying for a mentor. By all means scan the VirginStartUp website for information, but I’d suggest only borrowing money if you really need to.
Most start-up business advisers (who are not trying to sell you something) will advise you to try your friends and family first. See it as your first sales pitch! Sell the idea to friends and family – ask them to invest a set amount for 2 years and offer to pay interest on the loan.
Are You a Chocolatier or Chocolate Maker?
There are chocolate makers and chocolatiers – decide which you want to be. A chocolate maker makes chocolate from scratch – bean to bar. It feels like a labour of love a lot of the time as you winnow and stone grind your chocolate, but very rewarding, if like me, working to create something from scratch is a huge part of the draw.
The chocolatier sources chocolate already made – usually shaped in small chocolate drops often called couverture or callets. They then mould and flavour and repackage that chocolate. The latter is generally more cost effective and much less time consuming, but your chocolate is not bean to bar, so you must be transparent with labelling.
You too could be creating exquisite chocolates like these by Amy Levin
Registering & Labeling
The Vegan Society website offers a step-by-step guide on how to get your registered vegan trademark, while www.soilassociation.org will guide you on all you need to register as organic. These official labels cost money, so until you get on your feet, vegan and organic certs can be obtained from some suppliers (if they are a strictly organic, vegan company). Check gov.uk for up to date UK food labelling requirements and plenty of other support.
Cheryl Brighty started Artistry in Cocoa (www.artistryincocoa.co.uk) in Suffolk 17 years ago. She sold chocolate at local delis and at farmers markets before moving into her own shop. To keep revenue coming in she diversified into making ice cream, teaching workshops and giving masterclasses.
Cheryl’s advice “You will have to register your business with the local council to be able to legally trade, and you need to get your labelling correct, especially as so many people have serious food allergies. Consult your food hygiene inspector when they visit – it’s always better to proactively consult them as they will have to inspect your premises even if it’s your home and give you that all important rating. They are also a source of vital advice and can often steer you towards other resources.”
Sarah Colohan's own Lodnon Maker brands includes vegan hot chocolate
Amy Levin (www.amylevin.co.uk) is a trained chef and raw food consultant who has been teaching raw chocolate classes since 2009. If you want to know exactly how to make great chocolate, Amy will steer you on getting the right kit to set you up.
I’m sure some chocolate makers will tell you they started with a stainless steel bowl and a good spatula (London Maker wasn’t far off that starting block!) Thanks to a tip on one of Amy’s raw chocolate courses, I discovered the wonders of a stone grinder and invested in one immediately (about £140 on Amazon).
If you are making larger quantities of chocolate you need a tempering machine. This could warrant a feature on its own, but my advice is to buy a recognised machine, ideally from Europe or UK so you can get it serviced easily. I bought a machine from the USA and struggled to get a part for it when it failed.
Amy Levin advising a student in the art of making chocolate
We asked Amy for advice on starting a chocolate business. “The first thing I tell students is to think about all the downfalls and difficulties. If they persevere despite that, they’re ready to embark on that journey. If the prospect of challenges and difficulties puts them off, it’s not for them. Chocolate is a labour of love. It has very specific needs. As long as you respect those needs, you’ll be a chocolate making super star.”
There are lots of individuals and institutions who can offer support and advice. Young Foodies, Bread & Jam, Allia Business Centre, Cocoa Runners, The Food Hub (on FB) and if you do an Amy Levin course you’ll automatically join her Facebook group of start up chocolate makers offering lots of free support to each other. Maybe you will be the next global chocolate success story and, in these uncertain times, there’s one thing the world needs – delicious chocolate!
Sara Colohan is a writer and vegan chocolate maker based in London. Sara is discovering new and exciting options and products for anyone interested in a vegan lifestyle. Sara owns emerging vegan chocolate brand London Maker londonmaker.com
Want to try making your own vegan chocolates? Try these simple vegan chocolate bar recipes.