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Artisan chocolate a sweet success story

“There’s always something good that comes out of every experience.” These oft-quoted words of wisdom certainly ring true for chocolatier Stu Jordan. The ex ‘fix-it man’ at Noel Leeming and Logitech National Sales Manager took redundancy and turned it into a successful business and a celebration of his passion.

He created The Sweetest Little Chocolate Shop. Those who have been into one of the three stores will have realised that The Sweetest Little Chocolate Shop is all about the best New Zealand-artisan chocolate ? and a whole lot of fun! The sweetest little range of chocolate and confectionery under one roof.

“I thought, ‘wow, it’s time to do my own thing,” recalls Jordan, talking about the time he was made redundant. “What am I good at? Retail! What do I like? Chocolate! And that was the beginning of the idea.”

The young entrepreneur started with a feasibility study and discovered a gap in the market for high-end, quality, healthier chocolate. “We believed in the philosophy of less is more,” he says. “Eat a better-quality chocolate ? but eat less.”

Five years later, The Sweetest Little Chocolate Shop has three successful retail outlets, a chocolate manufacturing business ? and is about to launch its first Chocolate Café. Not bad for a corporate redundant.

“Everything we make is made in New Zealand,” Jordan says proudly. “We are the home of chocolate and confectionery – traditional hard-boiled lollies and hand-pulled brittle, alongside artisan chocolate and fudge products.”

Initially, in its first mid-city Auckland store, The Sweetest Little Chocolate Shop sold products from other New Zealand manufacturers ? bringing numerous brands under one roof. This proved extremely popular with customers but, with the retail business expanding through a franchise arrangement in Hamilton and, later, the opening of the prime Sylvia Park shop, Jordan made the decision to start manufacturing his own chocolate.

Having received top-class training from some of the best chocolatiers in Singapore and Melbourne, the more confident retailer became a manufacturer ? setting up his chocolate factory in Glen Innes. This provided the ever-more popular stores with a quality home brand under the name Kako.

The manufacturing business has grown significantly bigger than expected and will become Jordan’s primary focus. The Kako brand now accounts for 42 per cent of The Sweetest Little Chocolate Shop sales ? with Jordan aiming to increase this to around 50 per cent.

 strategic decision has already been made to license the retail shops to others while he focuses on the business of making chocolate ? and the launch of his new Sweetest Little Chocolate Café concept. The Sweetest Little Chocolate Cafés will combine the café experience with retail purchase options and Jordan is currently looking for additional partners to grow the number of cafés. As opposed to the licensing arrangement ? with supplier agreements that underpin the retail business ? the café concepts will remain part of a franchise system.

“It is a very, very exciting development,” raves Jordan. The cafés will serve hot chocolate and coffee drinks with a chocolate-based dessert menu. “It will be all about the experience of chocolate – no muffins, no sandwiches.”

The café concept is to be built around the very successful Sylvia Park design. “Retail has irrevocably changed since 2007, ” says Jordan. People are looking for an experience. The days of relying on product and price are long gone. For a retailer to stand out, when you don’t have the scale of the big chains, you have to be different and engage the consumer.”

It is this engagement with customers that drives the Sweetest Little Chocolate business. “People will photograph their sundaes and post them on our Pinterest board or decorate and photograph their desserts and post them to our Facebook wall.”

Social media is a prime marketing driver for all activity around The Sweetest Little Chocolate Shop and the Café, along with a solid database and an e-commerce, online presence. It all starts in-store with in-store competitions and the offer of loyalty cards in exchange for e-mail addresses to go onto a database ? which is then used to engage people through a series of e-mail communications consisting of news, offers, promotions, competitions and more.

Customers and prospects are driven to the Facebook Page where the engagement and relationship building continues.

There are now over 10,000 names on the database and 17,000 followers of the Facebook page. We’re just scratching the surface, says Jordan. Our primary target market is female (70 per cent of our customers) and we’ve finally found out how to engage them.”

His tips to other retailers who might be using Facebook are: “Don’t inform people, it’s not about giving information ? it’s about engaging them. Talk about them ? rather than your products. Make it fun and get them to interact. Put up a picture and get them to caption it, then draw a lucky person and send them a gift basket.”

In one promotion, the recipients of an e-mail offer were asked to bring the e-mail to the shop. “The queue went on for miles!” says Jordan. Radio was tried in the initial stages but Jordan believes that no other media can deliver like social media for “bang for the buck”. It helps if your product is something everyone loves ? like chocolate.

The e-commerce side of the business is starting to take off ? with volumes approaching about 25 per cent of a store’s sales. The key to that success is directing the orders through the closest store ? so that there is no danger of impacting shop sales by competing online.

There were some early lessons ? hard ones ? learned from the e-commerce experience. The initial e-commerce site was set up by experts and cost more than the young entrepreneur could really afford but, although it looked good, it performed badly. So much so that Jordan and his partner decided to learn how to create an e-commerce site and did a better job ? at a fraction of the price.

A year and a half on, the e-commerce business is growing consistently. Jordan’s determination to be the best at all that he does is epitomised by him becoming a qualified, trained chocolatier and then setting up New Zealand’s only Chocolate School. In the Sunday Herald, 17 May 2014, the newspaper wrote a story on this ? where ‘Stu Jordan, Kako Chocolate’s Executive Chocolatier’ reportedly told his class: “I can teach you how to make chocolate, but you need passion to create flavour.”

As reported in the Herald, the Introduction to Chocolates course costs $129 per person. There are also master classes in Introduction to truffles, ganache and tempering, as well as Markets and Business 101 for anyone wanting to create a business out of chocolate.

Passion and good taste are the foundation of Jordan’s newest idea, The Tasting Club. This concept, which is soon to be activated, will allow chocolate-lovers to subscribe online and be sent tasting packs of new chocolate delicacies. Apart from being great for the tasters, it will give great feedback for the Kako manufacturing side of the business. This feedback will be used to assess improvements in the standard range ? and for new product introductions ? but it will also help with seasonal lines.

According to Jordan, there are four major occasions during the year: Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day ? with an upsurge in winter. The hospitality industry is important to the Kako side of the business, with hotels being particularly lucrative.

“We have a unique product,” boasts Jordan. “We are not like most artisan chocolate producers in New Zealand in that we are using a very new style of chocolate-making. We have a number of USPs that turn our customers on. We’ve had five years’ experience and we know what the people like ? where the gaps are and how to fill those gaps with our brand.”

It is hard to look at this fledgling artisan chocolate industry and not draw comparisons with the wine industry. “We are a very young industry,” says Jordan. “There is no industry body. But what we do have is access to better quality ingredients: better honey, better herbs, better cream, better everything.”

This encourages Jordan to have ambitions for the business internationally ? with plans to expand into Asia and his sights are set on Hong Kong and Southern China. “Our products resonate very well with the local Asian communities,” he says. “There are exciting opportunities abroad.”

His ambition is clear. “To make New Zealand the next Belgium of chocolate!”

Graham Medcalf is a writer and the former editor of NZ Marketing magazine.

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