Cottage industry that has a unique taste for expansion

Newcastle-based North Chocolates is more than just flavour of the month, with a reputation that is growing abroad

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By Michael Cape

Bev Stephenson’s curriculum vitae is nothing if not varied. A former North East culture and listings magazine owner/editor who outgrew the pub and club scene, she then turned to the precarious world of freelancing to become an established food writer. Now she has carved out a tasty new career for herself as an award winning chocolatier with a reputation that has spread as far afield as Prague.

Like many of her self-employed journalist peer group, she was forced to cast around for a new income stream after the recession saw newspapers cut back on commissions which brought to an end what had been a good living.

But she was mindful that whatever she chose she needed to work for herself. As she loved gardening, she thought the answer might lie in horticulture and took herself off to college while still generating income through restaurant reviews. This eventually led to her harvesting cut foliage for the floristry trade but inevitably it failed to tick her creative boxes.

What had got her juices flowing – and was an idea that had been lurking in the back of her mind since she had interviewed a number of chocolatiers and even taken a course to write an article – was confectionery.

But she was commercially astute enough to realise that she wasn’t going to get anywhere with just any old chocolate. This saw her combine her passion for floristry with chocolate to offer the highest quality floral based chocolate containing nothing but cocoa and cocoa butter and none of the vegetable fats found in every day varieties. (Simply put it’s less of the bad stuff and more of the good stuff and so requires less sugar used to mask the less pleasant additives.)

Think Ginger and Toasted Fennel (which won the coveted gold rosette at Eat! Newcastle), Geranium and Orange, Rosemary and Lemon Sea Salt and Lavender and you will understand why North Chocolates – the name Bev picked to portray both her business location and Northern roots – hit the ground running when it arrived on the scene in 2013.

But you don’t just get to be a chocolatier– and eventually get named as Artisan Producer of the Year at the Newcastle Business Awards – overnight.

Before she launched into couverture (the trade name used for chocolate of this quality), she honed her craft by helping her friend Roz T i n l i n (who runs a small chocolate business in Northumberland) then under Ruth Hinks (a UK World Chocolate Master and UK Confectioner of the Year) at the acclaimed Cocoa Black in Peebles.

Bev Stephenson was commercially astute enough to target a niche market
Bev Stephenson was commercially astute enough to target a niche market

Chocolate is highly temperamental – too hot or too cold and it goes wrong. Tempering, the method of warming and cooling chocolate to give it a smooth and glossy finish, means it needs to be heated at precise but different temperatures for both milk and dark. And Bev does all this by hand in small batches at home without any sophisticated machinery but “with lots of swearing.”

Bev Stephenson’s North Chocolates remains very much a cottage industry – her mum Althea still does the wrapping in rainbow coloured foil with matching ribbons while partner Simon helps with deliveries “when not eating the profits”. Sheer time pressure has seen them add two more women to the workforce.

“The fact we don’t have kids to worry about helps,” says Bev. “And having been a freelance, I had experienced both good years and bad years, so I wasn’t frightened of setting up.”

As it turned out, she had little need to be concerned as North Chocolates can now be found in all the best places locally such as Fenwick, National Trust shops and many independent delis all of which beat a path to her door.

Yet she remains convinced that both luck and fate – “I’m a great believer in these” – have played a constant and ongoing part in her business success story.

She didn’t have to travel far to get her first stroke of luck. It turned out that the semi-detached 1830s house at Forest Hall, Newcastle, where she had lived for several years was the perfect chocolate factory.

Stone built, north facing, it is cool in terms of the process in every sense of the word. Bev went on to win a modern unit in the Newcastle Business Awards but as it was all glass and south facing, she turned it down because in terms of making chocolate it was a nightmare.

Luck also played a part even in her first sale. Exhibiting at the Spring Fair in Hexham, a visitor bought her first three bars which were geranium and orange flavoured.

Bev noticed the customer and her husband tucking into them, then saw him heading back in her direction.

“I was convinced he was going to say I hate them but he said they were the nicest chocolate he had ever had and bought another three bars. Sometime later, his wife contacted me and bought a further 40 for his 40th birthday.”

North Chocolates’ reputation has been on the rise ever since. But does Bev eat much chocolate today?

“God no. After you spend the day tasting, it’s crisps and salted nuts for me,” she laughs.

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Thinking outside the chocolate box

North Chocolates became an exporter by accident.

It came about because one of the Directors of the Prague Fringe Festival, Carole Wears who lives in Newcastle, popped into Fenwick, bought a bar, liked it and decided to take a batch out for the event which is held annually.

All this happened without Bev Stephenson’s knowledge. The first she heard about it was when she was contacted and told that North Chocolates had been named as Official Chocolatier for the event which is modelled on the Edinburgh Fringe and a further order was placed.

Even the British Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Jan Thompson, who had studied at Durham University, has become a fan as a result.

It got Bev thinking again about the export market which she had been considering since she was approached by Chris Jewitt of DIT (then UKTI) who had also seen the chocolate in Fenwick.

Yet her original concern was that with a maximum production of 350 bars in an 18-hour day – “that was a one-off that nearly killed me”- she was too small to consider export, believing that she would need to ship in pallet loads.

“UKTI put me straight on this and a lot of other things,” she recalls.

“They have helped me pinpoint potential markets while steering me away from others because of their network of contacts overseas and all the relevant stats in order for you to target where will be best for your particular business.

“They are brilliant at handholding and are incredibly helpful with things such as labelling and packaging advice; for example colour – it’s highly significant in some cultures and can make or break a product. It’s the practical advice but often the small details that will make a difference to whether you’ll stand out in a competitive market and have export success – or not.

“I now see exporting as another string to my bow. At the moment food festivals provide half of my income but I believe there will be less of these in years to come.

So I am conscious I need to start thinking about exporting and have things in place, which may alleviate a drop in income down the line.

“Being self-employed, you may have a contract for three months, but you always have to think about the following three months,” she adds with businesslike forethought.