How to make it big in... chocolate

Vegetable fat, demineralised whey powder, glucose syrup, soy lecithin, E422. Whetting your appetite? Getting your digestive juices all frothed up with excitement? Didn't think so. But those disgusting-sounding ingredients are what go into your chocolate.

Luxury chocolate sales went up to £140m between 2005 and 2007, an increase of 46% for the sector.

Or, at least, chocolate according to the mass market. Maybe for just a moment we should leave the rubbish-strewn streets of mass-produced choc, where these unsavoury characters are the major players, and enter the world of the high-end professional chocolatier.

It is a glorious, indulgent and artisan craft, where ganaches and gold-leaf whisper at each others' edges in beautifully coiffed curls, where peach and rosemary tiptoe together across your taste buds through deep clouds of dark cocoa, and where all those nasty, unappetising constituents of mass-produced chocolate are well and truly forbidden. This is the world of William Curley. He runs a chocolate shop with combined patisserie in Richmond, along with his wife Suzue. The shop is called William Curley, and this year it was voted Best Chocolatier of the Year for the second year running, by the Academy of Chocolate.

"It's taken me years and years to understand and respect the ingredients and train," he says. Curley learnt the trade at Michelin-starred restaurants. "If you were a mass-produced company, you could just employ food handlers and pay them a standard hourly rate. But it's really a different product."

Consumers seem to be increasingly aware of that distinction. The chocolate industry as a whole saw sales rise by 10% between 2005 and 2007, according to Mintel, but sales of the higher-quality but typically more expensive dark chocolate near-doubled to £85m over that period.

Luxury chocolate sales went up nearly double that figure again to £140m, an increase of 46% for the sector, in the same period. Capitalising on the high end's increasing popularity despite the recession, confectionary giants Nestlé are this month launching a range of luxury chocolates featuring flavours like green cardamom and caramel salt butter - a far cry from simple offerings of milk, white or dark.

But increased quality means increased overheads. Curley's biggest expenditures - apart from premises - are ingredients and staff. He invests in professional chefs - three are on apprenticeships, and he has retained some staff for three of four years. "If I want to make a success from this, I know that I can't just do it from loans. I need to have layers of people with skills, confidence and eagerness to work for the brand."

He admits, though, that this isn't particularly cost-effective in the short term. "Everything we do can make money, but sometimes how we do things doesn't help."

He makes a margin on every product, but some are more efficient than others. "On truffles, there's an opportunity to make money, for sure," he says. "And we serve hot chocolate and tea, and of course there's margin on drink - it's the most profitable part of any business."

This helps balance the patisserie section of the business, which only makes a minimal margin. He also points out the significance of Christmas, Valentine's and Mother's Day. "You must be on your button with those times. If you're not, you're completely scuppered." The option for customers to mail order products by phone or email boosts sales around these times. During slower periods throughout the year - January and summer in particular - the patisserie and a little cafe within the shop and spilling out onto the pavement "keep things ticking over."

Despite these measures, and although Curley and his wife are planning to open a second shop in London next year, the business hasn't pulled in its first million quite yet. He hopes that will happen towards the end of 2009. "But then I'm not trying to build a £20 million empire, I'm trying to build a very, very top-end brand, that will be recognised as being the best in its field. Sometimes that doesn't always make you lots of money," he says.

"So it's not going to make me into James Caan next week. But what a wonderful job!"

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