On a brisk Winter’s morning late last year I was fortunate to catch up over a coffee with the lovely James Hull of J Cocoa. The award-winning chocolate company based in West Sussex. You may not know this but there are actually only around 13 people/ businesses that make their own chocolate here in the UK. And by that, I mean making the chocolate from bean to bar! Every. Single. Process.
We chatted about all things chocolate and I had my eyes opened to the reality of running a chocolate business when you do literally EVERYTHING yourself. Find out more below…
How did the idea to start J Cocoa come about?
So before I started I was actually a Fishmonger! For about five years. I ended up running the business myself but knew it wasn’t really where my heart lay.
In all honesty, when I gave up the Fishmonger business I had no idea what I was going to do. I had all sorts of bizarre ideas of things that I could do. I took a couple of months off to figure it all out and that’s when I started to ‘mess’ around with Cocoa beans. I was fascinated by the process of making chocolate and started to ask myself all sorts of questions around the topic. I would say it kind of ‘spiralled’ from there really. I was completely taken by the fact that there was a subject of which we were so passionate about, but knew hardly anything about the processes of making it.
What happened next?
After I had learnt how to make chocolate, perfected a recipe and spent months in my shed working out how the whole business was going to work. I tested lots of chocolate on friends and family. I guess ‘making chocolate’ is not really a ‘normal job’ or career path so people are equally shocked and fascinated at the same time! Starting the business was something that all seemed to happen in a flash. One minute I was wondering simply how it was made, the next I had converted my shed into a full-blown chocolate factory, complete with my own designs of machines that I built from recycled stainless steel. It was funny because I literally stepped back and said to myself “ Well it looks like I run a chocolate business now”.
Talk to us about Bond Street Coffee.
These guys were my first ‘proper’ customer. Exciting times. They started off with my 66% Dark Chocolate to make their hot chocolates because they were desperate to find a hot chocolate that had actually been made in Sussex. They heard about me through the grapevine and got in contact and the rest is history! Bond Street Coffee was actually the inspiration for a whole new stage of product development for me. They started by taking the chocolate in a bar format, but I wanted to make the chocolate easier for them to melt. Hence the hot chocolate shards were created. It was actually only after BSC being my first customer that I actually decided to create a logo, get a name, and start running this as an actual business!
How did the business develop from there?
The business was still very small at this point. But one thing leads to another. For example, the orders from BSC prompted me to make a logo so they could use this in their shop, and then I needed to have a website so that if anyone else wanted to buy my products they could find me. Everything fell into place step by step from this point.
I then started to do a bit more development on my moulds, I made one that I could use the ‘J’ logo on for example. I looked into the packaging, that was previously just a clear bag with coloured ribbon and I worked on that. I built more machines (from scratch) to make my chocolate in and then from there I started to sell to more places! I would say it was at this point I started to realise that I had a legitimate business going now with potential.
Everything has been trial and error from the very beginning. Everything has come from necessity or from a request from someone. I always tried to produce something if it was what someone specifically requested and this is where a lot of my product development came from. For example, someone approached me with the idea of creating an advent calendar of craft chocolates. At this point, I wasn’t producing the chocolate in bars that size but this inspired me to make the smaller versions of my chocolate along with new packaging, labels and everything that went with it. So now I have a smaller size available that can be used for tastings or in coffee shops as an add on. It was never something I had thought of doing but out of a request, it became part of my product range!
Talk to me about your current product offering.
At Christmas, I now sell a completely unique hand painted Santa Claus, and now Snowmen! Also, everything is completely hand-made and hand painted with natural colours. The packaging is all now designed to be zero waste, glue-less, recyclable and fully compostable. Everything I produce is designed and made in house and I am really proud of this, although it is an all-consuming job!
Where are you currently stocked?
Lost in the Lanes, Bond Street Coffee, Barneys Deli, Alchemy Fine Foods and Hisbee Supermarket in Brighton. Glyndebourne Opera House. South Downs Cellars ( Lindfield, Hurstpierpoint) and so many more. (More on the website)
Do you attend food markets?
Yes, absolutely. I go to Steyning market on the first Saturday of every month. On the second Saturday of every month I am at Cuckfield market, and on the fourth Saturday of every month, I am at Hassocks market. I do these on a rolling basis.
Where do you aim to be in a year’s time?
I guess the main goal is to move to a bigger unit and be able to increase my output. Supplying to more people and stockists and to be able to find the time to develop new products.
Any particular highs or lows?
I guess one that is key for me is a bit of both, it’s one of the tougher parts of running this business but also one of the most rewarding. I get to re-educate people on how chocolate is made from bean to bar, why it is the price it is and the people behind the chocolate who grow the beans and cultivate them. Not everyone knows straight off why bean to bar chocolate is higher quality or a higher price but once you tell them more about the process it is great to see their interest in the products you have produced.
To find out more about James’s story of how he became a bean to bar chocolate brand, or to find out how you can stock or buy J Cocoa products, then please visit the website at https://jcocoa.co.uk/