Three cheers for the chocolatiers
It’s been 21 years since boutique chocolate maker Devonport Chocolates first began creating its delectable delights. Glenn Baker went to wish them a happy birthday and get the story behind one of this country’s most loved chocolate brands.
There’s something magical about the world of chocolate making. You sense it when you step into the chocolate factory at 17 Wynyard Street, in Auckland’s Devonport.
The shop is small but perfectly formed, just like the chocolates – it oozes with the promise of smooth and creamy treats. Glass shelves are filled with delicately designed hand-crafted morsels, and through the big looking-glass window at the back, you get a peek into New Zealand’s version of Loompa land – highly skilled chocolatiers busily creating delights with unique local flavours such as horopito, kawakawa, feijoa and bush honey.
It would be easy to think that Devonport Chocolates would be the dream business to own – the reality, of course, is that, just like any business, there have been many challenges and tough decisions along the way. And success has come through a lot of hard work.
I’m immediately reminded that this is a family business when Terry Everitt greets me out front, takes me upstairs to meet fellow director and spouse Stephanie Everitt, who in turn introduces me to daughter Caroline, who handles marketing and runs the shops (there are two other boutiques; Ponsonby and Queens Arcade in the CBD). I’m told Terry, who has an insurance background, handles the finances, but he’s also skilled at maintaining the machinery.
My first question, understandably, is how did it all get started?
Devonport Chocolates began life in 1991 when local women Gayle McDuff and Joanne Pettifer decided to get into the chocolate-making business to address the lack of gift chocolates in the market. They saw the potential for gourmet chocolates and initially launched the truffle log, which is still a big-seller today (and about to be relaunched).
The business outgrew its first kitchen in a matter of months and moved to a larger one in Glenfield.
When the Everitts purchased the business in 1999, one of the first things the Devonport family did was purchase the Wynyard Street premises and bring the brand back home. The loading dock at the front of the building was converted into a small shop.
Sales growth has been steady ever since. Stephanie remembers not being able to give their bank any solid customer numbers to begin with, but they needn’t have worried – with the Devonport ferry disgorging passengers every hour, the shop soon became a popular destination.
The website became an adjunct to retail sales too – people either check out the shop then order online, or vice versa. Online sales now make up around seven to eight percent of total sales. (Outside Auckland, the chocolates are also sold at Kirkcaldie & Stains and Moore Wilsons in Wellington, as well as selected restaurants country wide).
Stephanie describes the shops as increasingly ‘experiential’. “We always ensure there are products for people to sample when they come in. And our ethos is that everybody who comes into the shop is a guest to be treated – we’re not ‘cash and run’.”
The corporate sector provides a significant portion of sales too – it seems that nothing says ‘thank you’ quite like a beautifully presented hand-made chocolate with a uniquely New Zealand flavour. Custom orders for specific business clients is a specialty, often involving company logos – although Stephanie recalls one client brief that involved producing a ‘bad-tasting chocolate’ that they quite rightly turned down. They’ll defend their brand vigorously. And underpinning the brand has been a number of awards over the years, including two Great Taste Awards in the UK. “Those awards are big milestones for us,” says Stephanie.
The recession had minimal impact on Devonport Chocolates; wholesale sales were largely unaffected, although the GFC pretty much stifled the opening of more shops in the short-term. In 2008 the business went through a lean manufacturing programme to refine its structures and processes. The timing couldn’t have been better. If anything, the recession was good for business, says Stephanie, because people still desire their little indulgences – although it has changed the nature of the market. “More restaurant and gourmet food places, less gift shops,” she explains.
The Rugby World Cup proved to be a major marketing success for Devonport Chocolates – with their chocolate rugby balls and ‘Keith the Kiwi’ proving popular with retail customers, and stadium caterers choosing their chocolates to serve to VIP guests.
The tourism and hospitality markets generate significant sales for the business. So, not surprisingly, 2011 was a tough act to follow in terms of sales growth.
Stephanie says they’ve had to be careful through the recession, but now the business is at a sufficient scale to look seriously at export markets. “We see Asia as our next focus. Asians understand the 100 percent pure brand that our government has been promoting. Over the next two or three years we’ll be developing products specifically for those regions – products that tap into the trends of functional foods and experiential shopping.
“Having said that, there’s no way we’d take any focus away from our local customers.”
Exporting chocolates can be a bit of a science in terms of maintaining optimum temperatures in warm climates, but Stephanie believes there are opportunities to share container space with wine producers, as premium wines also demand strict temperature management.
Riding the wave
Stephanie confesses that she didn’t really have any hard and fast goals when they bought the business – it was her “part-time retirement plan”. Of course, like most businesses it took on a life of its own. Having the family on board and with the ongoing international trend in artisan food helping provide sales momentum, it’s no wonder the business has exceeded her initial expectations.
With increased competition the market is definitely tougher she says. “But that just means you have to better define who you are and what you’re all about.”
It’s important to keep abreast of trends in the market too, she says – in the chocolate industry that means unusual flavours, dark chocolate, healthy chocolate and the consideration of fair-trade organic ingredients – although a major stumbling block with the latter is the lack of continuous supply.
Other lessons Stephanie can extract from her experience with Devonport Chocolates include the need to ignore distractions and focus on the job at hand. “Measure and assess as you go along,” she adds, “and if something’s not working, drop it.
“Listening to your customers is vitally important too.” She remembers one focus group that saved them the expense and embarrassment of opting for the wrong type of packaging.
Is there a succession plan for the Everitts? Not exactly; Stephanie’s retirement plan is still being formulated. Meantime, there’s a chocolate factory to run and a big wide world waiting to sample its treats.
And with a bit of luck that 21st birthday key will unlock those export markets.