The shelves of confectionary retailers worldwide are awash with chocolate brands. So how does a newcomer succeed in such a competitive market? It demands remarkable vision and determination and Tracey Melville-Smith is living proof.
By Glenn Baker
They are beautifully textured… they’re 3D over-glossed… and they’re hand-wrapped….”
Tracey Melville-Smith is busy describing the four blocks of chocolate laid out before me – but she hasn’t even got to the chocolate yet.
The founder of The Remarkable Chocolate Company is waxing lyrical over the packaging, and while my mind is shouting ‘show me the chocolate’, I’m already getting a strong sense of the passion and strategy that’s behind this product.
Tracey comes across as a very determined business woman; that’s the primary reason why her 150-gram ‘premium, refined’ handmade chocolate bars have caught on so quickly. Oh, and the fact that the taste is divine, as I discovered later – nothing like the mass-produced big-brand bars on supermarket shelves.
She refers to her creations as “gourmet food”.
Both Tracey and fellow chocolatier, and inspiration, husband Mark, have pursued somewhat remarkable careers alongside her start-up chocolate company.
They first met at Otago University while undertaking commerce degrees. Mark’s was accounting and marketing; Tracey graduated in information science (IT) and management.
They subsequently developed a love for the lower South Island and have spent a lot of time enjoying outdoor pursuits around Queenstown and Wanaka.
While they both knew there was a business in their future somewhere, they embarked on their professional careers. For Mark that involved marketing premium brands, including BMW and Land Rover, which led to the couple spending four years in the UK and Munich, Germany.
Tracey completed a fast-track management programme at ASB and was a branch manager, before working as management consultant for both PwC in the UK and, upon their return to New Zealand, Ernst & Young.
She agrees they’re both “a bit left-field” for the chocolate business.
Today Tracey is working on global business transformation for clothing manufacturer Icebreaker, which, she believes, is a “great New Zealand company” that shares numerous synergies with her chocolate business.
“Right now I’m having a portfolio career,” she explains. “I use my skills and experience across a number of areas in an equal way, including my work on the board of the UpsideDowns Education Trust.”
Mark currently holds a full-time GM sales and marketing role, but is Tracey’s main supporter for The Remarkable Chocolate Company.
Finding the passion
Tracey and Mark toyed with business ideas over the years. With their high-energy ‘get things done’ attitude it was only a matter of time before they finally settled on chocolate. It was a low-barrier entry business and, more importantly, where their true passion lay.
“Working with a premium gourmet product is something we love doing,” says Tracey. “We both love food, so it was really a head and heart decision to go with chocolate; a case of what can we do, and add value to.”
It also helped that Tracey’s always been a proficient baker and cook. Food’s been a big part of her life. Her father was a restaurateur and entrepreneur for 26 years, and brought Pizza Hut to New Zealand. So from age 12 to 23 Tracey experienced all aspects of business operations.
“During my school and university holidays, if someone was away, I’d fill in for them,” she recalls. “Dad set very high standards; I saw first-hand what hard work was.”
Hard work lay ahead for Tracey and Mark too, and that work ethic’s being handed on to their three children (aged nine, 12 and 14).
Tracey hired a commercial kitchen in Onehunga in the weekends, and began creating bespoke moulds, recipes and packaging. “Our friends were very well fed for a long time,” laughs Tracey.
Following years of R&D – or “folly” as Tracey jokingly describes it – 2013 saw the final products emerge and initial sales made at the Hobsonville and Parnell Markets.
Today it’s sold at Nosh and Farro, and selected specialty stores. There’re plans to export to Australia and further afield, or make product in-market overseas.
Tracey says they’ve outsourced production to a specialist boutique manufacturer, but scaling up presents challenges.
“Strategically we’re staging the business. In the first stage we must have a sustainable, repeatable, business proposition. Because the next step comes with greater [financial] risk,
“So we’re working on both process and product improvement, along with supplier relationships.”
Looking back, she says perhaps their biggest challenge was not keeping a rein on costs to meet the original vision. Achieving the look and feel they wanted with packaging, for example, came at a cost, particularly their larger gift
“That’s because everything we do has to ‘be remarkable’. That’s our mantra,” says Tracey, who still remembers, and is inspired by, the ‘remarkable’ presentation box her first iPhone came in, but acknowledges that sometimes there needs to be a compromise between values/vision and commercial reality.
“That’s a challenge for us going forward. We hold our handmade approach and the quality and source of our ingredients very dear.”
Learning by mistakes
One rather expensive lesson was printing batch numbers and ‘best before’ dates on the back of their packaging, to avoid the addition of “messy” sticker-gun batch and best before stickers.
But to secure a printing discount they had ordered large quantities. “We ended up throwing out thousands of perfectly good boxes when our batch numbers and best before dates changed,” says Tracey. “I call it my style-over-substance lesson.”
For someone who likes things to be “just right” it was a bitter pill to swallow – as was the time an entire batch of bars suffered heat damage en-route from factory to distribution centre.
Still perfectly edible, 200 were donated to a Young Enterprise cookie-baking fundraising effort at Takapuna Grammar, which was in line with Tracey and Mark’s philanthropic efforts.
As for the rest? Let’s just say there were more happy friends, says Tracey.
Looking ahead, 2017 will see new products introduced, and with distribution plans sorted in New Zealand, they’ll be looking further afield to grow the business.
Will they eventually set up their own factory? “The jury’s still out,” answers Tracey.
But she’s grateful for all the support they’ve had from customers, friends and family – who’ve helped the brand succeed. “We’re surrounded by some really cool people.”
As for those four blocks of chocolate I mentioned? The dark chocolate with raspberry, marshmallow and toasted coconut was my pick.
No wonder it’s their best-seller!