The first ten years of the Cocoa Black journey has delivered an abundance of life in all its beautiful complexity, joy and sadness.
Ultimately, Cocoa Black is centred on relationships. The nature of starting and growing a business means you’re out there constantly, meeting new people, understanding their issues, and looking for practical solutions with mutual benefits.
What started in 2007 with Ruth and me around the kitchen table at Woodbine Cottage has grown into a global family of special people, many of whom we are lucky enough to call friends.
Some, such as Kenny, have been with us from the beginning, helping to set up The Chocolate Factory. Others, like Debbie, Martin and Blaz, joined the journey a little later. Some walk with us every day, others from time to time. Some are sadly no longer with us, never to be forgotten.
The people we’ve met on the journey so far are the big payback for taking a chance. Royal visits, presidents, dukes, duchesses, knights, captains, music producers, 3* Michelin chefs, world champion cyclists, martial art grandmasters, university professors, lord-lieutenants, talent agents, council chiefs, business executives, world chocolate masters, BBC producers, chat show hosts, brand designers, yachties, schoolkids, tourism chiefs, professional advisors, tradesmen, craftsmen, railway enthusiasts, 100,000 customers, 10,000 students, staff, friends and family.
They’ve all played a part in what Cocoa Black has finally become.
I met Ruth in 2003 while on secondment with KPMG in Sydney, Australia. We were engaged within six months. She was pastry chef for the Australian Culinary Team – deciding to propose wasn’t a difficult decision.
We first discussed starting a business in 2007, shortly after returning to my hometown of Peebles, in Scotland. Aiden was nine months old, and we had news that Ruth was expecting our daughter, Delphine. Ruth was Head Pastry Chef at the 5* Sheraton Grand Hotel in Edinburgh, and I was busy in a corporate role.
The timing for starting a business wasn’t great, and the economy was in turmoil. However, we felt compelled to take a chance on this journey together – one which could define the rest of our careers.
We’d no idea what shape or direction the business would take, and spent many hours discussing ideas with my father, John. One day, while walking Harvey, our oversized golden retriever, we realised we had a shared vision.
In October 2008, we registered Cocoa Black.
Our journey had begun.
The name Cocoa Black was Ruth’s idea – something she’d been considering for a while. My original suggestion of ‘The Chocolate Farm’ was too agricultural for how we wanted to position the brand. On this occasion, I was more than happy to be overruled.
Production started from the kitchen in the family home. Ruth set about making chocolates and celebration cakes, with Aiden (18 months) and Delphine (3 months) embracing their tasting roles with enthusiasm.
One day, Professor Iain Percy-Robb phoned to place an order for boxed chocolates. He was our first customer. Before long, he became our first regular customer, also inviting Ruth and me to join his family’s Christmas Eve celebrations.
We recognised fairly early on that if harmony was to be maintained in the workplace, we’d need clarity over our individual roles. We agreed that Ruth would try to make more chocolates and cakes than I could sell, and I would try to sell more than she could make. In hindsight, this was probably her way of ensuring I stayed out of her kitchen!
With our roles established, I undertook to create the company logo. An old friend told me about Grant, an Edinburgh-based graphic designer who might be up to the task. I gave him a call.
Our early idea of incorporating a cocoa bean into the logo was rejected by Grant, on the basis that it was too clichéd. He recommended that the logo should demonstrate what the company does, reflect Ruth’s expertise, and be recognisable in its own right. I asked him to come up with some ideas.
After a few weeks without news, I received a call from Grant, who requested a meeting. A couple of days later Ruth and I travelled to Edinburgh, where he unveiled his latest logo design, incorporating a ladle. We knew immediately it was the logo we’d been searching for.
Cocoa Black finally had a visual identity.
With Christmas over, it was clear we needed a commercial kitchen – somewhere Ruth could run chocolate classes, and scale up production. She’d heard of an empty warehouse in a small industrial estate in Peebles, so we packed the kids into the car, and went to have a look.
The estate was a hive of activity, with a bronze foundry, a print works, and a classic car garage. Even before we’d parked, I could see Ruth was in love with the place, her mind racing with possibilities.
In stark contrast to outside, the interior of the warehouse was quiet. There was nothing: no office, no flooring, and no heating. Ruth, however, saw it through a different lens, and soon I began to see what she saw – a blank canvas on which we could build our dreams.
Following a quick phone call with Ruth’s father, we decided to take a chance. For the next couple of months, all of our time, energy and money were spent converting the warehouse into The Chocolate Factory. Everything was done on a budget, meaning we had to do the hard work ourselves. Thankfully, Kenny was able to help out, and kept Ruth and me entertained with his stories and singing.
In February, we received a call from our accountant, Sheila. If Cocoa Black was to succeed, we would have to increase sales dramatically. We’d taken on Seren and Zoe to help with production, and overheads were high. We reasoned that the quickest way to increase sales was to open a shop.
Again, Ruth had heard of a property with potential, and arranged a viewing with the owners, Derek and Mick. We arrived at 1 Cuddybridge to find a beautiful standalone listed building, set on the banks of The Cuddy in Peebles. The ground floor was made up of two premises, one of them occupied by a balloon shop. There was a large public car park to the rear. It was perfect.
We agreed to a two-year lease with an option to buy. This would give us time to produce a set of accounts for our bank manager Fred, who would hopefully then approve a commercial mortgage.
Design and refitting began the following week. Neither Ruth nor I knew the first thing about retail, and we were making decisions as we went along. Ruth was in discussions with Debbie about taking on the the shop manager role.
Debbie had reservations about leaving her existing job, and made us wait nervously for her decision. Thankfully, she agreed to come on board, and has been with us ever since. In April 2010, the Cocoa Black boutique welcomed its first walk-in customer.
In March, Ruth and I received news that Cocoa Black had been awarded UK Confectioner of the Year. While the business had picked up a handful of regional retail and tourism awards, this was the first time it had been recognised nationally.
With some excitement, Ruth travelled to London to receive the award from TV host Richard Madeley. I remained at home sitting around the fire with Aiden and Delphine, explaining what the award meant, and why their mum had to leave for the night.
Being named UK Confectioner of the Year had three notable effects on Cocoa Black. Firstly, it provided Ruth and me with motivation for the next stage of the journey. Secondly, it generated national press, giving us the confidence to expand the boutique into the recently vacated balloon shop. Lastly, and as yet unknown to us, the award would bring Cocoa Black its first official royal visit.
2011 saw our first experience in front of the TV cameras. We’d been asked to contribute to the NatGeo series, Chocolate Covered, and had also agreed to work with the BBC on an episode of Landward.
The filming schedule was tight. Ruth had just returned from five days demonstrating at Gourmet Abu Dhabi, and was exhausted. She and her team also had 1,000 boxes of chocolates to prepare for Standard Life Investments’ international marketing campaign.
Twice within two months, the cameras were rolling at The Chocolate Factory. Ruth, Seren and Zoe would arrive early each morning, making sure their chefs’ whites were spotless, and that they looked their best for the cameras. We invited Iain Percy-Robb, our first customer, along to enjoy a moment in the BBC limelight.
The BBC’s Landward went to air in December 2011, resulting in a very busy run-up to Christmas. Ruth’s parents, Richard and Astrid, flew in from Tasmania to help pack boxed chocolates, which by this time were being dispatched across the UK.
News of Chocolate Covered went quiet for a long time, and we assumed that the series had been shelved. In 2017, six years after filming, we started hearing from friends around the world, who said: “I’ve just been watching you on TV in India, Sri Lanka!”
In February, Ruth received a call from Captain Sir David Younger, Lord Lieutenant of Tweeddale. He wished to recommend Cocoa Black for an official royal visit, following its award as UK Confectioner of the Year. The proposed visit would be made by HRH Prince Edward in May 2012.
Ruth and I were astonished at this turn of events. Not for the first time, we asked ourselves, “how is all of this happening?” We agreed to the royal visit, and an agenda was finalised.
Right before the Prince’s arrival at The Chocolate Factory, my father parked in the space reserved for our royal guest. The security team was quick to resolve matters and tucked him away inside the office. The official welcome party included the Lord Lieutenant of Tweeddale, Scottish Enterprise, local council officials, and the full Cocoa Black team.
On arrival, Prince Edward walked straight past the welcome party and into the office, where Dad was relaxing with a cup of tea and a newspaper! The two chatted for a few minutes, before efforts were made to steer the event back onto the agreed agenda.
Prince Edward and Ruth got on very well, and spent an hour making chocolate truffles. To the delight of Ruth and our photographer, he was gracious enough to put on a Cocoa Black apron.
In 2012, Ruth received a phone call from Blaz. Originally from Denmark, Blaz had qualified as an architect at the time of the financial crisis. Due to events outwith his control, he had been unable to find work, and was looking to start a new career as a pastry chef. He was down on his luck.
Blaz had saved some money to attend one of Ruth’s masterclasses. It was clear to Ruth that here was a man who was capable, passionate and committed to finding work in the industry. The two of them remained in touch, and Blaz returned to Cocoa Black a year later for the chocolate showpiece course. His chocolate and pastry skills had improved considerably during this time.
In 2015, Ruth was able to support Blaz in his application for a job as a pastry chef in Dubai. His application was successful. In the summer of 2017, Blaz contacted Ruth again with the news that he was opening up his own pastry shop in Dubai. For us, this is the stuff that really matters. Congratulations Blaz – well done, sir!
We started the year with renewed motivation. Demands on cashflow remained high, as Ruth and I were embarking upon larger, more ambitious projects – projects which we hoped would transform Cocoa Black from a regional business into something of international significance.
Ruth had huge demands on her time. As well the everyday needs of a young family and a growing business, she was also training for the World Chocolate Masters. Martin Chiffers, President of the UK Pastry Team, joined us as her coach, and the two of them trained 25-30 hours a week for a year.
I was also under pressure to make organisational changes required for growth. We were both feeling the responsibility of increased staffing levels, and had to get used to making decisions that would affect the livelihoods of others.
To tackle these challenges, we set about pulling together a team to take the business forward. Ewan, our advisor from Scottish Enterprise, was pivotal at this time, as was our business banker, Fred, with whom we’d worked hard to develop trust.
With our two sponsors on board, we set about defining what our ideal team would look like. Our first phone calls were to Scott and Marc, with whom we’d already worked on a number of projects. They shared the vision for brand positioning and digital distribution that Ruth and I had for cocoablack.com, and had the experience to help us turn it into reality.
Ruth’s top five finish at the World Chocolate Masters remains the UK’s best result in international pastry competition.
The competition attracted significant media coverage in the weeks leading up to the World Finals in Paris. Her appearances on ITV’s Daybreak and The Chris Evans Breakfast Show again put Cocoa Black in the limelight, and at times we struggled to keep pace with everything happening around us.
Classes at The Chocolate & Pastry School were fully booked, and we started seeing the arrival of students from USA, South America and Europe. The Cocoa Black boutique was also receiving some notable drop-ins, including world champion cyclist Mark Cavendish MBE, winner of 30 Tour de France stages.
Ruth became brand ambassador for global chocolate manufacturer Cacao Barry, and had signed with London talent agency Kruger Cowne. In August, she and I travelled to Chatsworth House, to meet the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
Later in the year, we heard the sad news that our first customer, Iain Percy-Robb, had passed away. We were working hard – far harder than we’d ever worked before. There were so many demands placed on our time that we reached the edge of breaking point. We were no longer enjoying ourselves.
When the journey has seemed difficult, Ruth and I have been lucky enough to be supported by some very special people. As well as emotional support from our immediate families, my good friend Jan was there when we needed him most. Ewan, our Scottish Enterprise advisor, was also able to provide reassurance that our experiences were just part of growing a business.
To get some headspace and a renewed perspective, Ruth and I tried to take things a little easier over the summer of 2014. Regularly taking Aiden and Delphine down to Haylodge Park in Peebles for a BBQ and a swim in the River Tweed was always a good way to relax.
Ruth and Delphine took up horse riding, which had a remarkable effect. I was training 3-4 times a week at taekwondo with Aiden, and started to feel much better. Our taekwondo instructor was a ninth dan Grandmaster who one afternoon joined us for coffee and cake at Cocoa Black. I’d never seen Aiden (7) so well behaved.
I’d also come to rely heavily on two of my oldest friends, Peter and Brian. Over the years, they’ve provided a much valued sounding board for the 10,000 or so decisions that have been made at Cocoa Black. Saturday evenings would typically involve a stroll along the banks of the River Tweed, finding answers to the most pressing issues of the day.
As the immediate effects of the World Chocolate Masters passed, Ruth and I were able to return our focus to developing Cocoa Black. Ruth was keen to bring into the business Martin Chiffers (left). Martin is an international pastry chef consultant, and technical advisor on Bake Off: Crème de la Crème.
In 2014, Ruth invited Martin to help develop a Chocolate Showpiece Masterclass for The Chocolate & Pastry School. Students would design and assemble 1-2m high showpiece, following a theme such as ‘Pinocchio’ or ‘Music’. Over time, these courses attracted top pastry chef talent, including Graham Hornigold (Hakkasan), Cherish Finden (Judge, Crème de la Crème), and Hideko Kawa (The Fat Duck).
2015 was another busy year for Ruth and Cocoa Black. As well as judging the UK Chocolate Masters with Michel Roux Jr., Ruth was commissioned to support some big public sector events. Among them was a nationwide campaign promoting the launch of the £294M Borders Railway by Her Majesty the Queen.
Sponsored by Scottish Borders Council, Ruth’s golden ticket campaign saw 25,000 bespoke branded chocolate bars distributed to schoolkids across the region. The campaign raised over £20,000 for the Cash for Kids charity.
Ruth also designed and built the now famous Chocolate Flying Scotsman with Martin Chiffers and his assistant Princess Samira (aka The Train Gang). The showpiece was positioned at Waverley Station in Edinburgh, adjacent to an international press gallery awaiting the arrival of Her Majesty the Queen.
Both campaigns received widespread national and international media coverage, with the Chocolate Flying Scotsman being featured on numerous news channels, and in Waitrose magazine. Pete Waterman, music producer and former owner of the original train, shared the ‘Making of the Chocolate Flying Scotsman’ video through his social media channels. Ruth received a special mention in the Scottish Parliament.
In January, work started on The Chocolate & Pastry School, a purpose-fitted training facility above the Cocoa Black boutique in Peebles. Ruth and I were considering who we could invite to open it. We wanted it to be someone who already had an association with Cocoa Black. HRH Prince Edward was our first choice.
I found myself writing a letter to the Prince more in hope than in expectation of a positive reply. As luck would have it, the letter arrived on the royal breakfast table on the very morning Prince Edward had decided to attend the Queen’s Garden Party in Edinburgh.
On his second visit to Cocoa Black on 5th July 2016, HRH Prince Edward officially opened The Chocolate & Pastry School. The royal opening was filmed as part of a six part TV series BBC The River. He departed with a box of Cocoa Black Signature Selection chocolates which, according to his Private Secretary, were presented to Her Majesty the Queen the following evening.
In February 2016, I received a phone call from Steven Todd, Series Producer of a forthcoming TV documentary, BBC The River. Steven was keen to understand more about life in The Chocolate Factory, and a meeting was arranged.
Within a fortnight, the cameras were rolling again at Cocoa Black, with filming continuing throughout the summer. Ruth was also filming in Estonia, giving a impromptu chocolate demonstration to the Estonian President live on TV.
The River came along at the perfect time for Cocoa Black. Ruth and I were on the verge of realising the vision we had back in 2007, and we were looking for a door to the next chapter.
A few months later, in a six-part series, Cocoa Black was shared with three million viewers on the BBC. Our journey, or at least the first phase of it, was now complete.
With the new Chocolate & Pastry School now complete, our immediate aim was to elevate its status to an international destination for professional chefs. Our vision for the school was to create an escape – somewhere those with a passion for chocolate and pastry could come to unwind and gain access to the very best tuition.
From the outset, we recognised that Peebles has a wealth of natural assets. Its beautiful parks, river walks, and friendly pubs are the perfect antidote to the stresses of the professional kitchen.
In launching the guest chef masterclasses, we decided to aim for the very top, and brought in Frank Haasnoot (World Chocolate Master) to deliver his first UK chocolate masterclass. In the days leading up to Frank’s masterclass, Cocoa Black welcomed pastry chefs from the world’s most prestigious hotels and restaurants. Many had travelled internationally, and took delight in Peebles and its gentle pace of life.
Our big project in 2018 was the refit of the Cocoa Black shop. We’d commissioned the best retail designer we could find, and challenged him to help us to create “the UK’s best chocolate shop.” He accepted the challenge and, after six months and countless designs, we finally signed off on the plan.
The next step was to gather a multi-disciplined team to help turn the plan into reality. Included in the team were the retail designer who oversaw the refit, an Edinburgh-based shopfitter, and our branding agency, which was working on new product packaging and a refresh of the ecommerce website.
It was a stressful time, not least because the project was our biggest investment to date, but also because so many moving parts had to come together at once. The refit took five weeks, and we watched in awe as the team worked in harmony to bring our dream to life.
With the project near completion, the Chocolate Factory went back into full swing with the production of Cocoa Black’s new range of chocolates and patisserie. The shelves were stocked, and the place looked amazing.
The grand reopening on 31 May 2018 was a day we’ll never forget. By 9.15am, almost every available seat was taken, with a long queue out of the door. It was an amazing moment, made truly special by the people there – the staff and customers of Cocoa Black.