Exclusive focus: York Cocoa House leads second day World Confectionery Conference activities
Sophie Jewett, managing director of York Cocoa House, will be among our keynote speakers at our Harrogate conference. Editor Neill Barston speaks to her about her presentation, and hosting a special linked chocolate masterclass in York on 6 October Reviving Yorkshire’s rich confectionery heritage Speaking on the event
Having a strong and clear passion for the confectionery industry is something that has served Sophie Jewett exceptionally well over the past decade in the business.
As she explained, it was the chance to attend an edition of major ISM sweets and snacks event in Cologne, that set her on the path to forging her own business that has made its mark on the UK independent sector in some style.
Clearly, as she acknowledged, there have been plenty of highs and lows along the journey to date, not least of which was the considerable tests of actually setting up the company itself.
Then there’s the not so inconsiderable issue of more than two years business disruption emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the subsequent energy and cost of living crisis that has impacted across all spheres of industry.
While confectionery consumption continued to rise during those most surreal of pandemic years, the past 12 months have seen independent businesses such as Sophie’s being particularly affected, as consumer confidence has reduced spending on premium luxury treating segments in the UK, as with many other locations around the globe.
Despite all those factors, and other issues such as the lingering impacts of Brexit and the more recent, still ongoing war in Ukraine helping to push up production costs with ingredients rises, it seems that York Cocoa House is continuing to thrive.
As the ambitious entrepreneur explained, she has placed sustainable sourcing as a core founding principle of the business, and has worked with a number of farming communities around the world in gaining her supplies, though as she conceded, there has been a steep learning curve in establishing buying relationships, and gaining the required volumes of quality cocoa has, in itself, offered challenges.
However, she is enthused by the prospect of speaking at this year’s World Confectionery Conference, as well as leading activities for the second optional day of our event (on 6 October), which is set to include a free tour of its facilities, followed by a further chocolate making masterclass that will be attended by Confectionery Production – so make sure to get involved with that too if you’re able to.
It will certainly offer the chance to experience the company’s impressive hand crafted chocolate truffles and caramels that are part of its notable series of treats, which are packed-full of local Yorkshire ingredients, as well as its renowned bars, which are also made on-site at its manufactory facility.
Sophie welcomed the chance to play her part in the show. She said: “It’s fantastic that the World Confectionery Conference is coming to Yorkshire, and I am really looking forward to welcoming people here in York. “It feels like there is so much of the industry that surrounds us on our journey who have a connection to the area, whether it’s the big companies, or science or learning, so it’s wonderful that we will be seeing people come back to the city for the event.
As she notes it was certainly no mere accident that she chose to set up her own confectionery store just yards from where Henry Isaac Rowntree, a Quaker living in the area, first started the famous company that would become an integral part of the British confectionery landscape – which would ultimately be bought by Nestle at the end of the 1980s.
Speaking about the origins of her decision to set up the firm in 2011, she says that it struck her as a personal mission after completing her university degree studies at the University of York, and later in event management, that striking out with a good friend in establishing their own venture was the way to go, having worked in the fine food sector in the area for several years.
“I am a chocolate lover who took a look at the product I loved and felt cheated and troubled that it had such an awful reputation as regards its ingredients, the lack of transparency and what had gone on in the creation of those products.
“So I really felt very torn about it – I have been working with chocolate from a young age, making things and that was my hobby and obsession, and had grown up on a farm and had this fascination with how food is grown. “I started looking into fairness, and the structures of the chocolate. It was one of the main reasons I came to York was because of its chocolate factories, I assumed quite wrongly I would have a chance to visit them, and that you couldn’t do that anymore.
“Then I saw the industry diminishing in the city, and met so many people who had been involved with it, and that re-ignited that spark I had from my childhood,” adding that upon her return from visiting ISM, it was a question of trying to set about bringing something special back into the market that she felt had been missing. In her previous roles before setting up her business, she had worked in the events sector, championing local companies, which is something that she remains passionate about to this day.
As her own business developed, this led to her taking a prominent role in York’s annual chocolate festival, which has provided one of many highlights for her over the past decade.
But as she noted, probably the most challenging element was in actually taking the plunge to set it all up. She explained: “The most difficult moment in getting the business going was on 15 September 2011, was the day before we put the original offer in on our Cocoa House – I had a horrible nightmare that I was falling off a cliff, but then I woke up and thought, If I am going to jump off a cliff then I might as well find a really big one – so that’s the analogy that stuck in my mind and it was like bringing out all of my fears, and the worst moment was thinking that I could give it a go. I decided to overcome that inner gremlin and the rest of it has just happened,” who revealed that her original vision was to share the story of York’s heritage, as well as developing her own confectionery brand.
“It became very clear that this wasn’t about looking backwards, but about being able to be forward looking and to share everything we had learnt with consumers who we hoped would be as fascinated by this as we have been exploring and uncovering about cocoa.
So we opened up five years go – right opposite where the very little shop that Henry Isaac Rowntree did his apprenticeship and learnt to roast cocoa, and that felt like a massive guiding light that we’d found this one space in the city,” added Sophie of her continuing adventures in confectionery.
- Sophie is keenly awaiting sharing some of her experiences at this year’s World Confectionery Conference on 5 October, as well as the activity day that Confectionery Production will also be participating on this 6 October (for the chocolate making, please book your place separately at the following link, for either the York Cocoa House morning tour, or the chocolate making masterclass session in the afternoon (which is at a special offer price of £40 for the afternoon) https://www.yorkcocoahouse. co.uk/pages/world-confectionery-conference-2023