Whitakers five generations of confectionery making
As it approaches its 130th anniversary, UK-based Whitakers Chocolates is embarking on a new branding venture with bar products featuring bespoke branding. Neill Barston meets the family behind this long-running family business
Heading through the rugged, winding hills of the Yorkshire dales, it’s hard to imagine there being anything around remotely associated with commerce.
But after a fair journey, the market town of Skipton emerges on the horizon, with its distinctive solid buildings of light stone, which include an array of bustling independent stores and an imposing 11th century castle.
The town’s name stems from its rural roots, meaning ‘sheep farm’ in old English, but it has long since diversified its economy and welcomes a substantial number of tourists each year, eager to soak up its history.
Among one of its most famous modern exports remains Whitakers Chocolates, which has served the confectionery market for five generations.
From its relatively humble origins founded by John and Rebecca Whitaker in 1889 from a small grocery store, it has steadily grown to become a global enterprise employing a total of around 150 people, capable of producing over 10 million chocolates for a global customer base every week.
The company has remained a family-owned enterprise, and its close-knit team appear to genuinely value the long heritage of the business and its place in the community.
As present managing director William Whitaker explains with some pride on greeting me, “The company is something of an institution here in Skipton – if you don’t work here, then you’ll know someone who does.
“The interesting thing about our business is that although it’s 130 years old, we were a certain kind of company for the first 100 years, but without that history, it wouldn’t have enabled us to become what we are today,” says the director who adds a note of praise to his father John, who in spite of being in his 80s, still keeps a regular eye on the business. Under his stewardship, it grew organically over the decades, and shifted its entire focus into chocolate production.
These days, its confectionery production is a very different affair from the firm’s original roots, which like many others in the industry, started life as a secondary venture producing hand-made chocolates from the back of a store.
Today, the 30,000 square ft Skipton factory has evolved to deliver a dedicated core product range that includes fondant creams, chocolate truffles and wafer thins. As its present managing director explains, he remains deeply passionate about the business, though acknowledges that during a 40-year stint in the industry, there have inevitably been both highs and lows.
“I’ve enjoyed my career – you’re not going to have 100% good times with anything, but we’ve never been out of kilter with the market in terms making the right investments with the right product. I’m immensely proud to be part of this business,” asserts the director, who says that since answering his father’s call to join the company as a teenager he hasn’t looked back.
He notes that during the past four decades, he has sadly seen many confectionery businesses fall by the wayside, which has sharpened his own determination to succeed.
In his opinion, one of the main keys to maintaining the company’s momentum has been in fully integrating its production and sales operations, which he says has made a significant difference.
While he concedes there are challenges that are outside of his control, such as minimum wage requirements and the price of cocoa fluctuating, he believes there’s plenty happening out there to offer genuine cause for optimism.
Despite uncertainty surrounding Brexit causing concern with many within the industry, he says he shall ‘let others worry about that,’ with much of its overseas trade presently falling in nations outside of the EU including Canada and Russia.
Impact of technology
The director acknowledges there’s no room for complacency in terms of driving the business forward. He says making shrewd investments in equipment is a vital factor in determining prospects for success.
This is reflected in the considerable range of production systems in operation, including Knobel chocolate depositors, Sollich tempering machines, as well Fuji flow wrapping systems, that are all busily pressed into action.
Consequently, expectations are high surrounding the firm’s next major launch of chocolate bars offering personal branding that are due to gain a full commercial debut at the upcoming ProSweets in Cologne, Germany.
“For our chocolate bars that can be branded, the promotional gifts sector is a huge opportunity for us. We have the kit here to produce around 10,000 bars a day, or around 2 million a year, so I believe it will prove a big success,” adds Whitaker, with the company’s latest product being in-line with market trends that have shown that key youth markets are increasingly seeking out-of-the-ordinary confectionery and food experiences.
A family affair
With the business continuing to expand, the next generation of Whitakers is also keen to be involved, with William’s son Rob
appointed digital marketing director two years ago.
The company’s ranks are also set to be boosted with the arrival of the managing director’s wife Gemma, who is due to join the business for the first time in a product development and promotions role.
As the business owner explained, it has proved a particularly memorable period over the past year, with a media spotlight last summer for the couple’s wedding. Not one to do things by halves, he walked 84 miles from his home in Yorkshire over several days dressed as Willy Wonka to arrive in time for their ceremony in the Lake District.
His epic journey was in aid of a charitable cause close to his heart, with raised towards former England cricketer Ian Botham’s charity foundation.
The couple along with the rest of the team have plenty of work ahead in the build-up to ISM/ProSweets, which they believe will prove a valuable platform for the business.
“This next ProSweets is going to be an important event for us, as we now represent ourselves on the export front. We have the right people with the right understanding of what we are trying to achieve. We haven’t been to Cologne for five years now, but we have a lot of new products to show marking our 130th anniversary,” enthuses the company’s director of the business that is enjoying making a name for itself far beyond the borders of Yorkshire.