Living the confectionery dream
As the owners of the cherished British Choc Nibbles brand, Sweetdreams has been busy expanding into more premium markets, as Neill Barston discovered visiting its UK facilities
A sign in the management offices of Sweetdreams confectionery near Newcastle reads “Nothing chocolate, nothing gained,” which admirably sums up the company’s approach to business.
The commercial facilities of the Northumberland-based company may not give away too many external clues from the regulation industrial estate layout, yet what is being produced within its walls are some rather special British products indeed.
For British folk now in their 30s and 40s, the company’s flagship Choc Nibbles brand conjures up plenty of nostalgia for their pre-millennial childhoods.
While these distinctive small pellets may not at first inspection appear particularly striking, the manufacturers behind them assure me they are in fact made of a surprisingly high-grade chocolate.
Consequently, it appears their recipe remains a closely-guarded secret, though its manufacturers explain these low-cost sweets are in fact made of comparatively high-grade chocolate.
Managing a brand which has firmly cemented itself over the past 30 years is a challenge that Matthew Stephenson and his wife Cathy, continue to relish, despite facing the usual headaches and growing pains of an ever-expanding business.
Having taken over Sweetdreams in 2007, he says he’s having a ‘brilliant time’ at the helm, in spite of issues including the ongoing uncertainty surrounding whether or not Brexit will actually ever come to pass, which continues to impact on ingredients supplies.
The company itself had only been registered in the late 90s, but he could sense its potential would be worth the investment with the right mix of ambition and invention.
“When we took over the business, it was about to wind-up with the owner due to retire – they made me an offer and I managed to re-arrange our mortgage. It’s been a brilliant 12 years,” says Matt of the rollercoaster experience of running the business that now employs 20 people from its north eastern UK base.
As he explains, while its main product line may fall into something of an unusual bracket, delivering something that’s a little quirky is continuing to work in the company’s favour.
Though he admits the past year has been a relatively tough one for the business, Stephenson says the business is continuing to turn a corner during the initial months of 2019.
“I still have with me two key personnel from that first day, I think this reflects the ethos and culture of the business – family run, personal, caring company that offers a similar service and approach to its customers,” says Stephenson, who adds he remains as passionate about the company as when he started.
But far from rest on his laurels, the company is launching an entirely new premium product range at ISM in Cologne, known as Reivers, which consists of fruit and nut centred chocolates.
The main flavours include milk chocolate salted caramel almonds, dark chocolate zesty orange batons, strawberries and cream, Dark Chocolate Covered Blueberries, Dark Chocolate Fiery Ginger and Northumberland Fudge.
According to its developers, the range prompted some key interest from potential customers following its showcase in Germany, with the brand linking up with the Northumberland tourist board offering regional confectionery flavours.
With the development of such series, the company is continuing on a pattern of growth that continues to see production volumes being ramped up. As Stephenson reveals, there are challenges beyond the UK’s expected departure from the EU that are providing the business with tests, including continually upgrading its production standards, which are now BRC rated, enabling it to trade with a number of major corporations within Britain, as well as the many companies it trades with for more bespoke production orders.
“There has been some significant consolidation in confectionery manufacturing over the last couple of years – and with the rise in more bespoke, quality confectionery demand this has led to a lack of flexible, innovative suppliers – this is a position within the market that Sweetdreams has firmly planted its flag.
“There will always be a demand for commoditised products, but they are not for us; there are some very good high-volume manufacturers that can supply that market. Our customer relations are built on how we have always dealt with Choc Nibbles customers – they want something different.”
Underlining the progress made by the business, the past two years has seen extensive investment totalling £600,000 into the business, expanding to its present 25,000sq ft factory from an adjacent plot at Cramlington. This includes the introduction of new coating and panning lines which form a crucial part of its operations, which have seen the firm dispatch increasing quantities of products across the UK.
As the company’s technical director Andy Baxendale explains during a tour of its present site, the company’s move there from its previous spot on the same estate offers the business a major boost.
Exploring the building, one of its main production areas is devoted to creating tonnes of ChocNibbles each week. From receiving its regular dispatches of chocolate supplies, the company’s teams set in motion its panning and coating equipment to form its core range of confectionery. The coating facilities in particular are memorable for the notable cloud of ingredients that unavoidably fills the room as part of a tried-and-tested process that is a continuing success story for the business.
Intriguingly, the company continues to develop a host of flavours for its ranges, which are put through their paces on a regular basis, with a host of exotically flavoured options lining the shelves. These span everything from gin infused options, though to a variety of fruit combinations that keep its teams especially occupied.
Reflecting on an eventful couple of years with the business, Baxendale, says it’s a particular pleasure being involved with the company, which he says benefits significantly from having a refreshingly open and engaging culture.
“It’s been a brilliant opportunity working here, with the kit that has been installed over the past couple of years, we are able to get into the business at a level that’s equally able to accommodate small orders of anything from 50kg, through to big orders that run into tonnes for full product runs for our chocolate coating work,” explains Bexendale, who draws upon more than two decades in the industry.
With a masters in science gained during his days in the early 2000s working for another major British sweets brand, Chewits, he is enjoying playing a key role in the company’s development.
Among his main responsibilities is ensuring its top A rated BRC health and safety production standards are maintained, enabling the company to deal with major corporate clients.
As Baxendale, who is also an editorial board member for Confectionery Production explains, his passion for coming up with new product varieties is something he lives for.
“This is an industry something that I totally understand. I never found anything that I have come across that has made such complete sense to me – from the products to the recipes and the chemistry behind it all, it’s just a perfect combination. For me, it’s all about the development side and being able to get my hands dirty making new confectionery, and seeing that come to fruition,” explains the technical director, who has also turned his hand to another of consultancy projects with the blessing of his present employers.
His confectionery skills were recently put to the test with a highly unlikely mission to the Middle East, where he was invited to teach a company in Saudi Arabia the art of great fudge making, after a spike in interest for European sweets.
Another of his favourite recent projects was offering advice to a US company in California seeking to produce legal cannabis-based sweets for use as medicinal confectionery.
As we continue the site tour, we encounter production manager Carol Heslop, who is a founding employee of the business. She appears in infectiously optimistic about the company’s prospects.
She enthuses: “We started out over 20 years ago just doing everything by hand from benchtop equipment. I’ve been really proud to see how the company has developed. I am chocolate through and through and just love the hands-on process of it all.”
Amid the flurry of production activity, the company’s packaging teams appear similarly productive, as they seek to fulfil a wide array of orders around the UK, with many being long-term repeat customers, including major stores.
As Cathy Stephenson notes, the rise of the business has not been an overnight success, but she says it continues to evolve in an organic way through experimentation and plenty of hard work.
“The business has been very much developed through trial and error, and we have learned a lot and we’re now in a very good place. We have seen the coating and panning side of the business grow realised that there is a demand for luxury confectionery.
“It’s just been a journey, the comparison to where we started off is a million miles away- I am very proud of it all and, I have picked up the strategy from Matt, who has been the driving force of the business,” she adds of the company which is continuing to build its customer base through continuing to offer an enhanced range of services and inventive confectionery offerings.