Striving for artisan chocolate excellence despite testing pandemic conditions
As one of the UK’s most notable artisan chocolatiers, Paul A Young has been an extremely busy man despite lockdown. Neill Barston speaks to him about how he has coped amid the pandemic, key trends he’s seen and his view on where the sector is heading
Having been a pastry chef for Marco Pierre White, worked for major UK retailers and appeared in a number of television series, Paul A Young has established himself as a key figure within the confectionery scene.
But by his own admission, ‘It’s been lot of work’ to climb to the position he’s in now, growing the business over the past 14 years to open two London chocolate stores, which are now supported by an online retail operation.
As he concedes, quarantine has been a curious experience for many including himself, yet he’s not one to sit around resting on his laurels. Anyone who saw him feature among the band of four confectioners within the BBC’s The Sweet Makers television series exploring confectionery making through the ages will have recognised his clear drive to deliver inventive creations that push at the boundaries of flavours.
While he admits that time to be conjure up the kinds of premium chocolate treats that have given him an almost ‘rock star status’ in confectionery terms has been a little thin on the ground amid the pandemic, he’s grateful for the team around him in ensuring they keep afloat.
“In a weird way, it hasn’t affected me too much. I haven’t had to stay at home too much as my daily life has been going to work either on my bike or public transport, but it’s obviously changed the business a lot.
“With shops having been shut we had to furlough staff but have now opened our Islington store, with our other site just having click collect as there hasn’t really been anyone in the West End,” explains the chocolatier, noting that he’s welcoming a return to some kind of near normality as he places the finishing touches on re-opening the remainder of his London-based operations.
However, he concedes that there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome – the government’s reducing restrictions over social distancing from two metres to one metre makes little difference to retail environments such as his based within elegant, narrow Georgian buildings that allow for only two people in a store at a time.
“I think that people are starting to feel more confident about coming into stores. So as long as we following guidelines then it will keep on ticking over. But if you’re a small retailer like us, in having small retail footprints, it’s two customers maximum, is that going work yet in terms of covering the rent, costs and wages. We don’t know yet.
“People want to come back and see us and have that connection, they want to chose their chocolates and want to do something other than just be walking around – they want to get back into shopping a little, especially with destination stores,” explains Paul, who says there’s still a notable number of shoppers who don’t feel comfortable buying online and had their habits moulded by Amazon.
Forming chocolate success
As he reveals, one of the most useful technical tricks of the confectionery trade has been the Mayku FormBox – a recently created moulding system that is continuing to enable him and his colleagues to make a far wider range of cost-effective, sophisticated chocolate designs.
“We have had the Formbox for two years now, and it allows you create shapes at different sizes without having to source out that work. It’s used in a lot of industries but just happens to work well with chocolate, which we mould a lot,” he explains, revealing that the company was previously reliant on external moulding service in the UK (in Halifax), which would take up to six weeks, as well as other moulding specialists in Belgium, which could take up to 12 weeks due to the design, origination and sampling of limited-run products – which could often prove too long a wait for some of the company’s customers.
He reveals that some of his most memorable confectionery ranges of recent times have been made using the system – including a series based on a classic tin of chocolate biscuits designed purely as chocolate.
In terms of some of the treats that he and his small team of specialists have been devising, some of their most intriguing creations include beer and crisps flavoured chocolate, through to korma and poppadom, cocktail flavour, and even bbq and vegan burger flavour truffle number for good measure.
It’s clear that offering customers something new amid a highly competitive market is of vital importance – so too is offering access to ordering online.
“We opened in 2006 which was well before social media – we just did what we wanted to do in selling great chocolates handmade on site, and people loved coming in to see us. It’s not that we didn’t want to, but we were at full capacity all the time. You need a lot of space to do things online, but we are doing that now.
“I think that what we need more now than ever in the UK to be seasonal, as there is going to be potentially a shortfall in some crops and some things won’t get into the country quite so readily, but we have some fantastic ingredients within the UK, so we are really going to play on that and use as many as we possibly can,” explains Young, who notes that sustainable sourcing has been a key issue of which he is especially mindful, and has as a matter of course sought out chocolate suppliers with high ethical standards to match the quality of the product itself.
Furthermore, he adds that some of the key themes he is anticipating this year including a theme of nostalgia, with confectionery based around sharing set to be a big trend amid a market that has been starved of social company for many months amid the pandemic.
As he admits, there remain many challenges to navigate amid the present business climate as companies slowly begin to return to operation after months of closing their doors, he says there are plenty of reasons that keep him engaged with the sector.
“This is a very colourful, complex and complicated industry. There’s so many layers to it, and there are a number of people doing fantastic things to help others understand what real chocolate is. People like Martin Christy who has established international chocolate awards and a qualification for chocolate tasting, as the Academy of Chocolate which has been around for many years trying to get more people involved within the industry.
“Thank goodness for social media as well for being able to share details of such organisations and events. So I do enjoy it, but like anything I do, I am going to love bits of it and hate bits of it, and think ‘I wish I could just do the love bits’ but without everything else, you haven’t got those good parts. The people in this industry are passionate which makes it a really nice industry to be in. I wish there were more people in it long-term though, as see quite a lot of people who start out and then a year later it’s fizzled out, or they’re making something similar to everyone else. You have to stand out and have a story, and that takes time,” explains the amiable expert on his ongoing adventures in the world of chocolate.