Special focus: Crucial investments unveiled at Hames Chocolates despite pandemic challenges

UK confectionery business Hames Chocolates, a specialist in white and private label ranges, discusses how it has handled the coronavirus crisis as it sets about a new chapter in its history, reports Neill Barston

After building up a thriving private label British confectionery enterprise over the past few decades, Hames Chocolates is taking a bold step into producing its first ever own-brand bar series.

As director Carol Oldbury explains to Confectionery Production, there has been a strong initial reception to her company’s latest industry venture, despite the major disruptive factor of the ongoing pandemic.

The Lincolnshire-based business, which was originally started up by her parents in the 1970s as a catering operation that grew into exploring personalised rock and candy, is back in full swing despite having to shut down for three weeks in April over coronavirus, as the business explains in our exclusive video interview.

With 98 per cent of the company’s core private and white label customers – which include blue chip businesses and supermarkets, also having to temporarily close their doors in compliance with government orders, the effects could have been devastating.

Carol explains: “We closed for three weeks, and I’d hoped perhaps a little naively that the pandemic would just be for that time, but here we are six months later with it. “But that initial time of closure enabled us to look at the business and try to future-proof the company, including looking at new equipment, as well as launching a new website that we’re unveiling this month, so we hope we’ve used our time wisely,” says the director, remarking that they feel very fortunate indeed to have worked hard on assessing the strengths of the family-owned business that supplies major retailers and large scale companies. Its facilities also include a separate candy and fudge manufacturing site in Lancashire.

“We consider ourselves very lucky, as we have plenty of space in our factory, so there have been no problems with social distancing, and we have a really good team in place. So it’s been a case of having to get back to a new normal,” she reveals, taking a pragmatic view of events, which she enthuses are now opening up new potential revenue streams.

Among its core decisions came with purchasing equipment including a new moulding line, and another chocolate spinner to increase its capacity, allowing it to make more hollow products and cake decorations, such as cake domes. Other purchases included lines to handle chocolate shavings, that are used for cake decoration purposes by bakers, caterers, as well as being used by retailers for hot chocolate. “We also considered how we could adapt existing machinery to expand our offering and found that by updating our sweet wrapping machine, we can now offer twist wrapped truffles in addition to regular chocolate truffles and flow wrapped truffles. “On top of expanding our product offering, we also wanted to improve our business efficiencies, so we invested in new lighting and plumbing valves, which in turn save energy and resources,” adds Carol, who says that viewing this most testing of years as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience has helped significantly.

She is quick to praise her team, which includes her husband Andrew, and consists of around 50 day-to-day staff, which can be almost double during the busiest times for the business, including Christmas.

It’s certainly come a long way from the small concern that her parents started up in the early days selling rock varieties, as it gradually expanded into a full manufacturing operation across two sites.

Today, with an annual company turnover of around £3.5 million, the company is anticipating an upturn in demand as it moves towards its peak Christmas season.

As Carol explains, while its private label work is very much set to continue as a core area of its work, this year’s ISM in Cologne saw a key launch as its first view of its own-branded Great British Chocolate range.

“ISM went tremendously for us. I was really proud of our Great British Chocolate range, we thought about it from the roots up, we wanted it to be a celebration of Britishness, examined what consumers are looking for, used British milk in the milk and white chocolate, and we believe it’s a fantastic product, even down to the packaging which has themes like bowler hats and red buses. It went down fantastically well at ISM – but then we had the pandemic, which wasn’t a great time to be launching something new, so we postponed it until now.

“Every buyer in the country seemed to be furloughed, so we pulled the launch, which we are now holding this month with everyone being back at work. I think it’s going to give us some new roots and focus that we didn’t have previously, so it’s years of work and experience that have gone into it.”

As Carol explains, she’s greatly enjoying seeing the business continue to grow, including taking on in-house graphic design teams, as well as an internet specialist to work on its new website for the firm, which is an increasing area of focus.

Though she concedes there may well be further tests on the horizon in the form of Brexit uncertainty for export trade, she adds that its core UK and Ireland markets are performing well.

“There’s nothing not to like about this business – I love the challenge of my job, it’s a 24/7 rollercoaster ride. If I’m not eating chocolate, I’m looking at it, even on holiday we’re looking to see what’s happening with it, I think it’s just a really nice industry to be involved with.

I couldn’t imagine selling shower curtains or anything, my passion for chocolate is much greater, and I think that’s something that can be shared by most people,” adds the director as she keenly anticipates the firm’s ambitious new chapter.

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