Prestat pulls out the stops with confectionery fit for a Queen
As one of the very few brands to have a production warrant from the Queen, and beloved by the late Roald Dahl, Prestat remains an iconic British confectionery brand. Neill Barston explores its London production facilities as it contends with operating amid ongoing pandemic conditions
Having said to have inspired the late Roald Dahl to pen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Prestat confectionery brand continues to enjoy a highly enviable heritage over more than a century.
Not only was it a beloved favourite of the late English author, the distinctive luxury truffles have garnered a number of famous admirers over the years, including HRH Queen Elizabeth II.
In the mid 1970s, she bestowed a rare royal warrant upon the business for bespoke supplies for Buckingham Palace, and is to this day still served with a special delivery each Easter.
Backed by such an esteemed pedigree, the business remains buoyant, surviving a number of trading challenges as it grew steadily amid a post war Britain that became exposed to an ever-more expansive array of sweets and snacks.
It’s likely the company’s French born founder Antoine Dufour, who established the firm way back in 1902, would be been proud of its eventual transformation into a global enterprise. The brand now has a turnover of around £7 million and exports around the world from its central London base – see our exclusive video interview with the company here.
Significantly, the business had formerly been operated for nearly two decades under the ownership of half brothers Nick Crean and Bill Keeling, who were notably passionate about sustainable sourcing as part of the defining attributes of the company.
This spirit of trading fairly has seemingly been taken to heart as the company enters a new chapter after it was acquired last March by Italian coffee giant, illy.
The group is also the owner of the premium Domori chocolate brand, which was founded on principles of delivering a fair deal for farmers, as well as being equally dedicated to crafting products from a rare and fine aromatically rich cacao, Criollo. As the company explains, the marriage between the two enterprises is so far proving especially fruitful.
For many familiar with Prestat, their main interaction with the business is likely to be through its core London store in Picadilly, which continues to tempt customers with its array of high calibre chocolate delights. In addition, its ranges are also available through major stores including John Lewis.
One of its most distinguishing features is in the quality of the ranges’ packaging, which for many years used the art deco influences of designer Kitty Arden, and are now being further refreshed as the brand looks towards the all-important Christmas season.
Among its present series are elegantly packaged heart assortment boxes and hampers, through to the addition of ruby chocolate thins, sourced via a deal with Swiss-headquartered Barry Callebaut.
Then of course there are its signature truffle ranges that it pioneered and still remain best sellers for the business – which a certain Roald Dahl admitted to being particularly partial to.
“I do so adore chocolate truffles as Prestat makes them,” he once remarked of the brand, which he frequented along with many renowned individuals from the world of stage and screen.
While its early days were very much rooted in traditional artisanal confectionery with production being based in-store, the business has long-since adopted more commercial off-site methods to meet export demand around the world.
So, gaining the rare chance to glimpse behind the scenes into its production methods at Prestat’s commercial premises is an opportunity not to be missed.
While there may not be any rivers of chocolate, or fantastical creatures from the pages of Roald Dahl greeting us at what is in truth, a relatively standard set of units buried within a tricky to find industrial estate in North West London, there’s no less sense of occasion exploring its ever-evolving facilities.
Rather unusually, the site retains the signage of the production enterprise that Prestat acquired in the mid 1980s, Marasu’s, but this all adds to the sense of intrigue.
Greeting me are its marketing team including Francesca Campello and head of e-commerce Nikolay Damyanov, they’re notably passionate about the company’s prestigious product range as it continues to thrive in challenging times.
As we make our way through the operational areas of the building, there are some fascinating acknowledgements of its history, including colourful prints from key product campaigns, and a very fitting portrait of Her Majesty the Queen adorning one of its walls.
According to Damyanov, its present team of around 40 worked exceptionally hard to maintain business continuity during the present pandemic, which was forced to close for just two weeks at the height of the initial coronavirus outbreak in April.
Consequently, the business has steadily scaled-up back to full capacity, which has required a number of additional measures to continue operating effectively with stringent heightened health and safety requirements.
This includes daily temperature checks for its staff, as well as additional sanitisation of workspaces and individual hand washing regimes beyond the already stringent expectations that were typically installed as standard within the business.
Exploring the production lines of the business, which are engaging in creating around five tonnes of chocolate products a week, there seems a strong sense of camaraderie and commitment.
Among the first we encounter is the company’s new product development specialist, Jack Webster. He says it’s been particularly enjoyable experience since joining the business around 18 months ago, specialising in devising a raft of confectionery creations that add to its traditional truffle lines.
From there, we examine the moulding and tempering processes, which are handled by a skilled team of operators who are able apply the finishing artistic design touches to product ranges.
Notably, as the business reveals, the company is now able to draw upon the high grade of chocolate couverture through its connections with Italian firm Domori, which the firm believes will help drive the business to the next level in terms of wider production ambitions.
Indeed, it seems the company is keen to gradually expand its range of products, which continue to extend into areas that it has not traditionally been associated with.
Most notably, this includes its relatively recently introduced series of mince pies, as we are introduced to the team in its bakery department who admit they’re struggling to keep pace with demand – with plans afoot to expand its capabilities in this area.
Commendably, under its new ownership, the long-established focus on ethical trading is clearly being maintained, with Domori insisting upon certified sources of cocoa from single-source origins from Ivory Coast cocoa suppliers.
As Damyanov reveals, while the pandemic has created its tests for the business, it has also offered a valuable time for reflection upon areas of the business which can be further strengthened.
“It’s no secret it has been a challenging time for everyone, going from having to completely shut down for a short period, but we have been able to persevere, and have used this time to improve our processes and in fact work more on our e-commerce, as well as examined things like our packaging for our ranges, notes Damyanov, who says that its health and safety teams have worked incredibly hard to ensure its operations remain free of covid-19.
While Damyanov acknowledges that keeping pace with competition in being innovative is important to the business, utilising its history remains a key draw in making Prestat a special business.
“After nearly 120 years, we’re still making that same truffle recipe that began with our founder Antoine Dufour,” he notes, explaining the royal warrant first awarded by the Queen is set to be transferred to the company’s new owners.
“We’re incredibly proud to have that royal connection and that stamp of approval by the Royal Household. While we cannot say what her Majesty’s favourite chocolate is, each year at Easter we send a special delivery to Buckingham Palace,” adds Damyanov of the relationship with the royal family, which is now thought to have been passed down to future generations, with Prince Harry having known to have taken a sizeable supply with him on a charitable mission.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the royal warrant is displayed prominently in the company’s London store, providing customers from around the world with a fine photo opportunity.
“Then there is Roald Dahl, who has also been a great customer and ambassador for our brand, who made Prestat one of the centrepiece for one of his novels, My Uncle Oswold.
“He came into London to visit our original store in South Molton Street, which is where he first discovered the brand, and fell in love with our dark truffles in particular – back then chocolates were made on site and it’s likely he would have seen that being done,” enthuses Damyanov, who joined the business while at university, working part-time in its Harrods concession before going on to manage the firm’s flagship chocolate store in Picadilly.
“A friend working in Harrods told me I should come and look at all the companies in the food hall, and the first thing I saw was this bright and colourful business, and I thought wow, Prestat seems a fantastic company, especially its story, ” recalls Nikolay of his fledgling experience with the business.
Eight years on he says It’s still offering plenty of intriguing challenges, as it continues to navigate a path through the pandemic through careful product development and embracing opportunities under the guidance of its recently installed new owners.
Speaking to Confectionery Production about the company’s transition to new ownership, Andrea Macchione, CEO of Domori, believed that the combination of the two companies is set to prove a powerful one, despite present trading challenges.
As he explains, the business, which has its headquarters near Turin, northern Italy, has developed under the illy group for the past 14 years, with the parent brand having once produced its own chocolate until the Second World War intervened.
Domori itself was founded in 1997 by Gianluca Franzoni, who set up a project to restore a rare form of cacao, Criollo, creating the Hacienda San Jose, in Venezuela, believed to be the largest plantation for this fine variety is noted for its qualities that produce naturally aromatic, yet creamy chocolate without additives.
It has built its presence over the past two decades with its core domestic market in Italy, supported by export across Europe, the US, as well as being popular in Japan.
As Macchione notes, the reason for the acquisition of Prestat was that it was a strong match in terms of the heritage of being one of the very first producers of truffles, and having a long production history.
He explains: “In my view, we have two different levels of integration, for the first year or so there is a focus on operations. This ensures that a family-owned business like Prestat integrates with an international group like illy in terms of compliance, procedures and best practice for quality, so Domori has played its part in accelerating that in working to support them in achieving those goals.
“This is a challenging situation, as for the first time, we wanted to manage two different brands with the same importance, in two different parts of the market, with a strong link to the quality of the raw materials.
“So Prestat now has access to the best quality chocolate manufactured by Domori – and this is equally important for Domori, as it does not produce pralines, so there’s no overlap between the two portfolios, adds Macchione, who says that investing in a fellow family-owned business was a major priority for the illy Group.
Though he explains that while sales levels are being affected compared to 2019’s performance amid the pandemic, he remains optimistic with the vital peak Christmas retail season ahead.
“We are making a tremendous effort for innovation, not only in terms of constantly improving our quality standards but also in terms of new recipes. We are very pleased to announce here for the first time that we are working on a new product, which will combine the prestige of a Prestat traditional recipe, the quality of Domori chocolate and the unique flavour of Illy coffee.”
Prestat was founded in 1902 by Antoine Dufour, naming the company after his wife’s cousin Pierre Prestat.
It gained its royal warrant from HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1975 and and from The Queen Mother in 1999 in her centenary year.
They became a favourite of Roald Dahl, who is thought to have been inspired by the brand to write Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.
In 2003, the Economist nominated the company as being in the top 3 chocolate shops in the world.
In March 2019, Prestat joined Gruppo Illy, the Trieste based International Super Premium Food and Beverage Company, which owns premium chocolate brand Domori.