Exclusive: Fresh chocolate from Russell & Atwell wows Dragons’ Den

Emerging from the BBC’s Dragons’ Den with a successful funding bid is quite some feat. Neill Barston speaks to artisan chocolate maker Giles Atwell on his recent screen experiences that have propelled the business into overdrive

Armed with their secret weapon of fresh chocolate, Steve Russell and Giles Atwell made headlines recently in achieving funding from the formidable BBC’s Dragons’ Den entrepreneurs. (See the video version of our interview here).

If one thing is for certain in these unpredictable business times, then facing the battle-hardened panel of industry heavyweights is surely not for the faint-hearted. But fortunately for the ambitious confectionery duo, the pair have a considerable array of sector knowledge at their disposal that ensured their pitch was snapped up by Dragons Peter Jones and Steven Bartlett, who bought into their sweet-toothed vision.

Certainly, having confidence in any prospective venture is something that’s clearly likely to make a difference to many firms, and in pitching for the TV cameras, their belief in their concept was commendable.

The two friends and business partners were confident they would hit the ground running with their enterprise, Russell & Atwell. “We see no reason why we can’t get to £50 or £100million in a few years. The last corporate job I did, I took the business from £50 to £100million, and we back ourselves to be able to hit those numbers, and more,” asserted Giles on the show, who says they did a lot of homework before making their bid for additional funding.

It’s this extremely positive assessment of its potential that has seemingly proved correct in the coming weeks and months, with the entrepreneur admitting it’s been something of a struggle to fulfil the sheer level of orders received since their new found culinary celebrity status.

Passion for chocolate
As Giles explains enthusiastically to Confectionery Production, “I worked on so many different things, but there’s nothing like working in chocolate. It’s a really special category to work in, as it almost has universal consumption, just about everyone loves it, and it’s one of the most enjoyable and engaging categories for consumers. It’s huge, and all of that together means it is mostly a joy to work in,” enthuses Giles, stating that while there are inevitable challenges in terms of ingredients and price rises, it’s been a richly rewarding sector.

Significantly, he says there’s been no let up despite wider industry turbulence, such has been the phenomenal reaction to their refreshingly dynamic small-scale business which holds genuine ambition. While they may not be the first to trade in fresh chocolate – as we’ve reported in recent times, the likes of Läderach in Switzerland are among the finest exponents of the practice in Europe, yet it’s a concept that has yet to catch on truly in the mainstream. But it most definitely does command the interest of both industry and consumers – which in marketing terms is pure gold.

As Giles explains, their venture launched as an e-commerce business in 2020, with the team hand preparing five varieties of fresh chilled chocolates from their Birmingham kitchen, just around the corner from Cadbury, in Bournville.

Their ambitious range spans milk, salted caramel, creamy hazelnut, smooth dark and extra rich dark chocolates, featuring responsibly sourced cocoa, fresh organic British cream, butter and wildflower honey, as they set out to capture a slice of the premium market.

As he reflects on his early career, from his early days as a graduate working for Unilever, he went on to represent Cadbury and a major position for Mondelēz in South America, before making the decision to come back to the UK with his young family. “I’d always had an itch to start my own business, and as it happened, I left that company in 2019, at a similar time to Steve, who was a chocolate developer, while I was the commercial person, and we just started planning, and thought, what could we do in this market? What interests us and excites us and would be different enough – so we hatched a plan to make fresh chocolate,” he says of the early formation of their company, which is based upon a desire to forge quality chocolate with simple, fine ingredients. It’s been a passion that clearly runs deep for Giles, whose own family has considerable pedigree in the industry. His grandfather started a chocolate company, Lesme, in 1921.

Notably, it was also thought to have devised the country’s first choc ice just six years later, which his father maintained until his retirement in the 1980s, when the company was ultimately bought by Barry Callebaut. Such key roots also leant an emotional attachment to the sector in helping drive forward his own plans. As he explains, the creation of the company is based upon the premise that ‘just about anything tastes better fresh,” which he asserts very much applies to chocolate.

But as he reflects, the confectionery sector’s offerings from its earliest days were based on a Victorian world in which fridges were not a reality, so shelf-stable product ranges were the only real solution for manufacturers until the post-war era, yet the sector has remained largely stubbornly connected to its commercial origins. “We just wanted to bottle, or rather pouch that chocolate knowing just how good it tastes fresh, with a handful of ingredients, and just wanted to see if we could create primarily a direct to consumer business,” he adds of their early experiences.

He says they went online with “Kick-Starter’ crowdfunding platform, which saw it became the number one most successful venture within 48 hours according to the entrepreneur, who adds it’s ‘been a rollercoaster ride ever since,” in seeing its fortunes rise. With a winning formula, the company is punching well above its size in terms of demand, which in turn contributes to enhancing the overall richness and diversity within the British, and wider global chocolate confectionery market.

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