Sweetdreams Limited teams up with Luker Chocolate for Choc Nibbles bar launch
Fresh from claiming a north east regional business award, Sweetdreams Limited is on something of a roll, despite the ongoing challenges of operating amid pandemic times. Neill Barston meets its MD, as it prepares for ISM 2022 with a very special launch.
Creating a vital spark for product development takes a combination of imagination, determination and plenty of passion, which are all clearly evident at Sweetdreams Limited.
As Matthew Stephenson, one half of the husband and wife team behind the business enthuses, their company has sizeable ambitions aiming to take its operations to the next level. While he’s under no illusion that significantly increasing its output will require considerable dedication and hard graft, he and his other half Cathy have never been afraid of putting in the hours over nearly 15 years of experience within the industry. See our exclusive video interview with the company here.
Between the pair, working with their close-knit team at Cramlington near Newcastle, they continue to be proud custodians of the popular Choc Nibbles brand, which has gone from a fondly regarded regional favourite, to gaining broad national distribution. By his own admission, the pellet-shaped chocolate treats may not win any visual awards for design, yet they crucially pack a considerable punch in the taste stakes, containing quality milk chocolate, elevating them to a status as an established confectionery series. They’ve done well across the UK and Ireland, and the series is progressing to other territories, even gaining an export order to Egypt this year.
“It’s a unique, unrefined brand, moreish chocolate treat that only we can manufacture. We’ve become a strong retail brand with loyal followers, and I think the experience of eating a Choc Nibble is like no other. I love them, and it makes life fun knowing that we sell the range,” notes Matthew of its core series, which he took on after acquiring the late 1990’s founded firm back in 2007. Under the stewardship of the Stephensons, the Northumberland company continues to thrive, expanding its core product series, including a suitably festive new Christmas gingerbread addition to its Nibbles. Based at its 25,000 square foot manufacturing site, the company’s panning and coating capabilities include a broader portfolio spanning chocolate coated nuts, inclusions for ice cream and bakery, as well as delivering dairy free solutions. However, not to rest on its laurels, the enterprising business is embarking upon a key programme of investment totalling £750,000 for equipment linked to a particularly special project.
This takes the form of a joint venture with the Colombian-founded Luker Chocolate premium brand for an innovative Choc Nibbles bar range, leading the UK company to install a dedicated new production line from Italian sector specialist Pomati. “Early next year we’ll be launching the new Choc Nibbles bar at ISM, made with Luker Chocolate that’s sustainable and high quality. It’s very exciting that Covid has actually given us a chance to reflect on what we stand for and where we’re going,” notes the managing director of his latest venture, adding that such diversification is required amid a notably competitive field.
He says that ensuring they use sustainably sourced chocolate is particularly important to its own goals in terms of amplifying a belief in strong production standards, which remain important in delivering fair treatment of staff in meeting Living Wage commitments and encouraging teams to develop their skills even further. Moreover, with regards to wider sustainability, Matthew adds the business is looking to notably improve its rates of using recyclable packaging, as well as devising its own ‘traffic light’ system rating the environmental credentials of its product lines, in a bid to ensure full transparency. As he recognises, it’s a case of ‘taking small steps’ towards being as responsible as possible in its operations, with consumers rightly demanding ever-higher standards.
Handling the pandemic
As the MD turns his mind to how the business is coping amid challenging times, he recalls that the pandemic was initially a ‘scary situation,’ early last year, emerging just as a key initial capital investment had been made to drive growth. “I can look back and remember being really quite worried. It was like something out of a movie, with the eeriness of the streets, shops closing down, and not knowing about what was happening,” he admits of the experience. As he notes, in Easter of 2020, coincidentally, the business had a scheduled shutdown for two weeks, before reopening in April, and they’ve not looked back ever since, even instituting longer ‘twilight’ production shifts in response to heightened demand.
“What we started to see was that as a company we could pivot, we could react, and had some really amazing customers and suppliers. ”It has been scary and testing and draining on everyone, as we haven’t stopped, but it really allowed us to reflect and come together. I feel I’m far more emotionally attached to Sweetdreams’ MD Matthew Stephenson reveals plans for its latest Choc Nibbles bar line Sweetdreams with what everyone has been through here due to Covid. Not everyone stayed with us, but we have a great group of people here,” enthuses Matthew, who praises the strong work ethic of his employees. On the subject of maintaining its focus amid major disruptive factors including the pandemic and Brexit, he says that he feels fortunate the company has kept a tight check on its approach to logistics, which is continuing to prove crucial. He concedes there have been other tests during its ongoing journey navigating the pandemic, including pressures on its overall budgeting, with the director revealing it is harder to predict monthly performance amid wider market uncertainties.
However, there remain plenty of positives, and it is continuing to react to ever-changing trading conditions. On that note, while the company itself doesn’t sell direct to consumers online, the MD acknowledges there’s been a core shift in buying behaviours throughout last two years. He notes the Sweetdreams production team of around 20 isn’t set up for such a major additional channel, though says the online sales of some of its core customers are reporting significant growth within their own digital retailing. “We’ve seen a big uplift in jar sales, as well as greater interest in our wider flavours such as orange and mint, and toffee crumble, as well as our posh nibbles. “Consumers have changed in that they’re far more willing now to try different things, as well as research, so they are more savvy,” remarks Matthew, who says its Choc Nibbles line has seen double digit growth in the past year, despite the ongoing impact of the pandemic. The business is also working hard to cater towards a diversified market, including producing vegan lines, as well as dairy free options for its customers.
Latest chocolate line
As the company’s technical director Andy Baxendale (above), who also serves as an editorial board member for Confectionery Production, explains, its newly installed bar production line from Italian company Pomati, is set to have an immediate impact.
“I think the line will make a massive difference, and will allow us to extend anything we are doing on the panning side of the business into bar format, including Choc Nibbles,” notes the experienced production specialist. As he adds, the line includes two melting tanks, chocolate temperers, and an inclusions machine, as well as a cooling tunnel, which has just been set up in its adjoining additional facility, that is set to be established to full BRC manufacturing standards. “We’ve only had the equipment a couple of weeks, but we’ve seen some nice bars produced so far, including the chocolate Nibbles line. It’s a very good addition to the range, and we now have the facility to make a lot of own-label products as well. It offers an almost an artisan type approach to making bars,” he asserts of the new system.
Having joined the company four years ago, he says it’s the chance to explore new product development that drives his passion for the confectionery industry. He continues to play a strong hand in the expansion of the company’s capabilities. Like any business, he says there’s been tests along the way, which have been duly met. “We’re now going from strength to strength as a business, especially on the panning side over the past couple of years. So now with the addition of the bar line, it is improving even further.” For his part, Marco Corradin, of Pomati, believes its latest bar machinery, which was installed through the company’s UK distributor AMP Rose, represents a strong fit for Sweetdreams.
He says: “We immediately found the proposal of our UK dealer AMP Rose an interesting one, for a project of automated production of chocolate bars with inclusions featuring Nibbles products. “Our design was to conceive the production line in a completely modular way, thus using individual machines for the production of tempered chocolate and a cooling tunnel, for the correct crystallisation of the product in the mould, before they are finally de-moulded.
“All the machines were then connected and placed in communication with each other, each in order to work in the various stages of production, which develop along the dosing belt, which was created and customised specifically for this project,” he concludes on the new bar line, which the UK firm hopes will prove an invaluable tool for forging greater success.