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Sweet dreams

They left their jobs and went trekking in South America, in search of something… Little did former lawyers Helen and Simon know they'd stumble on the tastiest idea of their lives

Featured June 08

They left their jobs and went trekking in South America, in search of something… Little did former lawyers Helen and Simon know they'd stumble on the tastiest idea of their lives

WORDS BY TINA WALSH

WORKING AS LAWYERS IN THE CITY OF LONDON, SIMON AND HELEN PATTINSON WERE EARNING A PACKET, BUT DECIDED TO GIVE IT ALL UP TO GO TREKKING AROUND SOUTH AMERICA. Like millions of others before them they felt the urge to escape life in the fast lane. Yet theirs was no run-of-the-mill backpacking trip, and when they returned to Britain, in 2000, they set up their first chocolate shop in Brighton, inspired by the food they had eaten on their travels. Montezuma's now has eight UK outlets and more in the pipeline, with over 100 employees and a turnover of £4.5m (€5.6m). It's also garnered plaudits from the great and the good, including Rick Stein, Elle and The Independent, which went so far as to call it a "taste of paradise".

When Simon and Helen set out on their travels at the end of the 1990s, neither of them knew their future lay in making chocolate. They just knew they were fed up with London life and wanted out of the rat race. "We had a lovely house in Putney and good jobs but the early morning commutes and the late nights were taking their toll," says Helen. "We'd be so exhausted come the evening that we'd just end up in some wine bar blowing the money we'd earned during the day. In the end, the money didn't make up for that sort of lifestyle and we didn't have any children at the time, so we just decided to go for it."

Not surprisingly, friends and family were less than impressed that the couple were turning their backs on lucrative jobs they'd trained years for, especially the more conservative members. "They thought we were bonkers. My dad had hopes that I'd become the next Lord Chancellor one day," jokes Helen. Although they left the UK with a vague notion of finding inspiration and a new direction in life, the couple didn't have a burning desire to go one place in particular and opted for South America because of the huge diversity of climate, culture and landscapes.

Starting off in Argentina, they fell in love with a beautiful little town in Patagonia called Bariloche, which turned out to be chocolate heaven. "It's a trendy ski resort in winter but there's also a mysterious number of elderly Germans there who've opened up these amazing chocolate shops," says Simon. "It's all on a really big scale and we thought, 'well, if they can make a living from selling chocolates out in the middle of nowhere, there must be a market for it.'"

Following the warm weather northwards, they travelled to Chile, Brazil and the Caribbean, ending up in Venezuela, where they "accidentally" found themselves on a cocoa plantation. They stayed there for two weeks, watching and learning, and decided that chocolate was the way forward. "We didn't have a clue as to how it was grown when we first got there, but became completely fascinated by all the beautiful horticulture and cocoa trees and, having tasted all varieties of chocolate in Argentina, we could think of little else," says Simon.

What happened next could easily have been a disaster. The couple had planned to be away for at least a year but Simon slipped a disc while putting on his rucksack one day and was in such agony that they had to come home. Even worse was the fact that since they were now in effect homeless, they had to decamp to his parents while he had surgery and recuperated.

"Looking back, it was fortuitous because it gave us time to work on our business plan and get to the root of what we really wanted to do," he says. Which, they decided, was to open their own chocolate shop. So, using their savings and whatever they could beg or borrow from friends, relatives and the bank, they scraped together around £250,000 (€310,000), enough to be able to open their first store.

BUT DISASTER STRUCK AGAIN. LESS THAN FIVE WEEKS BEFORE THEY WERE DUE TO OPEN IN BRIGHTON, THEIR MAIN CHOCOLATE SUPPLIER WENT BUST, LEAVING THEM HIGH AND DRY AND IN THE UNENVIABLE position of having to decide whether to give up their dream or set about making the chocolate themselves. They chose the latter, and the following weeks were a frantic whirl of ordering equipment, hiring staff and learning how to make the stuff themselves.

"It was very scary," says Helen. "We spent weeks in a tiny converted farm building experimenting and making a dreadful mess. We had chocolate all over us and up the walls most of the time, but gradually we managed to keep it within the machine and perfect a few recipes. We had a limited range at first, but we haven't looked back since."

Since it opened in The Lanes area of Brighton in 2000, Montezuma's (the name comes from an Aztec emperor) has managed to see off competition from numerous impersonators and there are now seven other outlets in Windsor, Newbury, Chichester, London, Winchester, Lichfield and Kingston. There's also a production facility in Chichester, where Simon and Helen now live with their two daughters, aged five and "one and a bit".

Much of the stock is handmade and organic, and aims to be a world away from the run-of-the-mill, lace bow rivals, with over 200 tempting titbits such as dates in dark chocolate, white chocolate dipped mango and Colombian cappuccino truffles. The couple are passionate about corporate responsibility but don't have much time for the Fairtrade concept. Cocoa beans are imported from the Dominican Republic, Peru, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea and Ecuador, countries that, says Simon, produce higher-quality beans than West Africa, therefore attracting a higher price for the farmers.

"The big manufacturers and retailers have incredible buying power, which means that prices are pushed down, but they may only have one or two products that they're allowed to put the Fairtrade logo on anyway," he says. "Plus, a lot of the cheaper stuff is very ropey. None of the countries we deal with is registered with Fairtrade, but as long as you're sure you're dealing directly with a cooperative structure, the farmers will be paid more."

As well as its retail outlets, Montezuma's (or Monty's as it's affectionately known), sells to farm shops, delis and good department stores in the UK, Europe and Japan. There are plans to expand in the near future, with the online side of the business already growing exponentially. It may have been an angst-ridden journey, but it beats the daily grind hands down.

MY FIRST BOSS:
HELEN: "A very gruff man called Michael, who worked in the commercial property department at my first law firm. I was terrified of him. He sent me off to do a £10m (€12m) property deal in my first week as a trainee solicitor."

BEST PIECE OF ADVICE:
HELEN: "My dad always told me never to treat anyone in a way you wouldn't want to be treated yourself. Conducting business like that goes a long way."

FIVE THINGS WE WISH WE'D KNOWN BEFORE WE STARTED:

* That we'd grow out of our first production unit so quickly-we wouldn't have taken a five-year lease on it if we had!
* That advertising our products isn't cost effective.
* That open-plan offices are great fun but completely unproductive.
* That cheese will never make a good truffle centre.
* That you can't please all of the customers all of the time.

BUSINESS NEWS

Trendspotter Reinier Evers has his finger on the pulse of this month's best business ideas

Truck-sized cargo bikes for greener deliveries

Stores and other urban businesses tend to require frequent, small deliveries of merchandise and supplies from the city outskirts and beyond. That's a recipe for inefficiency, traffic congestion and pollution, as so many delivery trucks make their way in and out of town with partial loads. French La Petite Reine has come up with an alternative, greener approach to business deliveries by using truck-sized cargo bikes instead.

La Petite Reine maintains a fleet of about 60 Cargocycles for hire by businesses that need to make small to medium-sized urban deliveries over a distance of up to 30km, or that need to reach areas closed to motorized traffic. Weighing only 80kg (as opposed to a tonne or more for most delivery vans), each Cargocycle can transport about 180kg of merchandise in its 1,400litre cargo space. Deliveries are faster than those made via traditional trucks, and also 10% to 20% less expensive, La Petite Reine says. It makes some 2,500 non-polluting deliveries every day for clients including DHL, ColiPoste and Monoprix.

Now that eco-awareness is being embraced not just by treehuggers and celebrities, but by sizable parts of the global middle classes, entrepreneurs are finding fertile ground for launching green goods and services. Interested in starting your own eco delivery business? La Petite Reine is open to distribution enquiries. www.lapetitereine.com

Reinier Evers is founder of Springwise, one of the world's leading sources of new business ideas. Free weekly newsletter at www.springwise.com


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