Interview: Bev Stephenson
Newcastle Upon Tyne
Chocolatier – supplying wholesale to shops as well as food events and online sales
About North Chocolates
As Fenwick Food Hero 2019 and former Artisan Business of the Year, North Chocolates specialises in seasonal, small batch award- winning gourmet chocolate bars using only the finest couverture – which means less of the bad stuff (that’s sugar), absolutely no vegetable fats and simply more of the good stuff – ethically sourced cocoa and cocoa butter. From the unusual to the classic, North believes they have a chocolate for everyone. And everyone needs a chocolate.
How has your business/organisation been affected by the Covid-19 lockdown?
I work from home but normally have 2 x part-time workers who help with wrapping/making but have been unable to work/enter the house due to Covid so I have had to do everything myself – making, wrapping, packing, admin, etc etc. All immediate events were cancelled, corporate conference orders were cancelled and initially many of my retail outlets closed. However, farm shops and independent delicatessens started to reopen very quickly and started ordering and my online sales increased massively.
What have been the biggest challenges for you during the lockdown whether logistical, financial, etc.?
Logistical – whilst sales dropped dramatically, online sales increased but they are a totally different beast which I wasn’t (and still am not) set up or prepared for. The time it takes to sort orders, print labels, respond to queries etc and the space it needs in terms of packing, extra wrapping etc proved a huge challenge and nearly sent me crackers – I used 7 months worth of (recyclable) cardboard boxes in three weeks. The sales I’ve had has thankfully meant that money has still been coming into the business and even better, I haven’t had time to spend it other than on a watering can…
What are the biggest challenges coming out of the lockdown?
I have been very lucky in that my business has ‘suited’ lockdown – take away/delivery and food businesses seem to have done better than many and my chocolate bars are small, easy to send and under a fiver so people have bought as gifts or treats as choice has been limited as other shops have remained closed. Now that shops are opening I suspect my online sales will decrease accordingly but my larger retailers ie. Fenwick or tourist centres ie. The Sill and The Sage will not be in a position to order their regular amount due to lack of footfall. My concern is not this year, it’s next. I think this year we’ll carry on albeit at a reduced level but next year I think many shops/outlets will struggle, events will be poor or non-existant, jobs will be lost, disposable income will massively shrink and I think most businesses will be hit hard.
Have you had to start selling in a different way than usual for example a bar or restaurant selling beer or food online?
I already had a website to sell online but never pushed this as had other outlets. Now, it’s a primary sales route and I’ll push this going forward. However, I need to get my act together – better packaging, a more streamlined area and stock control would help…
If applicable how important has any funding (arts, government, etc.) been to keep going and was it hard to get hold of?
I wasn’t eligible for a grant as I work from home but applied for and got the Self Employment scheme in June relating to previous taxable earnings. As my partner is also self-employed it has helped enormously as, although I’ve been able to carry on, so far I’ve lost approximately one third of my earnings (again please don’t think this is a complaint!) and with summer I’m now entering the quieter time of my year.
How much has support from the community been important such as people buying local, supporting crowdfunders, etc.?
The support from the area has been just incredible. Delivery services were organised very quickly (Grainger Delivery, Northumberland Sausage Company and later Local Heroes) which I’ve been part of and have been very successful (tailing off now) but people who know and buy my chocolate at events or from outlets have simply ordered online and have sent lovely messages of support which has been just gorgeous and kept me and others going.
Have you or are you having to adapt to new ways of working such as moving your business online or doing classes, events or seminars by Zoom or similar?
Online retail is up massively for me but comes with its own challenges.
What are the digital tools that you have you been using or are intending to use?
Facebook, twitter, instagram.