Being an award winning chocolatier takes passion, research and a lot of practice. In the third of our #SMETalks series, we discussed the origins of Toot Sweets Shropshire Chocolates with owner and chocolatier Julia Wenlock. Read on to hear more on Julia’s thoughts on the importance of sourcing local ingredients, social media in business and her journey to becoming an award-winning chocolatier.
1. Hi Julia. So to kick things off, could you perhaps tell us a bit about yourself and what makes Toot Sweets Shropshire Chocolates a unique business?
My business is based in Shrewsbury Market Hall, and I have been making and selling chocolates for about 5 years now. I pride myself on using local fresh ingredients, which means the quality of the chocolates is far better than anything mass produced. I can also source products which have a little story behind them, for example I use Lavender from Shropshire Lavender who grow 7 varieties of Lavender and the whole family are involved in running business. I also source Honey from Tom Oliver who started making Honey when he was 15 years old, and is Shropshire’s youngest Beekeeper.
I have won several national awards as well as winning a nomination from the European Semi Finals of the International Chocolate Awards, which is a huge achievement.
2. Toot Sweets Shropshire Chocolates seems like a very craft-driven, creative business – where did you learn your trade and what inspires you?
From a very early age I spent many hours in the kitchen with my mother and learnt many skills. I’ve always been passionate about food and see it as I really important part of socialising, I love the European Alfresco style of eating. I moved from Shrewsbury to Manchester ion 2000 to study Television and Radio Production at Salford University, while studying I got a part time job at the Godiva Chocolatier concession within Selfridges, after 6 months I transferred over to Selfridges and worked within the Foodhall. I eventually started working full time while still studying, and once I had graduated from uni with a 2:1 I was given the opportunity to do Management training. Due to a family bereavement I moved back home to Shrewsbury, and decided I wanted to do something which would benefit me, working towards something which I could put my heart and soul into. I’d tinkered around making chocolates for gifts, but never thought about selling chocolates to the general public. I wanted to open a sweetshop and so many of my friends said I should start making truffles. At first I didn’t, opting to sell local handmade chocolates, but the quality was what I wanted and they weren’t unique because they could be found everywhere locally. So I ended up taking the plunge, going on a couple of courses and realising the small batches of chocolates I had been making at home were the proper thing.
3. Could you describe the advantages you see an ‘online’ business having over an offline one? Also, how does social media come into play in your business?
Due to everyone working long hours I think it’s important to have an online face to your business. Although it can take longer to growth compared to face to face business people expect to be able to buy from you online. Locally a lot of my customers like to interact with me online via Twitter and Facebook, they like to look at my products online and then visit. However, if I do food festivals further afield customers buying from me want to be able to easily buy products from me again, which means not travelling hundreds of miles but logging on to my website and perusing what I have offer from the comfort of their sofa.
Social media is a fantastic way of building trust with customers local and further afield. People want to know about the person making the product as well as the product itself. As a nation we are more inclined to buy from businesses when we know where they are sourcing ingredients and how they producing products. Social Media also allows customers to find out answer to inquiries far more quickly than picking up a phone or writing a letter.
4. How important is the process of delivery to your business model, is this the main way that you distribute your goods?
For all online businesses delivery is extremely important, I want to make sure my products arrive at customers doors in the same condition they left my shop. For many customers now they expect quick service and delivery within a few days. It’s important to be able to find the balance of making products from scratch and a delivery service which can offer fast service at a reasonable price.
5. And to round things off, what one piece of advice would you give anyone looking to start their own online business?
Research; it’s very easy to jump onto the band wagon and say you’re going to have an all singing all dancing website, but actually in the beginning this may not be right for you. Your online business will grow as you develop your products and your direction will certainly change over time. Find out what websites are available, is it going to be easier for you to design and build a free one first to test the market. Too many people jump into commissioning a website without researching, and without knowing the terminology. Ask yourself do you know what and how makes people visit a website, do you know what SEO means?