ROCKSTAR FOOD & DRINK

A naturally sweet love story . . .

The story of McWhirr’s Chocolate. By Robina Moss

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, the saying goes. But for one couple working in IT and marketing and desperate to escape, an unexpected medical diagnosis inspired them to create their own business making delicious chocolate for other chocoholics who have a problem with sugar.

When Chris McWhirr and his then fiancé Catherine Brooke decided to start their own business making chocolate without sugar or artificial sweeteners, they had no idea that just months later they would spend their honeymoon making that chocolate to meet the demand.

The idea for the successful business first began when Catherine, “a real chocoholic”, was diagnosed with reactive hypoglycaemia, which meant that her blood sugar reacted strongly when she had sugar.

Keen bakers, the couple from Bristol started making their own cakes and brownies with no added sugar but found that the only chocolate available was made with artificial sweeteners or maltitol, which still has quite an impact on blood sugar.

They quickly realised that there was a gap in the market for good quality chocolate made using natural sweeteners for people such as Catherine who have a problem with sugar, or simply want to cut down.

In 2013, the engaged couple, who were both working full time, decided to set themselves a challenge of making natural, no added sugar chocolate. The pair began experimenting, initially working with a coffee grinder and pestle and mortar. In January 2014, to spur them on, they booked to exhibit at a three-day food festival in Bristol in the summer.

The idea was to do the food show and then finalise the planning for their wedding afterwards, but things didn’t turn out that way.

Chris & Catherine at Foodies Festival

The best laid plans

“We paid to do the show in January, which gave us six months to figure out what we needed to do,” explained Chris. “We knew it was going to be tough; at this point we had no machinery and no idea how to set up a business.”

“We didn’t even have a business name,” he said with a smile. “We wanted something different but then it hit me. People are always interested in my surname which means that it’s certainly distinctive, so we chose that for the business.”

Catherine added: “The ‘Mc’ gives a traditional feel and people seem to enjoy having a go at their own pronunciation.”

Chris, a keen surfer, turned his drive and passion to the business. “We worked really hard for those six months,” he emphasised. “There was such a lot to learn. We still had to buy equipment, find the right packaging, and most importantly, work out the best recipes for good quality handmade chocolate without sugar.”

“I managed many high pressure projects in my working life but nothing quite prepared us for the lead up to the festival,” said Catherine. “It was bonkers! Absolutely exhausting, but so rewarding just to get everything ready in time.”

The food festival went better than expected though. “Our wedding date was set for September but at the festival we were approached by the Better Food Company which placed a big order with us, so our plans to focus on the wedding went out of the window,” said Chris with a laugh.

“As a result, we took 30 kgs of chocolate with us on our honeymoon to the Lake District and spent the entire two weeks tempering and packaging chocolate to meet that order,” he exclaimed.

McWhirr’s Chocolate is now one of only a handful of ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate manufacturers in the UK, including the more well-known household brands.

Instead of adding sugar, the McWhirrs use natural sweeteners which are low on the Glycaemic Index and have a minimal impact on the body’s sugar levels. The sweeteners are all plant based and non-genetically modified, plus they have the added bonus of a variety of additional health benefits.

The company now offers no-added-sugar delights such as dark chocolate bars with raspberries, mint or coconut, white chocolate with pistachios, almonds or raspberries and milk chocolate with sea salt, orange or hazelnuts for £3.79.

There are also selection boxes for £10 and an innovative chocolate on a spoon in dark, milk or white chocolate to stir into hot milk or water for a sumptuous no added sugar hot chocolate. Cocoa nibs and beans are also available.

The smooth, unique chocolate is sold online at www.mcwhirrs.co.uk and through health food shops, achieving great feedback from customers.

Chocolate moulding

For Chris, an IT sales consultant and Catherine, a digital marketing manager, it took a huge leap of faith to start the business, but the driven couple have no regrets.

Both now work in all areas of the business, with Chris mainly working on production and sales and Catherine handling marketing and operations.

Looking back, Chris said: “Our biggest challenge was making high quality chocolate without artificial sweeteners. Natural sweeteners are also very expensive, and we had to balance cost and flavours as well.”

“It takes 10 days to make one batch of chocolate, so we always have the challenge of meeting demand,” he added. “Chocolate is such a fussy thing to make, working with temperature and moisture. It’s very labour intensive.”

However, he reflected: “It’s been incredibly difficult setting up the business working full time and we’ve put everything into it, but we had a real passion for setting up our own business and 100% went with it.”

“Nothing beats selling something you have created and are passionate about and that’s key for us,” he concluded with a satisfied grin.

The couple are now looking ahead to the winter with plans for a “big launch” and Chris going into the business full time with hopefully an even sweeter future for the company and couple ahead.

Watch this space…

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