The Rise Of Craft Chocolate: An Interview with Max Scotford
Those of you who have been with us since the beginning might remember the story of how Bullion got going. However, for those who have only just come across us, we decided to take a look back and reminisce on old times.
Whether you’ve supported us since 2016 or just came across us now, grab a brew and enjoy the read as we interview Max Scotford, Bullion founder, about the brand’s story.
Did you ever imagine you would have your own businesses?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted my own business; something that I could build.
For one reason or another, my business ideas largely revolved around food. Not just because I'm a huge foodie, but for me it's very much been a creative outlet and something I'm genuinely passionate about. This was evident even at school - I was pretty much bottom of the class at every subject other than food tech. Naturally this led on to me pursuing catering as a career, going on to train at college to become a chef.
College was where I first got to grips with chocolate. It was one of the modules on the course, but it was more from a chocolatiers perspective, taking chocolate and using it to make filled chocolates, truffles and bars. I enjoyed the module, but at that time I was still focused on my dream of becoming a chef.
It wasn't until I got a job training as a commis chef that I had second thoughts about pursuing this route as a career. I can't put my finger on why. I knew I had that passion for food, but to be completely honest, after only a couple of months in the kitchen I just knew that it wasn't for me. So I took the decision to change paths, instead taking some time to further my education by going to University.
When I came out of university I started a graduate job, ready to leave my chef days behind me. However, something drew me back, and outside the pressure of the kitchen I found I enjoyed chocolate making as an outlet.
I experimented by making chocolate from bean to bar from home, recalling some of the skills I learnt whilst at college, but approaching chocolate in a completely new way. Instead of using chocolate as an ingredient, I was now making the chocolate itself from bean-to-bar using just three elements; cocoa nibs, cocoa butter and organic cane sugar.
Do you remember where you first heard about bean to bar chocolate?
I can’t pin point it to an exact moment, but I do recall watching a documentary about Willies Cacao which was on TV back in 2008 - so I was probably about 15 at the time. I later watched this series again at 21 as I embarked on my bean-to-bar journey.
It all very much snowballed, and I soon realised that chocolate was so much more than I ever imagined. I discovered that much like the wine and craft coffee world, different bean variants and locations all had unique flavour profiles, and different crafting methods would extract specific notes. There was also the rich history and incredible stories of growers and communities producing world class cacao. This was all news to me - I was captivated. Looking back, I can totally see how I felt I was on the cusp of something special, experiencing for myself that sense of discovery.
During my research, I had learnt that there were next to no British craft chocolate makers. This felt like an opportunity, and I wanted to find out more. In those early days I felt like a pioneer, working on uncharted territory - I was excited by the possibilities, and I knew I wanted to persue this newfound passion.
When did you start making bean to bar chocolate?
In early 2015, I really became intrigued with the whole idea of revealing the different flavours from beans of varying origins. Growing up, the dark chocolate I'd come to know was just bitter. So this revelation of flavour really struck me, and I knew others would be equally as amazed. This is where it all started, just playing at home with a spice grinder from Amazon, discovering for myself the nuances of cacao.
Shortly after this realisation, I adopted the name Bullion. I can’t recall exactly how or when I decided on this name - it really just came to me. But I knew that 'Bullion' represented everything I wanted to achieve with chocolate. Gold bullion is prized above all else for its quality and rarity - it represents something completely unique. It stems back to the Mayans using chocolate as currency, upholding that new found value and appreciation of chocolate I'd discovered from my research.
I was still learning and developing my craft, but I just wasn't sure whether I was ready to set out on this venture. I can put it down to one pivotal point when I decided to make the leap.
That summer, I remember being sat in a carpark in Sheffield, waiting for my friend George to go play pool and have a bite to eat. I was early, and I clearly remember sitting in my car, toying with the idea of Bullion. It was at this moment that I knew - I either pursued Bullion with complete dedication, or abandoned the idea completely.
That was it. I just decided that's how it's was going to be - I was going to do it. From that moment, I really had a crystal clear vision of what I wanted to achieve with the business. Every decision I've made since has been about ensuring that the vision becomes a reality, and that it is the very best it can be.
So at this point, you had the idea but what was the industry like? Did many people know what craft chocolate was?
No, it was towards the end of 2015 and the craft chocolate industry was relatively unheard of in the UK at the time.
When I was in these beginning stages of launching Bullion, many people I spoke to were confused by my new-found passion. I think this was largely due to my situation at the time - I was working in sales and marketing for a software company, and I was earning good money. I remembered telling my family and friends and they entertained the idea, but nobody truly acknowledged the potential. In fact, they were quite jovial about the entire thing.
In fairness, looking back at my 21 year old self, I can see it from their perspective. I was trying to explain an idea that they'd never seen before - chocolate, on the same level as wine. I can see how they may have had their doubts. At eight times the price of a supermarket bar, I was describing something that was the opposite of what they perceived chocolate to be, and they were yet to understand its value.
I realise that now, and you'll see a similar reaction to any start-up that's going against the grain. This was very much a challenge I needed to solve, distinguishing bean-to-bar chocolate from your everyday bars and educating people on the concept as a whole.
At the time, making bean-to-bar chocolate was something practically unheard of. There were only five companies in the UK making chocolate in this way. These were typically very small companies, often one man bands.
Because the market was so incredibly small, I needed to conduct research to ensure there was a demand for the product I had envisioned. Craft chocolate was yet to be discovered by the masses, so I began talking to the owners of independent coffee shops, as they had experienced a similar thing in the craft coffee movement.
I spoke to the owners of Tamper Coffee and Steam Yard and these were the first people to take me seriously. What I was proposing was fundamentally similar to the way they sold their coffee and these founders understood the context and gave me feedback on my product. I appreciated how the craft coffee audience were connecting to their product and I began to plan how I could make them connect to craft chocolate products.
At this juncture, I knew the market was a fit and now I had this information, I moved on to trying to find a unit to make chocolate in. My job had allowed me to drop to three days a week and they supported my decision to give my dream a go.
I found a unit, a 200sqft space in Kelham Island, just down the road from Cutlery Works where we’re currently based. Upon pricing out the venture, I found it would cost around £30,000 to build Bullion's first factory.
Along with running the business, I was selling a house which I’d renovated with my Dad, this allowed me to gain some funding for the venture. I’d also sold my car and managed to secure funding through Start Loans UK. Fast forward a few months, my first factory was up and running and Bullion had a couple deals lined up with local places. Nowhere near enough to pay myself a full time wage, but it was a start.
And were you still working part-time at your sales job?
It was at this point I decided to take the plunge. It was February 2016 and I had realised that in order to bring it to life, I needed to devote more time to Bullion. At the end of the month, I handed in my notice at my sales and marketing job and committed full time towards the Bullion dream.
It was this same week that I had a phone call, my brother was rushed into hospital. Tom was in a wheelchair and prone to epilepsy, but he had suffered from an epileptic fit amongst other things. So the week that I had set out on this huge quest and realised my dream, I was hit with the news of my brother in intensive care.
Tom was non-responsive and the difficult decision to turn off his life support machine was made.
The last words I said to my brother was ‘I’ll make you proud.” It was at that point that I left the hospital and drove up to the Peak District. I went for a long walk and sat looking at Chatsworth, devastated, but I was determined to make Tom proud. It was probably just my way of handling the situation. But all I could think about was the motivation it had given me to make sure that Bullion was a reality, for Tom.
A few weeks on and I actually received a phone call from my old company. They told me the head of sales had left the business, and offered me a full time role, paying a substantial salary. Looking back at this now, it was an incredible opportunity and it would would have set me up on a respectable career path. And in light of what had just happened with my brother, some form of security. I'd be lying if I said I even considered it, I was so set on Bullion and realising it's potential - I politely declined.
At this point, I had my new unit and the determination to succeed. I had decided that there was no way I was letting this fail.
I set out to create a three bar range of chocolate, all 70% with a goal to show people how different chocolate could be, depending on the origin or region. These bars were essentially a vehicle to communicate bean to bar chocolate as a concept - with an aim of turning those family and friends that first thought light of craft chocolate, into our biggest fans. The first two and a half years of Bullion were focused on telling people what bean to bar chocolate was. I actually only had these three different types of bars for the whole time, trying to convince the right sort of people what bean to bar chocolate was and what it was all about.
In our first year, we won the silver prize in the Academy of Chocolate Awards. This was a pivotal moment in our journey. As it actually gave me the validation that what I was doing was good, as the Academy of Chocolate Awards are a blind taste testing.
It was a relief to have this validation, I often tell the joke - my mum thought it was good, but I'm pleased to hear others think it's a winner too.
Getting into Harvey Nichols was another key milestone for Bullion. I'd spent two and a half years convincing people why they should be selling my products, but after we got into Harvey Nichols, I found people were now contacting us asking if they could sell Bullion.
For other small business owners - How do you go about securing a prestigious client, such as Harvey Nichols?
We actually got into Harvey Nichols on a bit of a whim. I was in the area as I was giving a tasting at the Yorkshire Wine School. Because of my previous job, I was very proactive in terms of making sales. I wasn’t scared of picking up the phone. I remember ringing Harvey Nichols and asking to speak to the manager of the food hall. I got put through and explained that Bullion was a company that made chocolate from scratch. I explained I was in the area and I’d appreciate the opportunity to bring over some samples.
The next day, I popped in and not only was the manager there, but the area manager too which was a stroke of luck. We began tasting the products and something crazy happened - as we were tasting the bars and talking about Bullion, a customer noticed. This lady came over and literally grabbed a bar and tried to pay for it on the till - you couldn't have planned it! One week later I got the call and our bars were going to be stocked in the Leeds branch.
Would you say now, more people know of craft chocolate?
I don’t know how quickly the craft beer or craft coffee market grew, but even now, the craft chocolate market is still relatively unheard of. I would say as far as the general population, the majority hasn’t yet heard of bean-to-bar craft chocolate as a concept. It is safe to assume the market is growing though as there are now between 30 and 40 companies manufacturing craft chocolate in the UK. In 2016 when I first started, there were less than ten. So the makers have more than doubled, which is excellent news for the movement in general. A rising tide lifts all ships!
The demand has definitely picked up in recent times. But when we were in the 200sqft unit, I had realised that I might not be able to grow the company as fast as I would like to because the market wasn’t developed. It also occurred to me that in order to grow the business, I had to diversify…
Obviously craft chocolate is our cornerstone, but I realised that by using my chocolate to make brownies, cookies and even drinks, I would be introducing people to bean to bar chocolate through a medium that may be more accessible to them. I had this dream of owning a café on the side of our factory. This would allow people to purchase our bars, whilst experiencing chocolate in other ways. So even if customers didn’t like dark chocolate, they could experience it in a brownie, or failing that - they could enjoy a coffee.
I heard of Cutlery Works when it was in early development. I knew that if I got in there, I could have people in my space. Whether or not they were intending to visit Bullion, I could offer hot chocolate, coffee or desserts and people would learn about craft chocolate, whether they realised it or not - almost subconsciously taking everything in.
I knew Cutlery Works would be a great opportunity, but unfortunately at the time I didn't have the money to build a bigger chocolate factory in this space.
I knew that to make this happen, I had to raise capital. I pitched to investors and sold shares in the business. I started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money and started telling people about the new factory that I wanted to build.
Our Kickstarter campaign was hugely successful. We managed to raise the full amount in half the time which was an incredibly proud moment. A reassuring factor for me was that the food hall would be hosting many small, independent businesses. Collectively I felt it would be a strong draw for us all to gain value from each other.
The café allowed me to take the business to the next level. As we were selling bakes, chocolate drinks and chocolate cocktails, we were having to make more chocolate than ever before, so production was on the rise.
We were also able to build a partnership working with Caravan Coffee Roasters, stocking their coffee and teaming up on a range of collaborative products. Through this, Caravan have become a really core partner for us.
Before Cutlery Works, I had never employed staff before. I’d pretty much been on my own for two and a half years. I had a gent called Paul reach out on twitter actually, who initially started work with me on a freelance basis - in recent times, he's now become an integral part of the team. There's now 7 of us, which is extremely exciting - The Bullionites!
What can we expect for the future of Bullion?
We’re moving! Don't worry - not far! Just down the road. Our café will remain in Cutlery Works but the new factory will be production only. Although, you can come see us in the space on one of our factory tours when permitted, but you might have to get your Bullion umbrella out in order to get your complimentary hot chocolate at the end! It's only a short walk back to Cutlery Works.
We’re really excited to show this new factory, I can’t promise that we’ll have Willy Wonka's fountains or rivers - but there will definitely be chocolate.
This new space will help the business to continue growing and adapting. For the first 5 years, we have been able to consistently access beans from the same regions. However, due to sourcing issues, we will be now changing to a rotating offering concept. This will allow people to explore the world of bean to bar chocolate by trying brand new origins and experiencing new flavours!
These exclusive regions and rare harvests will result in something extremely special that our customers may never have tasted before. It feels like a natural progression. We know the market isn’t as large as craft coffee or craft beer, but it’ll grow over time and when craft chocolate is more known as a concept, we’ll be ready. And good things come to those who wait, right?
You can book on to a Bullion factory tour here, or browse our full range.
Really interesting story Max. Very excited about this next phase in your business and I look forward to a tour of your new factory soon. I also can’t wait to try your new bars from your new sources!