Sweet success for Leyburn's Little Chocolate Shop
PUBLISHED: 21:43 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013
It was an adventure that went horribly wrong but former tea shop owner, Clare Gardiner met the challenge by opening The Little Chocolate Shop in North Yorkshire reports Tony Greenway
Clare Gardiner didn't mean to become a chocolatier. She was forced to diversify when the side-effects of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak ravaged her new tea shop business. Now she is the driving force behind The Little Chocolate Shop which after just eight years has become a hugely successful enterprise, operating from the Dales town of Leyburn.
People head for the shop to buy her luxury handmade chocolates and watch them being made in the small on-site factory. The Little Chocolate Shop is a well-known name nationwide and sells more than 200 varieties of confectionary on the premises and to businesses around the UK.
'It's a clich,' admits Clare. 'People think: "Gosh, working in a chocolate factory! Does it get any better than this?" And it's great, but chocolate is so difficult to make.White chocolate is particularly difficult to create because we only have a two degree temperature window to work with. Otherwise it goes horribly wrong.' This is an art and as well as science.
Clare - who had done everything from catering and working at a loudspeaker company to garden maintenance and design - came to the Dales from Winchester in her early forties.
'I arrived here with just a suitcase,' she says. 'I'd bought the lease at The Mill Race Teashop at Aysgarth Falls on a whim. It wasn't a midlife thing - I just think I was bored and needed some kind of adventure. It can be good to shake things up sometimes.' It all went horribly wrong fairly quickly.
Moving in July 2000 and opening the tea shop in August, Clare's business was hit first by the fuel crisis and then torrential rain.Worst was to come, however. In February 2001, foot-and-mouth arrived in Yorkshire and the announcement went out: stay away from the countryside.
'I had a year of almost no customers,' says Clare. 'It was awful.We'd see three or four people a day. It was a case of working out what to do.' A neighbour suggested Clare phone her grandson who was a chocolatier.
'He had a little chocolate-making business at home and showed me the tricks of the trade,' says Clare. 'I just sort of got it and I enjoyed it, so he suggested I go on a short chocolate-making course in Belgium.'
When she returned to the UK and made a batch of fine chocolates in time for Christmas, word got around and the queues stretched out of the door. The teashop idea was abandoned and Clare has since moved to bigger premises in Leyburn, on a business park.
There's an educational side to the Little Chocolate Shop too, because a glass wall on the factory floor means that customers and visitors can see everything being made.
'I think we've become a small tourist attraction,' says Clare. 'We've had thousands of people here in the summer, for instance, and used to give small talks every half-an-hour; but we'd be saying the same thing each time and that did our heads in.
But we now have a demonstration area which seats about 40 people who can watch a film which we had specially made for us by students from Leeds Metropolitan University. It tells the history of chocolate, how chocolate is made from the cacao bean and how we manipulate it.'
Clare also welcomes coach loads of tourists and groups of children to her shop. 'We do give talks - which are booked in advance - to various groups,' says Clare. 'We have everyone here from Women's Institutes and ladies' groups to schools, colleges and catering students.'
She now employs six regular staff and one part-timer for holiday cover. Why are people so intrigued by chocolate? 'Well,' says Clare. 'Can I ask you something? How does chocolate make the journey from a plant in a rain forest to a box in a shop? That's the point. Not many of us know because we all take chocolate for granted. People don't know how it's grown - because that's a complicated subject in itself - how it's prepared once it's harvested, or what happens to the beans once they enter the factory. And they don't realise it's a very technical thing to produce either.
You can't just melt it and stick it in a mould because it doesn't work like that.' Clare and her team at the Little Chocolate Shop enjoy demystifying the process.
Surely, though, there must be one big drawback to working in a chocolate factory because, presumably, the one thing you don't want to eat when you get back home is - chocolate. 'I've never lost the desire to eat chocolates. In fact, when I'm locking up, I have a chocolate every night,' says Clare.