The Irish love affair with chocolate has continued despite the recession and in 2013 we were identified as the second highest per capita consumers in the world, chomping our way through 9.9 kilos a year, each, and through €16m worth of eggs and other products last Easter.
In the run-up to the second biggest event in the Irish chocolate-buying calendar, artisan chocolate makers were busy working on new and innovative Easter creations. Coco Atalier in Dublin has produced Karl L’Egg-arfeld with designer sunglasses and trendy shoes, Lough Derg Chocolates in Co Tipperary was making personalised shoes and eggs and the Chocolate Warehouse in Dublin offered Easter Bunny visits.
While the mainstream chocolate eggs account for the lion’s share of the €16m being spent, there are a number of small companies offering premium quality as well as super premium chocolate.
Sector manager for Bord Bia, Miriam Tuomey says the emergence of small chocolate companies began in the Celtic Tiger years. Although some of these have closed since the recession, she says different ones are continuing to spring up around the country,
A new and innovative company to enter the top-end of the market this year is Be Sweet in Dublin, which is offering super premium chocolates with champagne and edible diamonds. Since launching in January the company has signed up two global airlines as customers.
Wilkies Chocolate in Midleton is producing bean-to-bar chocolate made from Peruvian coffee. And Olivia in Mullingar took the top Bord Blás award last year, while Moon River Chocolate has set up shop in Limerick and started selling online.
Ms Tuomey says the chocolate market at the luxury and the mainstream end is being influenced by identifiable trends, including a growth in demand for novelty, personalisation and miniature products.
“As well as this, corporate social responsibility means less packaging and is bringing change to the industry and means less boxes for Easter eggs,” she adds.
Miniaturisation is another identifiable trend which is responsible for bringing about changes. Traditionally, larger eggs were produced here but the American egg hunt, with small eggs, has made its way across the Atlantic to become part of the Easter experience here.
For the artisan producer, miniaturising can mean producing an offering at a lower price point and being able to sell inexpensive luxuries in recessionary times. Ms Tuomey says this strategy has been adopted by many small producers who are offering small eggs and bunnies as well as small boxes of chocolates.
Personalisation and the development of novelty items have allowed small chocolate companies to create a point of difference and to develop online sales. Many of the small operations have begun providing personalised wedding chocolate and corporate products and — for Easter — are also offering personalised chocolate shoes, handbags, bunnies and eggs. Roscommon Chocolate is possibly one of the first to introduce chocolate lambs.
While there is growth in the export of premium chocolate from Ireland to places like China and the Mideast, Ms Tuomey says it is the larger companies which are selling abroad. Exports for the smaller companies come through online sales and some are selling to customers in the US and Europe.
The artisan companies follow different business models, and many now have online sales. Some have cafes, some have retail outlets, while others run chocolate courses for children and adults while some sell to tourists.
“For Skellig chocolates on the Ring of Kerry, tourism is as important as producing chocolate and the company is on the new Fáilte Ireland trail, The Wild Atlantic Way,” says Ms Tuomey.
As well as having different business models, the small chocolate companies have also been set up by diverse types of people including quite a number who have moved here from abroad. The founder of Be Sweet is an airline pilot, while Roscommon Chocolates was set up by Karen Gordon, a retired production accountant in the movie business.
Irish-owned companies like Eve’s Chocolates and O’Connaill’s Chocolate in Cork have been in business for many years, while Moon River was established by Louise O’Brien, an engineer who previously ran a management system consultancy company.
Lough Derg Chocolate is run by Malachy Dorris, a carpenter who retrained as a chocolatier after redundancy, and his wife Elaine.
Ms Tuomey says the artisan company space is filled with innovative companies which are capitalising on opportunities to sell online and to fill the demand for new and varied chocolate products.