Three minutes with Claire Burnet
Starting a chocolate business in rural Dorset was a dream come true for Claire Burnet, owner and founder of Chococo, but moving from London to start a company required homework and determination.
Chococo first opened its doors in December 2002 in a small shop on an alleyway in the seaside town of Swanage, Dorset. Fast-forward eight years and most of that alleyway has been taken over by the business.
At a young age, Claire had found a taste for fine chocolate. While at university in Edinburgh, her parents lived in Brussels. When visiting them she would stock up on local chocolate delicacies before returning to study in Edinburgh. Since then she's been baffled by the UK's relationship with very sweet chocolate.
Dream to reality
So, back in 2002, Claire and her husband Andy sold their London flat for a dream of living and bringing up their daughter by the sea – and starting a premium chocolate business focused on using fine origin chocolate and local, fresh ingredients.
'Research was key to getting the business off the ground,' explains trained marketing professional Claire. She goes on, 'If you're starting a business you need to understand what it is you're doing and what you are potentially letting yourself in for.'
Financed completely through the sale of their flat and a small overdraft, the business has grown organically from just a husband and wife team to a staff of 15 at three premises.
'I believe that you should spend a little, learn as much as you can and then invest,' explains Claire; 'and that's what we've done. We started with a small shop and chocolate kitchen and as we've grown, we've expanded into neighbouring properties to cope with demand.'
Growing the business
Claire admits that the lack of space stopped the business growing as quickly as she perhaps wanted it to, and if they could do it all again she wouldn't underestimate the amount of space the business would need.
'You can never anticipate the opportunities that are going to come your way,' she explains: 'We have been perhaps too conservative at times when we could've taken bigger risks, but I had a second child in 2005, which slowed us down a bit, and we have always been determined to stay true to our brand ethos and build it slowly.'
However the people of Swanage didn't see it that way. 'The demand for our fresh chocolates was instantly greater than we expected,' explains Claire. She goes on, 'for a new business that is great, but we never expected to have people banging our doors down.'
Taking the next step
Eight years on, chocolate is still a 24/7 job for Claire. Her artisan creations are available online and are stocked in Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and many independent delicatessens and farm shops. She also has her first chocolate cookbook, published in both the UK and the USA, coming out in March.
As Claire says: 'There's a difference between having a dream and making it a day-to-day reality. It's very easy to make something and sell it once but to consistently make great products and have people coming back for more is the challenge.'
And the advice Claire would give to others? Do something you're passionate about:
'I've learned to dig deep and then dig deeper. Do your research and prepare yourself for the exciting and challenging times ahead and don't expect it to get any easier in terms of the time you have to commit to it. Things always take longer than you think but focus on the detail and what makes your business unique.'