How I became a teenage chocolatier

By Magnus Bennett
BBC Scotland News

  • Published
Media caption,

'Chocolate showcases our local producers'

As soon as he was old enough to stand, Finlay Macdonald headed straight for the stove.

He began "helping" his granny in the kitchen when he was 18 months old, climbing up on a stool to watch her prepare scones.

It was a taste of things to come - the start of a passion for food which was to see him become one of Scotland's youngest chocolatiers in 2016.

At just 18 years old, he now runs an artisan business called Chocolates of Glenshiel, based in a double-width static caravan about half-an-hour's drive from the Skye Bridge.

Finlay is part of a wave of new entrants to the chocolate industry in Scotland, which has seen the number of producers rocket from about a dozen 10 years ago to about 90 today.

Image source, Finlay Macdonald
Image caption,
Finlay was already mixing it up in the kitchen by the time he was three years old

His sweet move into the world of handmade luxury chocolates began with a less glamorous staple food.

"My first business venture when I was 12 was a bread subscription service in my school," he says.

"Each week I would sell different varieties of loaf to teachers and staff.

"Up until then, bread had been something I'd always seen people buying and it had never really crossed my mind that you could make it until I saw a recipe book one day.

"When I started to make it, it turned out well so I thought I could probably sell this."

'Variability of chocolate'

The cash raised from his school sales was later to prove crucial to his chocolate-coated ambitions.

He explains: "I was doing some work experience in third year, when I was 13 or 14, at a hotel in Dorset.

"I learned that the woman I was working with was going to start her own chocolate shop so I asked if I could come back the next day and learn how she made chocolates.

"I loved it. I loved the variability of chocolate - you can put almost anything with it because it's not a limiting food to work with. And unlike bread, it has an amazing shelf life.

"So I bought the equipment to produce chocolate with the money I'd made from my bread-making."

Image source, Chocolates of Glenshiel
Image caption,
Finlay Macdonald uses a large static caravan for his chocolate production

Finlay then started selling the fruits of his labours at his school's annual fayre, but admits that his early efforts were "very basic".

He says: "I had only spent two hours making chocolate with this lady in Dorset so a huge amount of my knowledge initially was from YouTube and various demonstrations online.

"They were very rough chocolates to start off with, but simply put together. And people liked the fact that I was a 14-year-old selling handmade chocolates.

"With each year I got better at it, and learned through trial and error what worked and what didn't work, both with creating different flavours and the temper of chocolate."

When Finlay was in sixth year, he received an unconditional offer to study at the University of Reading.

But his love of chocolate got the better of him and he launched his business instead from a tiny kitchen at his family home.

Image source, Getty Images

He later raised more than £6,000 from a crowdfunding campaign, which - along with financial support from his family - allowed him to ramp up production.

From an initial capacity of 450 boxes a month, he can now produce up to 2,400 boxes - each with 15 chocolates in five different flavours.

Finlay spends much of his time experimenting with ingredients from local producers.

His range includes a dark chocolate filled with the flavour of marmalade from Dundee and a salted caramel milk chocolate made with Isle of Skye sea salt.

Spiced whisky

"I have also been having great fun with the new gin distillery on Skye," he says.

"Gin is brilliant in that it goes with so many different things."

But not all of his early efforts worked out.

"I haven't really had any major failures, although I did go a little bit overboard with a spiced whisky once," he says.

"It had the right amount of whisky in it but I was trying to emphasise all the flavours - the oranges and the honey.

"It just turned out with a really pungent smell. I didn't go forward with that one - but I now do a spiced whisky flavour that's much more subtle."

Finlay may be relatively new to the industry, but others have been blazing a trail in Scotland for a number of years.

They include Perthshire-based master chocolatier Iain Burnett, who has twice won gold at the International Chocolate Awards.

Another leading light is Ruth Hinks, whose Peebles-based business Cocoa Black sells an average of 50 tonnes of luxury handmade chocolates, cakes and patisserie a year.

Image source, Cocoa Black
Image caption,
Ruth Hinks is one of Scotland's top chocolatiers
Image source, Phil Wilkinson
Image caption,
Ruth created a scale model of the Flying Scotsman in chocolate

A former UK Confectioner of the Year and a top-five finisher at the World Chocolate Masters in 2013, Ruth attracted national publicity when she created a 75kg scale model of the Flying Scotsman in chocolate to mark the opening of the Borders Railway in 2015.

Her business includes a chocolate and pastry school, which has seen thousands of people pass through its doors in the past few years - including many of the newer entrants to the sector in Scotland.

Ruth says smaller artisan chocolate producers need to have a number of factors in place in order to scale up their businesses.

"Firstly, there here has to be a great product with a unique selling point," she says.

"There also has to be a strong demand for the product and an effective means to reach the customer.

"In our experience, e-commerce offers one of the best means for any niche player to reach the largest possible market.

"Whilst wholesale supply of chocolates can be a route to quick revenue growth, the retailer margins and lack of control over product storage and so on make this unattractive for many."

Image source, Getty Images

Ruth also believes that attention to detail is a crucial part of the chocolate producing process.

"The key step to creating a great chocolate selection is understanding how the chocolate's subtle flavour can best be paired with other ingredients," she says.

"With the flavour pairing complete, attention then turns to textures, decoration and packaging."

Meanwhile, Scotland's chocolatiers are hoping to bite into a potentially huge market.

Chocolate is second only to whisky in terms of food and drink exports from the UK, according to the latest HM Revenue and Customs figures:

Image caption,
Source: HM Revenue and Customs

While Scotland's artisan chocolate industry remains small potatoes in terms of scale, help is at hand for producers north of the border.

The Scottish Chocolatiers Network (SCN) was set up a few years ago by industry professionals as a support body, to promote and help businesses looking to grow and develop.

It is holding a special conference at Abertay University this week, featuring speakers on issues such as PR, packaging, product innovation - and of course a tasting session.

The event is a recognition of the challenges many chocolatiers face north of the border.

Image source, Cocoa Ooze
Image caption,
Jamie Hutcheon hopes firms will benefit from using the Scottish Chocolatiers Network

Delegates will be welcomed by SCN board member Jamie Hutcheon, who was 17 when he started his business Cocoa Ooze in 2008, and now sells up to eight tonnes of chocolate a year.

Jamie, who persuaded a Dragon to offer £70,000 for a slice of his business on Dragons' Den in 2016 - only for the deal to fall through later - understands the difficulties they face.

"Many of the chocolatiers are in remote communities and sometimes they lack the resources," he explains.

"Hopefully what the network will do is give them the guidance and support they need and promote chocolate here in Scotland.

"We are all in it for a common goal - it's a commercial business. But if we are all pulling together there is going to be greater benefit for the local and national economy as well."

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