The city of York has a long association with chocolate dating back to the eighteenth Century. In the mid nineteenth century, household names like Terry’s and Rowntree emerged. By the mid twentieth century, around 14,000 people were employed in the chocolate and confectionery industry in the city.
With the rise of automation and the acquisition of British companies by multinationals like Kraft and Nestlé, it’s an industry that has been in decline recently. In 2005, Kraft Foods – owner of Terry’s – shut the iconic Chocolate Works factory in the city, moving production to mainland Europe.
The site has stood empty since then awaiting redevelopment. But an ambitious new plan looks set to bring chocolate making back to the historic factory.
The idea is the brainchild of entrepreneur and chocolatier Sophie Jewett. I first encountered Sophie in 2010 when she was running her own chocolate business Little Pretty Things. Making chocolates and running tastings and classes, the business mirrored many other local chocolatiers around the country. I don’t think I ever had the chance to try Sophie’s chocolates back then, and truth be told I hadn’t realised how much drive and ambition she had.
In November 2011, Sophie opened York Cocoa House in the centre of the city. Opening a shop is a big deal for any chocolatier, but the Cocoa House is a shop, cafe, kitchen and event space in one. Make no mistake, taking on a large retail space in a prime location in a tourist city is a huge challenge, but with the help of her staff and the support of the local community, York Cocoa House is now a central part of York’s modern chocolate story.
Early this year, Sophie told me of an even more ambitious plan. She wanted to take over the old Liquor Store building on the old Terry’s Chocolate Works site and had plans to turn it into a modern, working bean-to-bar chocolate factory.
The Liquor Store has nothing to do with alcohol, but is where the raw cocoa beans would come in to the old factory to be roasted. It has a footprint of 2,000 square feet, has a basement and mezzanine, and there are plans to install another floor. It’s a fraction of the old factory space, but converting it into a modern, working chocolate factory is still a huge project.
Sophie has long put the community at the heart of her business, and her plans for The Chocolate Works are no exception. As well as producing chocolate commercially, the factory will be a community centre of sorts, allowing the public to engage with the chocolate making process from bean to bar.
While most of us love chocolate, few people actually know how it’s made and there are very few places where the local community, schools and other groups can come and see the process first hand. Helping to inspire the next generation of chocolate makers in York is an exciting prospect.
Although York has a rich chocolate history, Sophie is keen not to dwell on the past too much. The Chocolate Works project will be a modern, ethical and sustainable chocolate factory. It will be commercial, rather than industrial.
The factory will take cues from the recent explosion of craft chocolate makers, with an emphasis on those ethical values, but it also needs to be a commercial success, so it needs to produce chocolate on a commercial scale. It’s a £1.3 million project that will create around 25 jobs initially.
Almost more important to that is what the project will symbolise for York. Having a modern, British owned working chocolate factory back in the city is vital for the local community. The city is filled with skilled, passionate and knowledgeable industry people who have been keen to help this project, and it’s important it happens to now while the city still has a chocolate industry.
York may have a rich chocolate history, but the Chocolate Works project is very much about the future. I believe that there really is nobody better placed to lead it than Sophie, and with the support of the local community, it’s a very bright future indeed.