INTERVIEW: Duffy Sheardown from Duffy’s Chocolate
After years 30 of making racing cars, Duffy knew what life was like in the fast lane. Since winning both a Golden Bean and the ‘Best Newcomer’ award in 2011, his UK-based business has gone on to pick up numerous accolades for a wide range of products. But despite all of this success in a relatively short space of time, Duffy is not quite at the finish line yet – we caught up with him to find out more about his chocolate journey.
How did you move into the world of chocolate?
I made racing cars for 30 years and loved pretty much everything about it. Unfortunately, I knew I couldn’t have that career and live with my partner. Penny and I had been together for 16 years and married for eight years before I gave up motorsport so we could live together.
Chocolate had fascinated me for a few years but I thought that every little chocolatier’s shop in every town made their own chocolate. Hearing a BBC Radio Four Food Programme in 2007 told me that I was completely wrong.
According to the show, only Cadburys were making chocolate from bean to bar in the UK. I said to Penny: “How hard can it be? I could do that”. The idea kept coming back to me and, after one race team folded unexpectedly it seemed like a good time to give it a try. It also made me realise that I had often been eating chocolate but didn’t often taste it properly or think about what I was tasting.
A year later, we were on holiday in Guatemala and although I’d failed to find a cacao farm, I did find cocoa beans for sale in a coffee shop. I made my first batch of chocolate using these beans, an Indian spice grinder and advice from the Chocolate Alchemy website.
It was horrible – very astringent. I should have realised that as the cocoa beans were still purple, it indicated they hadn’t been fermented. I turned the batch into a milk chocolate that was very nice and led me into 18 months of home experiments.
At that point, I decided I wanted to make chocolate properly and – without ever having seen or been inside a chocolate factory – I rented a unit and bought some new and some second-hand equipment.
Duffy’s was born in late 2009 and we sold our first bars in 2010. I rented a stall at a couple of shows in London and met the likes of Paul A Young, William Curley, Marc Demarquette and Philipp Kauffmann. They were all friendly and encouraging and offered plenty of good advice. Paul became our first ever stockist and still stocks our bars today.
The chocolate industry is full of enthusiasts who are happy to share their knowledge and experience. They introduced me to cocoa bean growers, offered advice on packaging, pricing and of course how to taste chocolate properly.
What did it mean for you at the time?
In my first full year of chocolate making I met Frank Homann who told me about the Xoco project in Honduras. The first years’ harvest was only 50kg of beans and I managed to buy 25kg of them. I used these to make my Honduras Indio Rojo 72% dark chocolate which won the Academy of Chocolate Golden Bean Award in 2011. This was an enormous thing for me and for Duffy’s – being recognised by the industry experts suggested that I might actually be able to make decent chocolate. Importantly, it gave potential retail and business customers confidence that our chocolate bars were worth trying.
I still remember the moment I took the call telling me what we had achieved – it felt fantastic. I’d taken a part-time job managing a race car team and they wondered why I was dancing around with my arms in the air. Then of course I had to take samples in for them because they didn’t actually believe me.
How has your business changed since then?
The business hasn’t changed greatly since we won our first award that day. I no longer need a job on the side to pay for ingredients and we employ two part-time staff to mould the bars and wrap them in foil. We still use the same old machines although we now have a second 30kg conch.
We’ve gradually improved and refined our processes and have learned more about storing and ageing chocolate. We’ve met more cocoa farmers and growers, seen more plantations and improved our packaging. We’ve increased our range of single origin bars and introduced some dark milk bars and some flavoured bars.
The whole process has been one of slow organic growth, done at a rate that meets the demands that we have. We are debt-free and have the capacity to expand a fair amount without changing our production methods.
What impact did winning the award have on your business growth?
Once news of the Golden Bean Award came out we had offers of some big orders from abroad which we unfortunately had to turn down. We’d already used all of the Honduras beans and also didn’t want to let down our existing UK customers. We couldn’t grow that quickly without compromising quality and kept our focus on the latter.
Having the award logo images on the front of the bars is a real help when selling to customers and is actually the only marketing that we do – we don’t have an advertising budget of any kind.
The Academy of Chocolate Awards are a constant validation of what we do and a reminder that we need to maintain standards.
Where do you see your business going in the future?
The future is going to hopefully be one of continued growth. We will slowly introduce more flavoured bars and other products and seek out more interesting fine flavour cocoa beans.
There will still be the occasional ‘Limited Edition’ bars when I get small quantities of beans. The focus on quality and working directly with bean growers to ensure that they get a good and fair price for their beans will stay the same, and I hope we can start to employ more people.