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Still sweet and rosy?

Wednesday 11 July 2012 9:00

Victoria Gibson

A new museum aims to celebrate York’s connection with the chocolate industry, but is there still something worth celebrating in today's climate?

This year York has finally claimed its title as Britain’s official home of chocolate. After all, the confectionery industry did bring economic stability to a 19th century York with the help of the city’s superior railway connections.

There’s not much of the original confectionery names left in the city such as Terry’s, Rowntree’s and Craven’s, which all played a huge part in providing jobs to the locals – during peak times Terry’s employed over 700 people, and revolutionised the chocolatemaking business.

But each brand created one lifelong heritage for York and its people, so what better time to open a new visitor attraction paying tribute to the industry? CHOCOLATE - York’s Sweet Story opened on 1 April and celebrates the history of chocolate making.

The museum, owned by Continuum, provides an insight into the industry via high quality videos, interactive machinery and of course, chocolate tasting.

The concept was originally suggested back in the 1980s when Rowntree’s was contemplating using one of its wharf buildings as a museum. But the merger with Nestlé was around the corner and the build never happened.

Starting in 2011 the idea finally became reality in just 13 months, from signing the lease, to opening the attraction at a cost of just under £2m - an extremely fast turn around, especially for a private company with no outside funding or public money involved.

chocolate inset 1Sweet Story’s general manager Michael Constantine is very happy with the progress since opening: “There’s a deep history of chocolate in York, mostly based on the Quakers starting around 1725, when Mary Tuke, the daughter of a prominent Quaker, established a grocery business that eventually became Rowntree’s. This is a great gateway or introduction to chocolate because you get that background knowledge. It’s then up to you to see the museum and exhibition to see where each family fits in. It’s all about chocolate, and best of all how to taste it.”

York receives seven million visitors a year and boasts statistics of £203m spent on business tourism and an annual leisure and business visitor spend of £443m.

Local councillor Sonja Crisp says: “Chocolate works for us because we have a claim of Britain’s home of chocolate especially with the new chocolate museum, the York Cocoa house cafe, a new Chocolate Trail and our first Chocolate Festival. Sweet Story adds to the overall offer and I know they’ve been extremely busy.”

The museum reveals all, even the lows of the industry, because it wasn’t always smooth.

In 1993 Kraft Foods bought Terry’s and many were left devastated when the food giant announced the closure of the Terry’s factory complex in 2005 with a loss of 300 jobs, especially since at one time a mother, aunt, uncle or grandfather of any family will have inevitably worked within the factory.

The sale resulted in York losing a lot of overseas trade. Terry’s products are now manufactured in other Kraft facilities in Poland, Sweden, Belgium, and Slovakia.

The site remained derelict until redevelopment work began by the new owners, York-based Grantside Developments, after the City of York Council’s approval of a £165m redevelopment scheme in 2010 where it was thought that around 2,000 jobs would be created through the project.

The proposal included offices, a luxury hotel and spa, medium-budget hotel, apartments and restaurants creating up to 2,500 permanent jobs, a plan that was welcomed by Gillian Cruddas, of York Tourism Bureau, who said such a hotel could help attract extra tourists to the city - for example, American and Japanese visitors.

However local media reports now suggest that uncertainty surrounding the redevelopment scheme has forced 27 of the site’s 33 acres to be put up for sale on the advice of the bank acting for Grantside.

It is being marketed by York property firm Savills. Grantside’s website reveals that the demolition work, which also includes asbestos removal and original fixtures and fittings being stripped out, will not affect the listed red-brick buildings, which should still form the centrepiece of any redevelopment.

“The decline of Terry’s did hit York hard as it would,” says Crisp. “Lots of people loved Terry’s. It was a way of life for lots of families. Although, from Terry’s being a major producer of chocolate, we’ve turned it round and we’re celebrating the heritage that they left us. It’s fortunately for us proving very positive with visitors.”

Nestlé acquired Rowntree’s in 1988, 83 years after it merged with the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company.

Nestlé is now a key player in the current confectionery industry as one of UK and Ireland’s major exporters, exporting in excess of £260m worth of products every year to over 50 countries around the world.

Rowntree’s remains the brand name for all the company’s sugar sweets, which include Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, Randoms and Fruit Gums.

In 2006 a restructure at the York base resulted in job losses but the company claimed that the York-based business was uncompetitive and without the changes, it is unlikely that Nestlé would still be in York.

The company has invested over £200m into the York site. The £50m it has spent in the last five years included the completion of a three-year £15m project in the Kit Kat wafer factory to replace wafer ovens and machinery.

“Confectionery still plays an important role in York and we remain the largest private employer in the city,” a company spokesperson says.

“Not only is Nestlé York one of the world’s largest confectionery production sites, producing over a billion Kit Kats a year, it is also home to the global centre for confectionery research and development – the Nestlé Product Technology Centre (PTC).

She added that York still plays “an important role globally” for Nestle, which can perhaps be seen in the fact that while over 1800 people are employed at the York site, only around half of them are involved in chocolate production.

The rest perform head office duties such as finance, marketing and sales.

When the company took over the Rowntree’s facility it also moved Milky Bar production there, extended the factory, and built an Insight and Learning Centre – a giant complex of dummy shops where the sales force can plan and try out their strategies for the coming year.

“It’s a real hub for Nestlé and York’s base is incredibly important to us,” the spokesperson said. For some time now the city’s chocolate businesses - including Sweet Story - have adopted the ‘source locally’ ethos, where if you can use York-based goods then do.

Sweet Story even enlisted the help of Bettys Tea Rooms, another firm fixture in York, to train their staff in the art of chocolate making.

Constantine says: “If we can get it in York we will, if not then the UK and then the best in the world - because unfortunately you don’t see many cocoa trees in York, so we import that from Barry Callebaut, who makes chocolate for all the artisan chocolate makers.”

Cargill, the international food producer and marketer, acquired The Nestlé Group’s primary cocoa processing facilities in York and Hamburg, Germany in 2004, maintaining another unit in the city and providing a source for a vital ingredient.

Local MP Mr Hugh Bayley recognises the importance of the link between York and Begoro in the Fanteakwa district of Ghana where some of the best cocoa is grown.

“We must make sure that cocoa farmers share the income that comes from the chocolate bars we eat every day,” he once told an interviewer.

“The link with York is terribly important to them. We must keep it going long-term and make it relevant to people here and over there. It already involves schools in York and Fanteakwa and we must build on this.”

York was also home to Craven’s, at one time the world’s largest boiled sweet manufacturer. Established in 1966 and located on Low Poppleton Lane on the outskirts of York it is now owned by confectionery company Tangerine.

Thankfully it has remained at the original location where it still produces Jameson’s Raspberry Ruffles, Tavener’s Toffees and Barratt Refresher Lollies, securing jobs for many in the area.

Sweet Story only employs 30 staff, 20 full-time, a small amount compared to a chocolate factory, but it’s already had between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors over the Easter weekend and is expecting 140,000 to 150,000 over the course of the year.

With tours taking place every 10 minutes on a busy day it is proving to be rather popular. Constantine says: “One of the biggest challenges was how do we tell a story from 300 years in the making in an attractive, interesting and informative way.”

They’ve certainly seem to have cracked it: the tour is interesting and fun, and the video demos are well thought out and entertaining for the younger crowds.

“We want people to come out smiling,” says Ann Gurnell, Continuum’s general manager. The museum has a prime spot located in Kings Square to ensure maximum tourism pulling power.

“Staff and I walked the streets of York and happened to see this building and thought what a fantastic place to be in terms of putting a visitor attraction in the centre of the city,” says Constantine.

“We will keep the place relevant and up to date by what we call the chocolate wall, or bubble wall - the interactive section.

“You’ll see that lots of the interactives are changeable, as we developed the story various interesting stories and facts were put into bubble containers that we can change – these are important fixtures because they reveal the past of the industry.

“The building has got a 20-year lease and we’ve got all the infrastructure and soft assets so we can change the tours relatively easy, and how you engage with the guest, to make it different for them.”

This isn’t the first time that Continuum has struck gold. When the original Craven’s Coppergate site was demolished in 1966 workers from the York Archaeological Trust discovered the remains of a Viking settlement beneath the foundations.

A retired businessman asked if he could help which led to a meeting between entrepreneur Ian Skipper and academic Dr Peter Addyman.

Together, they went on to create the Jorvik Viking Centre, the first museum created by Heritage projects Management, a private limited company that eventually evolved into Continuum, a business set up with the plan “to create the most engaging stories in the most memorable places for millions and millions of people around the globe” and an £8m turnover.

The company also owns The Real Mary Kings Close, Edinburgh, Kent Life and Oxford Castle Unlocked.

So good is the new attraction that the City of York Council is now planning to undertake a project to re-invigorate Kings Square.

But can York lay claim to being the chocolate city? Constantine is quick to recognise the modernisation of factories that inevitably results in cutting manpower but adds: “Both Nestlé and Cargill employ two and a half thousand people, there’s a new raft of artisan chocolatiers in the city and Nestlé invested a lot of money into their factory. Plus this is the international base for them, so the Swiss and Americans come to York.

“Everyone flies into York to learn about chocolate manufacturing, so it still has that status and we’re shouting about it.

“The support from the local confectionery businesses helped to make this attraction possible. Sweet Story is going to be here for at least 20 years or a lot longer telling the story of chocolate in York and with the best hot chocolate in the city who wouldn’t want to visit?” Indeed.

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