For the women among us who’ve ever tutted at our husband sharing the kitchen space when we’re ‘mid creation’, or who’ve ever rolled their eyes at the mere thought of running a business with a significant other – listen up.
Here’s how foodie entrepreneur, and chocolate lover, Suzanne Robson is growing a very modern foodie venture alongside her husband Neil.
We could make all sorts of analogies and quips about how the atoms collided and stars intertwined the day science obsessives Suzanne and Neil Robson, met during their academic studies.
Both had a thirst for understanding how things ‘work’ and how new ideas can be conceived and created, to make the world a better place.
But beyond the magic of science turning the two into a perfect romantic partnership, very few could have predicted that some years later they’d be radically flipping the world of confectionary on its head – in a business venture developed in their own kitchen!
Based in Scotland, the married couple have created chocolate brand, Rebel.
Their initial motivation was to see how they might be able to develop a product which they would love – and therefore so would other chocolate cravers – but which would go some way toward changing the cultural trend for society excessively consuming sugar and sweet treats.
It’s perhaps a thought process many of us have gone down ‘Oh heck, wouldn’t it be nice if the things we actually love tasting, were also the things that were good for our bodies and waistline…’ (and other such sentiments), but few of us have gone beyond mulling over the age-old dilemma.
“Neil has always been a real ideas person,” says Suzanne, smiling.
“He’s one of these people that has lots of creative thoughts about challenging problems and developing solutions. It’s the scientist in him.
“Rebel entered his head at a time when he was being forced to have to consider the future of his science career, as a result of a long-term back injury which no longer seemed as if it was going to improve.”
The couple spent many nights discussing options, and increasingly felt that their mutual love of science, and a desire to work together on their own business proposition, must surely enable them to find a good ‘fit’, and an opening in the market.
Chocolate proved to be the answer.
“We’ve always enjoyed chocolate, but as scientists, we’re also very aware of the amount of ingredients in most packaged products,” Suzanne continues.
“We knew that there had to be alternative ways to develop an enjoyable treat which wouldn’t be so harmful, and might even be more beneficial as an edible product, so we set about experimenting in our kitchen with all sorts of chocolate recipes.
“Initially, we purchased a 2kg grinder to make the chocolate, and started buying the component ingredients like nibs and cocoa butter and protein powder.
“It was a slower process than you might think, because we were really trying to throw away the rulebook – hence the name Rebel – and we were applying our science learnings to some really in-depth recipe development.”
Rebel is essentially a milk chocolate bar, but has 50% less sugar and has significantly more cocoa than many products. It also contains 25% protein, where the normal standard is about 6 or 7%. No palm oil or cheap filler ingredients are used in its creation.
Of course, trying to introduce something of a more healthy nature, with the better quality ingredients and still a great taste, is going to come at a cost.
“Absolutely, yes, I accept that,” says Suzanne.
“Not everyone is going to want to pay £3.75 for our bars. Most people might feel they want to be healthier, but also know they can get their sugary chocolate treat for pennies.
“The reality is that sugar is cheap, and sugar is the main ingredient of most chocolate bars out there in our corner shops, newsagents and supermarkets.
“It’s partly why people gain weight as easily as they do in this country, and therefore, part of the reason that we felt we wanted to explore the idea of creating something better quality with less negative health effects.”
Next year, we can expect a number of the lead confectioners in the UK marketplace to be bringing out their so-called ‘healthier version’ bars of chocolate.
It’s been reported that the likes of Mars and Cadbury are both intending to reduce sugar levels in some of their much loved products, but it’s still only going part of the way in changing the habits of consumers.
Neil and Suzanne’s initial product investigations took around eight months in all, and meant numerous tasting evenings with friends, robust feedback planning, batch-testing, tweaking, and finally, the arduous task of seeking funding.
“We kept going until we really felt convinced we’d got a product that people would taste and immediately enjoy,” says Suzanne.
“Yes, we’d wanted the product to be a healthier one, but we were adamant it shouldn’t be considered to be a ‘health product first’. It needed to be something that anyone purchasing it for the first time would regard as a delicious treat.”
With the first highly favoured versions getting a seal of approval from their friendly feedback team, Suzanne and Neil pitched out to the Scottish Enterprise funding pot, and received a grant back in 2016.
The money enabled them to move forward apace, developing a brand and beginning trading at a limited number of markets.
“That’s when we really felt we were under way,” reflects Suzanne.
“Selling to our first customers, in person, at a market in Glasgow, was such a big deal, and it gave us confidence that people loved what we’d conceived.”
Neil then officially gave up his job in the summer of 2016, and has been concentrating on the brand full-time ever since. Suzanne, for the most part, considers herself to be ‘chief taster’ as well as quality control lead, but she’s very much focused on being able to fully work on the business with Neil in the months ahead.
“We have to be realistic as start-up business owners, and with it being something we’re doing as a couple, we recognise that if we were both to give up work full-time at this stage, it would apply a lot of pressure on us – both professionally and privately,” she accepts.
“To allow us to sleep more comfortably at night, at least for now, we’ve decided that I’ll stay working in my NHS role, but always with an eye on how things will be in the coming months and years.
“When you go into a business evolving around chocolate, you also become increasingly aware of how very seasonal the product is, so while it’s been very quiet over the summer, we know we’re now anticipating it to speed up during the festive time.
“That period will be a good opportunity for me to reflect on how well we’re doing compared with last year, and what the future plan might be.”
With the business now growing, and the couple having made sizeable commitments in terms of manufacture and staffing – they’ve moved from working in their kitchen, to being part of a shipping container-housed community of entrepreneurs, to now having their own commercial space – they know they’re on to something with potential.
But it doesn’t come easily, particularly when trying to ensure that a blend of personal life and professional can be smoothly handled.
“We’re so very lucky that we know each other so well, and that our friends and family have been so supportive of what we’re doing,” Suzanne admits.
“You couldn’t put a marriage under strain and go into a somewhat risky business like this together – with one giving up a salary altogether – if you didn’t have lots of respect for each other and trust in what each person is bringing to the venture.
“I feel incredibly fortunate that we have a shared vision, and a shared background in science, which puts us very much on the same page in terms of how we want to grow our business and develop the Rebel brand.
“Yes, there’s times when we lay there at night thinking ‘oh my goodness, this is incredibly risky’, but we’re also aware of the quality of the product we’re producing, and the landscape about the requirement for better food, which still tastes good even when it happens to be healthier and more traceable.”
Whether Neil and Suzanne are rebelling in the world of chocolate and sweets to the extent that the world will follow or frown, remains to be seen.
The early signs are that this science-educated pairing are very much bringing a treat to the table that us chocoholics will most certainly be keen to try.