Taste the difference


Before you tear the wrapping off the next bar of Irish artisan chocolate you buy, or rip the artfully arranged packaging off a handmade Easter egg, reflect on the fact that each foil wrapper and paper sleeve has probably been folded and applied individually, and each of those fanciful bows tied by hand.

Ann Rudden, a finalist in the 2011 National Enterprise Awards, runs her business, Áine’s Hand Made Chocolate, from Stradone, Co Cavan, where her team of seven full-time and three part-time staff – all women – can turn out up to 10,000 chocolates a day.

“I can make around 3,000 sweets myself,” she says. The team also wrap up to 3,000 of their 100g bars of chocolate a day – and every stage of the process is done by hand, from piping, pouring and dipping, to wrapping or boxing the finished product.

The figures are difficult to take in, when you look around the premises, a converted garage that belonged to Ann’s father, who was a mechanic.

“The premises lay derelict for 13 years before I decided to move my business in. I share it with my brother who is a solicitor.”

It’s small and functional, with very little production-line machinery to assist in achieving those impressive figures, other than electric mixers and two tempering machines. But there’s a delicious aroma of chocolate in the air, even on a day when the factory is closed, and the ambient temperature is on the chilly side, all the better to keep those kilos of chocolate in prime condition.

Rudden, who qualified in baking and pastry management before entering the confectionery industry 22 years ago, works alongside the production team every day, as well as steering the company she founded 14 years ago. “It’s very bold, I should be in the office, but I just love it,” she says. “We’re a team of people – it’s not just me now – and they’re the same as me, they love what they do.”

The Áine’s Chocolate brand is billed as “a chocolate lover’s chocolate”, and is known for its innovative flavours; there are 18 varieties in the company’s 100g bars, half of which are milk and half dark. “Irish people’s tastes have changed. When I started in the chocolate industry, people thought that this was the dear chocolate or the posh chocolate, but nowadays Irish people know so much about their chocolate and they love their chocolate. At the start we made hardly any dark, but now we produce as much dark as milk.”

The company has year-on-year growth of between 10 and 20 per cent, a rate of expansion that Rudden is comfortable with. The chocolate is sold in Superquinn, Dunnes Stores, some Tesco branches, as well as independents. The export markets include Dubai and Russia, as well as the UK.

“People think we’re a bigger operation, but we are a small company in a massive market. People starting out think we’re huge and we’re mass producing, but we’re actually the same as them, except, instead of doing 100 sweets in a day, we do 10,000. But it’s still all done by hand.”

Rudden has been involved in the chocolate industry since leaving catering college; working as production manager, technical manager and chocolatier. She worked with The Irish Chocolate Company, makers of the Butlers and Bewley’s ranges, and then with Lily O’Brien’s, before going solo.

“From a very young age I would have always said that I was going to start my own business,” she says.

“When you’re passionate about what you do, you’d always put your product and customer before what you make. You never think – how much is that costing me? But everything does fall into place. If you offer a good product at a good price and never let customers down, you will end up having a good business.”