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Artisan chocolatier is a story of resilience and reinvention

The owners of Koko in Kinsale are taking their store to new levels with Square, a service that provides flexible solutions for retailers

It’s a perfect summer’s day in Kinsale. The sun, to everyone’s delight, is shining and only the gentle knocking and bobbing of the docked fishing boats in the harbour betrays the breeze.

Everything about this seaside town encourages you to slow down, breathe deep, and surrender to holiday mode.

Nestled between an old bar and an ice-cream parlour, a tidy turquoise shop front entices you to its door. Only the dark matter in the window gives away what awaits inside.

This is Koko, Kinsale’s artisan chocolatier. A family-owned business run by father and daughter duo Frank and Emily Keane, this small chocolate shop has become a mainstay of Kinsale’s famous foodie offering. “It’s been 10 days since we reopened,” says Emily. “The town is alive again; we’re loving every minute.”

Owner Frank had originally owned a ceramic shop in the space until the financial crash in 2008 forced him to shutter. “I remember so distinctly him sitting us down around the kitchen table as kids to tell us he would have to close the shop,” Emily says. “I had never seen him so upset. It took him about a year to recover and gather himself. Then he announced he was going to learn how to make chocolate and open Kinsale’s first chocolate shop. That was in 2011, and we haven't looked back.”

Everything we make is always as fresh as possible

Koko’s offering is a veritable delight for chocolate lovers. Each piece is hand-made by Frank, using the finest locally sourced ingredients, the quality of which means each chocolate has a shelf life of 5 to 6 weeks. A true fleeting pleasure, Emily explains, “Everything we make is always as fresh as possible. Suzanne Burns who runs Kinsale Food Tours forages seaweed for us and dad is always on the lookout for new and exciting elements he can experiment with. Dad likes to say chocolate is forgiving, it allows him to be really creative.” This season, for example, the Vegan Grapefruit and Lime chocolates are having a moment among locals. “My favourite is the Black Cherry Brandy Truffle,” Emily confides, “Especially if you’re partial to a glass of red wine in the evening. It complements it exquisitely.”

While her father may be responsible for the fare, Emily is the driving force behind the expanding business. Having worked in the shop sporadically as a child and throughout college, Emily returned to work full-time in Koko in 2018. “My dad isn’t a fan of change,” she laughs, “But at that stage, I could see that we needed to be brought into the 21st century a little. We needed a website, an online presence. I began to bring our chocolates to an audience beyond Kinsale. The Gifted showcase at the RDS was a game-changer for us, and converting to Square has elevated us to a whole new level.”

She’s referring to Square, a service that provides flexible solutions for retailers. Much like Koko, Square was born in the last recession and offers integrated services and tools that allow business owners to grow and evolve on their terms. From point-of-sale systems to online and mobile payment technology and devices, Square helps you run your business and accept every payment easily and securely.

We needed a website, an online presence. I began to bring our chocolates to an audience beyond Kinsale

“Before we had Square we used the oldest till in the world,” says Emily. “Totting up sales was a major task every week. Now, we use an iPad with the Square POS system and it has completely changed the game for us. I still can’t get over how much easier it is for transactions, and one of the main pluses is the reporting. We can assess cash and card sales by day, week, and month at the touch of a button, and being able to see a concise breakdown of the products that are selling and the ones that aren’t has streamlined the business. Even dad is converted! He loves being able to check in on the shop via the Square app on his phone when he’s not there. We’re updating our website at the moment, and when that relaunches it’ll be operated on the handy Square online payment system.”

Making the switch to a smarter payment system isn’t the only upgrade Koko is enjoying. Emily and Frank used the first half of 2021 to give the shop a much-needed renovation, while the pandemic also nudged the business online. “I remember Easter 2020. We had a shop full of Easter Eggs when Covid-19 first hit and we had to close,” Emily remembers. “Dad and I had flashbacks to that conversation around the kitchen table almost 20 years earlier. But I knew we had all of these Easter Eggs to home, so I just embraced it.”

Our chocolates are a real little luxury

Emily launched the eggs online that April and, much to her relief, sold every single one, proof that the pandemic was driving more customers online, even for small things like chocolate, which might normally be an impulse purchase.

“I think that’s one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed during the last 18 months,” she says. “Our chocolates are a real little luxury and, over the last year or so, I’ve seen customers really embrace the little luxuries in daily life. They’re treating themselves to a fancy chocolate box for that at-home restaurant experience, or gifting chocolates where before they may have given something else. There’s been a move toward the experiential that I think is both fascinating and wonderful. We are less about things and more invested in embracing those special moments.”

A busy summer stretches out ahead of Koko. Emily and Frank are renovating their grandfather's horse box and hope to tour the coast with their hot chocolates, coffee, and chocolates throughout July and August.

Emily is excited about the future. “As a family business, it’s not strictly 9 to 5 – it’s a lifestyle. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re making small sustainable changes in the shop and I’m working on some exciting new packaging and hopefully an advent calendar for Christmas. It’s so much fun.”

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