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Montezuma’s: Helen and Simon Pattinson

How two lawyers became chocolate entrepreneurs following a trip to South America’s ‘Chocolate City’

My husband and business partner Simon and I met when we were lawyers in the City. But we began to realise we hated the rat race. We were earning nice money, but had no time to enjoy it. So we left our jobs, sold our house and took a year out with the very clichéd aim of finding ourselves.

With a backpack and tent, we set off for South America to travel the length and breadth of Argentina and Chile. In Argentina, we visited a tiny little town called San Carlos de Bariloche, nicknamed ‘Chocolate City', because that's what every other shop sold. Simon was unwell, so we stayed for five days while he recovered. I was in my element buying and tasting chocolate in these fantastic shops, which, of course, sowed the seed for our own business.

We then made our way north towards the Caribbean, and while we were in Venezuela, we took a wrong turn trying to find a remote beach. Instead, we found ourselves on a cocoa plantation. This was the first time I appreciated where chocolate comes from and how painstakingly cocoa is grown. It got us thinking about what we could do with chocolate.

Back in the UK, we spent three months researching the chocolate industry and started to refine our business idea. Initially, we just wanted to be the new kids on the block as a contemporary chocolate retailer. So we set about finding chocolatiers around the UK, as it was very important to us that our products were made in Britain. At that point, we never imagined we would make the chocolate ourselves, but about six weeks before we were due to open our first store in Brighton, one of our main manufacturers went bust, leaving us in limbo. We made the decision overnight to become chocolate makers, which was really the making of the business because it has given us flexibility to produce more creative products.

We founded the business in August 2000 and have just celebrated our 10th anniversary. Two years ago, though, we were forced to close two of our shops as they just weren't pulling their weight. We were devastated, but learnt that an entrepreneurial business has to be well-managed. Since then we hold monthly board meetings and have taken on a finance director. That's quite a difficult step as we have lots of fun in the business, but knew we had to be serious about it too.

The big growth area has been the trade side. We're now sold in Waitrose, plus a range of farm shops, delis and hotels. However, it's important to us to stay innovative and manufacture in Britain. The constant creation of new products has become very competitive. We know even our larger rivals will imitate a lot of our new flavours. So you can't stand still and assume it will take you through to profit; you have to keep creating. And that's what our customers like.

Montezuma's won the Organic Food Awards & Great Taste Awards in 2001 and 2010. The business has a projected turnover of £4.95m next year and is expanding its trading opportunities with Waitrose, hotels and independent retailers.

Helen Pattinson was speaking to Kate Walters.


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