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Former sustainability consultant finds her passion as a chocolatier

‘It’s not enough to be amazing at what you do and be passionate about it; you need to know when to call for help’: Chocoloza founder Vicki Bain.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s our SME special feature. Today we speak to an entrepreneur who was once an environmental and sustainability consultant, but has now ended up being a chocolatier. She’s a dab hand at making Belgian chocolate and uses a lot of homemade ingredients from here in South Africa.

To tell us more about her entrepreneurial journey I’m joined on the line by Vicki Bain. She’s the founder of Chocoloza. Thanks very much Vicki, for joining us. I love the name Chocoloza. It sounds very South African. So what lovely chocolate offerings do you have?

VICKI BAIN: Thank you. It was deliberate. The idea behind Chocoloza was that it was Belgium chocolate because, I’ll hand it to them, theirs is the best in the world. But our fruits and nuts and dairy and our people, their warmth – we really wanted to celebrate that because that’s the best in the world.

As a chef, you don’t get better than South African ingredients. So that was what we wanted to do. We wanted to make it ‘Proudly South African’ and we wanted it to be a little funky, a little bit fun as well. We don’t want it to be like chocolatiers in Europe, very formal; we wanted African warmth and design, and to be welcoming.

So at our chocolate lounge for the full family, we often have students who come in and spend the whole afternoon nursing one cappuccino. We’re cool with that. That’s fine.

NOMPU SIZIBA: [Chuckling] That’s nice. You were once an environmental and sustainability consultant, so tell us about how you made the transition from that to making chocolate.

VICKI BAIN: Actually it’s not a massive transition, I must admit. I still retain a certain amount of my environmental passion, my determination to tread softly on the earth. So yes, I used to be the person that went around to big corporate companies to tell them “this is what you’re doing wrong. You are required to do A, B, C.” People like chocolate here more than they like auditors. So I’ve kind of kept that.

I really am a scientist at heart. For me, chocolate is the combination of both art and science, which are my two big passions in life. So the environmentalism is still part of Chocoloza. You’ll notice that we use no palm oil, no artificial flavours, no preservatives. All of our packaging is proudly made locally, and it’s made from recycled board, not the slightly fluffier recyclable which everything is really, I suppose.

And we like to encourage our customers. If you’re going to bring a box back, bring it back and we’ll refill it for you and we’ll give you a free chocolate.

I’m also looking at the idea of local from a financial perspective now more than ever. We’ve been preaching it for years, but I think more people are now starting to realise that we need to support our economy and our society and our communities. So that’s what we do and we purchase consciously and locally.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Vicky, you boast about having a workshop where people can actually watch you making chocolate. So what’s the process involved in making the chocolate? Just expand on the ingredients that you use that you touched on earlier.

VICKI BAIN: If you come to our shop at 44 Stanley, which is what we like to call the mothership, that’s where everything is made. I like to joke that we’ve got food miles of absolutely zero. If you walk in, you will see the counter stocked with goodies but, behind that, there’s kind of a fishbowl workshop where you’ll see all about chocolatiers.

We are an all-women team. All the topics that are made are made by a team of women who, five years ago, didn’t know how to do all of this. It makes me proud when I walk into the workshop and Loveless, who’s our head of production, chases me out. “There’s music. We don’t need you here, get out.”

If you walk into the workshop, you will see that we’re using fresh raspberries from Mama Lundi’s Berry Farm out near Walkerville. You will see that we’re using fresh coffee from Bean There. Everything is as local as possible. The idea is not just from an environmental and a social perspective; as South Africans we have the best ingredients in the world. As chefs we’re really spoiled. I think that’s what makes our chocolate different.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Beautiful. Just to reflect on what you were talking about in terms of the team of women, how many jobs have you been able to create with this process?

VICKI BAIN: We were up to 16. We’re now back down to 12 with Covid. But to be honest it started with three of us. It started with me and my passion and my crazy determination to create something positive. There are now 11 other people who are amazingly talented and incredibly skilled and will happily chase me out of the workshop.

NOMPU SIZIBA: When did you actually start the business, and have you seen a decent, steady growth in demand from customers?

VICKI BAIN: Yes, absolutely. I think we hit the market at right about the right time. We opened in 2016. December this year will be our fifth year, amazingly. I think we’ve really hit the market at exactly the right time. We’re very premium. We don’t sell cheap chocolate. We don’t produce cheap chocolate. It’s really, really high level, made with the best quality you can get. So it’s not cheap but with people who are looking for quality and people who are conscious consumers there’s definitely been a steady growth.

NOMPU SIZIBA: I like your frankness about your price point.

VICKI BAIN: We’re not trying to be cheap. We’re trying to be best.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Wonderful. And in terms of the cost, if I want to buy someone a nice packet of nine little nuggets of chocolate, roughly how much would I be paying?

VICKI BAIN: You’d be paying about R120, R130. It’s not extortionate at all, but we want to pay our team a good salary for doing that. And I think it’s okay. Our standard small box with 20 pieces is R230. We haven’t put it up for a few years. We may be forced to do that soon, but we’re trying to avoid it. For me the thing is flavour. The first choice needs to be that it should taste amazing, and everything else follows from there.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You’re based at 44 Stanley, as you mentioned, in Johannesburg. The place is obviously known for its great buzz and vibe, but what’s it been like during Covid with all the restrictions? It must be even worse now, given that we’ve just had even more restrictions laid on us. So how have you dealt with the challenges that have come with the restrictions?

VICKI BAIN: Nompu, let me be honest. I can’t swear in enough languages to be able to answer your question. It is really, really tough. My least favourite word through all of this is pivot. If one more person tells me you must pivot, I may scream. But that’s kind of what we’ve had to do. Previously people would come to us. On a Saturday afternoon you’d see two or three women serving at the front and it would be packed. It’s quiet now.

So, from a survival perspective, instead of allowing our customers to come to us, we’ll now go to them. We run deliveries across Joburg and Pretoria. We’ll courier anywhere else in the country. Very exciting – we’re about to launch an online shop. And also we are partnered with like-minded people. So for instance, you’ll find us in Jackson’s, because they have the same concerns about sourcing and the environment and being responsible. You’ll also find [us in] some of the Checkers around Joburg.

We’ve kept our 44 Stanley mothership, and we’re trying to reach our customers in new ways that we didn’t have to do before.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Well, that’s the reality, isn’t it? So what’s your advice to other entrepreneurs about chasing their dreams and what it takes to do so?

VICKI BAIN: There’s a lot of beautiful, inspirational quotes around ‘chase your dream’, ‘find your passion’ – and all of that is true.

However, the one thing I have learned – and I’ll be completely honest with all of your listeners – over the last year or so we’ve been working with a business coach and, to be honest, I should have taken that decision five years ago because, not to blow my own trumpet, I’m a really good chocolatier but that doesn’t necessarily make me an amazing business person. I had to learn that, I’ve really had to learn that. I think it’s not enough to be amazing at what you do and passionate about it; you need to know when to call for help on things that you maybe haven’t mastered yet. For me that’s a critical thing.

NOMPU SIZIBA: That is excellent advice. We’re going to leave it there. That was Vicki Bain. She’s the founder of Chocoloza.


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