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Sweet Dreams

Drawing on the heritage and elegance of French chocolate shops, Cambridge’s Chocolat Chocolat combines cool Parisian chic with a warm sense of community. For founder and head chocolatier Isabelle Chappell, “it’s the cliche: a labour of love”

There’s the pensioner who pops in most weeks for his Earl Grey Neapolitans. The gentleman who arranges selection-box deliveries for his student granddaughter, simply to brighten her day. The American woman who calls ahead of every UK business trip, to ensure Caramel Praline & Sea Salt is in stock. Says owner and head chocolatier Isabelle Chappell: “We have the best customers. We’ve known some of them since we opened, 11 years ago now. They’re a big part of Chocolat Chocolat; of what makes it special.”

Known for selling finest quality chocolate - notably its own-made sheets, shards of which can be bought in a signature ‘bouquet’ - Chocolat Chocolat is a passion project for Isabelle, who loves making the sweet stuff so much, she runs a small-scale bean-to-bar operation at home as a hobby. “I never switch off,” she laughs.

Isabelle hasn’t always worked with chocolate, though. Before launching Chocolat Chocolat, opening a first store in London’s Russell Square in 2006, she worked in the fashion industry. As international director for Monsoon Accessorize, she oversaw both brands’ global expansion: when she took on the role, there was one overseas store; seven years later, when she left, there were 500 in 21 countries.

VELVET : Chocolat Chocolat Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (29770150)
VELVET : Chocolat Chocolat Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (29770150)

Tiring of “living life on a plane” and with her children still young, Isabelle decided the time was right to put down roots. Fluent in French, thanks to her French mother, she took on the French Accessorize franchise. It was a chocolaterie neighbouring her Paris store which, selling exquisite confections in equally exquisite packaging, made her think: “I like the idea of opening a chocolate shop. . .” And so the seed was sown.

Describing herself as “a details person”, Isabelle started researching the history of the chocolate shop in France, finding herself charmed by its heritage as a family-run, community-centred enterprise. “It was traditional for a bakery to be next door to a chocolaterie; the bakery was run by the husband, the chocolaterie by the wife. Still, in so many small towns in France, you’ll find the two shops side by side.”

Following in her forebears’ footsteps, Isabelle runs Chocolat Chocolat with her husband, Robin. Both have backgrounds in business and branding; while she focuses on the product, he does the marketing and accounting, “and we work very well together”.

At the outset, Isabelle didn’t intend to make her own chocolates, solely to source and sell the best. But then she went to a chocolate expo, found herself chatting to a gentleman across a coffee table, and that changed. “I found myself telling him about this exciting business I wanted to set up. He said ‘It sounds marvellous - but you’ve got to make your own’. . .” The man was, it transpired, Peter Thornton, ex-chairman of the Goliath brand Thorntons, “and he came and helped us set up the business. He was lovely.”

From the moment she did her first training course, Isabelle was smitten. Chocolat Chocolat’s own-made confections now make up some 30-40 per cent of sales annually, with the signature sheets - such as dark with coffee, caramel praline and sea salt, white with raspberry and pistachio - a top-seller. Others have tried to copy the ‘bouquet’ concept, a cone artfully filled with pick-and-mix shards, cello wrapped and finished with a raffia bow, but none has managed.

Selling Belgian chocolates of all forms and flavours, including dinky cupcake and doughnut-shaped sweets, almost too pretty to eat, Chocolat Chocolat makes solely from Belgian chocolate too, which arrives in the form of giant buttons and is famed for its “higher cocoa content, lower sugar content”. Personalised chocolate plaques are in ever-increasing demand.

The Cambridge shop opened in 2009 and soon became the company’s HQ. The decision was made to close the London branch in 2011, though it was trading well, “and, in the light of the recession, thank goodness. If we’d kept it, I don’t think we’d still be trading now.”

Since launching the company, Isabelle has seen the emphasis shift from bricks-and-mortar retail to online orders and experiences: she runs sell-out tasting and making workshops, children’s parties, late-night lock-ins at the shop (which, popular with corporates, involve a talk, demo and the chance for everyone to take home a box of chocolates of their choice). Clocking up some 90 sessions last year, she only had two workshop-free weekends.

The other big change has been, reflects Isabelle, driven by the need to make packaging more planet-friendly. The brand’s chocolate boxes are now fully biodegradable and recyclable, as are the bags and the cellophane used to wrap trays and bouquets.

With a staff of between six and 10, depending on the season and including both shop-floor staff and her assistant chocolatiers, Isabelle says the team are currently prepping for Mothering Sunday (when specials will include ruby chocolate flowers and sheets of milk chocolate, rose and Turkish delight) and Easter (eggs packed with praline shapes).

Offering hot chocolate by the cup in winter and ice cream by the cone in summer, and often doing sheet-chocolate demos live on the shop floor, Chocolat Chocolat is singularly inviting: catch a chocolatey waft as you walk by the door and the desire is always to double back and go inside.

Concludes Isabelle: “It’s the cliche: a labour of love.”

Chocolat Chocolat is at 21 St Andrew's Street, Cambridge CB2 3AX. See chocolatchocolat.co.uk or call (01223) 778982.

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