Inspired by their son Ash, who has autism, Mona and Shaz Shah set up social enterprise Harry Specters to provide people on the spectrum with both training and jobs. The result is a thriving - and multi-award-winning - chocolate company
Harry Specters chocolates are impossible to resist. Spotlit on the counter of the brand’s Cambridge shop, just opened in The Grafton, their glossy, cocoa butter-painted shells shine like jewels. There’s green and yellow Citrus Punch, pink and white Raspberry & Elderflower, metallic red Tellicherry Pepper, orange Mango Tango.
And they’re not just a pretty face, either: the rich, smooth, flavourful ganache centres are so expertly balanced, they’ve clocked up 35 awards in the last five years alone. “We have come a long way,” says Mona Shah, who founded the business with husband Shaz. “I started making chocolates in my kitchen - and now look...”
The company was, Mona explains, inspired by Ash, the couple’s 21-year-old son, who has autism. The ambition was to build a business where he could one day work, and which could also offer work experience, training and ultimately employment to other people on the autistic spectrum.
That ambition has been realised, with Ash working when time allows (he’s still at college) and a team of young adults - including chocolatiers Bruce and Greg, packer Oliver and accounts administrator John - employed at the Ely factory, which has recently doubled in size to keep up with demand. Working full tilt, the kitchen can now produce 45,000 chocolates in a day.
Mona has loved chocolate since she was a girl, growing up in Dubai: “I loved baking with chocolate, making desserts with chocolate; I used to go looking for cookbooks so I could find new recipes to try.” It remained a hobby, though, as she went first to med school, then later did a business degree.
After marrying Shaz, Mona’s career went on hold when Mina, their now 28-year-old daughter, arrived. Seven years later, after much nagging from Mina for a brother or sister, Ash was born. By then living in Pakistan, to be close to family, at first all appeared well. But, while Mina had reached all her milestones early, Ash’s development was markedly slower.
“I could see something was off, but you don’t really want to go down that road, do you? You pretend everything is okay,” says Mona. “It was Shaz’s sister who said ‘You should look into this’. Ash was just over 2, and he’d stopped reacting to his name.”
Getting a diagnosis was a battle; getting support in the wake of that diagnosis was a war. From the ‘expert’ who said they’d never heard of autism to the cleric who pronounced Ash’s condition ‘punishment for sin’, curable only by atonement, Mona and Shaz seemed to face ignorance and prejudice at every turn.
Mona made Ash’s development her full-time focus, doing endless research and creating a daily programme of therapies, which she carried out herself. By 5, he was speaking. When the time came for Ash to start school, though, it was “another nightmare”: the system was, says Mona, painfully ill equipped to cater for pupils with additional needs.
With mums pulling their children away from her son in the playground, because his behaviour differed from the norm, Mona told Shaz they’d reached a dead-end; that, in order to raise Ash in a more accepting society, they would have to emigrate. While other countries ruled the family out because of Ash’s diagnosis, they were granted British visas with ease.
Shaz flying ahead to start his new job - he was then a software engineer - Mona remembers arriving at the airport, alone with two children, one of them a fractious Ash, yelling and flapping his arms. “These people came towards us and I was so frightened they were going to say ‘That’s it! We’re deporting you’, I literally blanked them. They came right up to me and said ‘We can see your son’s upset. Would you like to come to the front of the queue?’. . . That was my first experience of the UK.”
Within nine months, Ash had been officially statemented and was in the school system. Wanting to give something back to her adopted home country, Mona began volunteering with the Friends of Fulbourn, the organisation which supports the recovery and integration of people with mental health issues. Among other things, she worked with charity Arts & Minds to deliver craft sessions for early-onset dementia patients, before being given a job by the health trust.
The idea of building a business which could offer Ash employment in the longer term started to take shape after Mona did a chocolate making course, tapping back into her childhood hobby, at Banbury’s Callebaut Academy. She realised that the precise and repetitive nature of making shell-filled chocolates, along with the therapeutic quality of the process, would lend itself to Ash’s skill-set - and the skill-set of others with autism.
And so, initially a kitchen table start-up, the Shahs’ business began. Taking a course in social enterprise, Mona then won a kick-start grant, later raising further funds by selling ‘chocolate bonds’ to angel investors.
Mona’s flair for both flavour and design has been key to Harry Specters’ success. Named after an imaginary diner Ash dreamed up when he was 11, “he wrote the menu and everything”, the company has won endless plaudits for its products, including dozens of Great Taste and Academy of Chocolate awards.
With Shroeder, Lloyd’s and Johnson & Johnson among their many corporate clients and a booming online order service, the plan was never to invest in bricks and mortar, says Mona. But then The Grafton ran a competition to win a rent-free unit for a year - and, thanks to business development manager Abbi, who entered on something of a whim - Harry Specter’s won. The shop has been such a success, the business model has now changed: expect more outlets, likely in Bury St Edmunds and Norwich.
With Mina, a designer, creating the packaging and designing the store, Harry Specters is a true family affair. “It’s a community, I think,” adds Mona. “Everyone who walks through that door is part of it.”
Harry Specters is at The Grafton, Cambridge CB1 1PS. See harryschocs.co.uk or call (01353) 967030.
Read moreFood and Drink
More by this authorAlice Ryan