Family-run business Devonport Chocolates has been operating for more than 25 years. Managing director Stephanie Everitt explains how her "retirement job" turned in to a full-blown business.

A brief description of the business?

We're an Auckland-based chocolate making and retail business that makes hand-made chocolates and truffles. We have two retail shops, an online shop and also sell to other resellers throughout New Zealand.

We are a luxury hand-made product, but we want to be accessible and target people who are wanting to buy a special treat.

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What inspired you to create this type of business?

We actually brought the business when it was eight years old in 1999. I thought I would have a little retirement job, but it has become much more than that.

Back then there was only one person doing 30 hours a week and one other person, so it has grown enormously since then.

I brought the business because I thought it had some interesting marketing and selling opportunities - it was at the very beginning of the curve in to the popularity of artisanal food.

How big is your team?

We have 20 full-time staff equivalents - a lot of students work at the shops on the weekend.

I am the general manager, my daughter Caroline takes care of sales and marketing, my husband Terry is responsible for finance and my son David works part time on our media strategy.

What is artisan chocolate and how are you creating it?

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It has got to be touched by human hands.

Our chocolates are hand-made and the people that make them are quite involved in the process. It's short runs, small batches and we are constantly looking for what we can make local and more interesting.

Chocolate is so seasonal; it's not like making a product for all year round. You've got about six season - two major ones - and we're always looking at how we can re-present the product, redesign it, or add something exciting in.

Left to right: Auckland-based Devonport Chocolates is run by the Everitt family; David Everitt, Stephanie Everitt, Terry Everitt and Caroline Everitt.
Left to right: Auckland-based Devonport Chocolates is run by the Everitt family; David Everitt, Stephanie Everitt, Terry Everitt and Caroline Everitt.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?

It's almost an issue of keeping the product narrow and focused because we do get excited about the whole concept of artisanal. We think 'oh there's this flavour, and we could do this with this flavour', then all of a sudden we've got another chocolate that we're trying to fit in to our cabinet.

Then maintaining a point of difference, staying true to who you are as a business and not getting sidelined by all the other chocolate companies that are coming up.

There's some really exciting stuff out there so it's just making sure we're part of it, and maintaining our place.

From a production point of view, what's your favourite time of the year?

My favourite seasons are Christmas and Easter. I like the hollow figures we make at each of these times and also the challenge of thinking up new ideas and flavours.

A Devonport Chocolates employee decorates chocolates.
A Devonport Chocolates employee decorates chocolates.

This Christmas we have developed a new feijoa chocolate and are also working on some chilli flavours for Valentine's with our Mexican chocolatier, Rosio.

We supply gifts for everyone at Christmas and that is great fun - from large corporate clients, to the great Uncle who enjoys sweet treats - we even have chocolate filled Christmas crackers.

How big is competition in the chocolate industry?

At the moment it's quite a crowded market with new entrants constantly. However, there is always potential in the luxury treat market.

When we started, in terms of handmade chocolate, there was probably three or four direct competitors and now there would be about 30. We're one of the biggest handmade chocolate companies in the country and one of the oldest.

The industry went through a curve where there were many small chocolate makers and then with the advent of the supermarket brands they completely died out. They started to come back up again in 1991 when we started with Devonport Chocolates. The farmers markets really underpinned it, I think.

In 25 years, what has been the biggest change you've seen?

New Zealand's appreciation of handmade chocolate - they can really taste the difference because it's so fresh.

And the growing appreciation of dark chocolate, and the awareness of the health benefits of high cacao dark chocolate is now widespread. The chocolate palate of New Zealanders has become more sophisticated over the last 25 years.

A selection of Devonport Chocolates' Christmas range.
A selection of Devonport Chocolates' Christmas range.

How much chocolate do you sell per year?

We put out 20 metric tonnes a year. This equates to 1,500, 000 truffles per year or 250, 000 x 80g chocolate tablets. We have chocolates and truffles, truffle slices, chocolate tablets, bars, cups, and I'm trying not to add anything more.

Every year we go through the statistics of the flavours we sell the most of and most often, so we evaluate what is working. Flavours and fads change, but the classics remain. We have between 30 or 40 staple flavours that don't change.

The most popular chocolate is our Marlborough salted caramel and we've been making that for about 12 years.

Devonport Chocolates owner Stephanie Everett.
Devonport Chocolates owner Stephanie Everett.

Where do you see the chocolate industry heading?

It's becoming more specialised and people are more particular, hence Whittaker's producing an artisanal range. They could obviously recognise marketing-wise where people were becoming more interested in.

Their marketing spending would probably exceed our turnover, but it's nice to know that we are on that similar level. If someone like Whittaker's is trying to do artisanal then you know you're in the right area.

Artisanal will continue to increase.

People are passionate about good food and being able to turn up at a place where it is made and have a connection with it beyond just mass brand.

What advice do you give to others wanting to start a similar business?

Don't start without a business plan. Get a business plan in place - it can be a one-pager - but you need to know what you want to be achieving otherwise how are you going to strive for anything.

Cash flow is a big thing for small businesses so you need to know how you're going to pay your bills when they first comes round. It might be a bank loan, but you have a plan in place, and know you're ins and outs money-wise.

Whether you are a product or a service you need to know who your customer is.