Interviews

Amelia Rope: How to run a one-man band chocolate business

12 min read

18 June 2015

Chocolatier Amelia Rope tells us why her PA background has stood her in good stead for juggling all elements of a business, and just how good relationships are fundamental to exporting success.

When asked which attributes you need to start your own business, tenacity and resilience often crop up as being highly-valued. Which is lucky for Amelia Rope, since she seems to have these qualities in spades. 

Her self-titled chocolate business came about after a series of admin roles during her twenties and thirties. “I’d work in a business for a year, learn a load, then move onto another place and repeat the process,” she explained. Despite having been self-employed before, Rope needed a few confidence boosts before she took the plunge and decided to try and turn interest into a business.

Rope entered MasterChef as she “had always loved food”, didn’t progress and decided to work part-time while taking some cooking courses “so I didn’t look like such an idiot!”. It was time spent at a chocolate school in France that really proved to be the turning point for her though. The intricacy involved in the process of chocolate-making appealed to Rope’s artistic spirit. “It all blew me away. I had watched Chocolat with Juliette Binoche but never thought it was a real-life possibility,” she said.

Deciding to pursue a food-orientated career meant she then sought out a prominent food editor for a meeting, and brought along some truffles when he agreed. “He said rather flippantly ‘oh, you’re the next Juliette Binoche!’ and he had no idea how much of an effect this had, but it gave me the self-confidence to believe that this career was an option.”

While the editor had said she needed a degree in journalism to pursue a similar path to his own, Rope had already moved onto making truffles in her flat – spurred on by this newfound self-belief. Experimenting with using less cream and butter, in a bid to create healthier alternatives, led to an interesting discovery. “I tested their shelf life and it was over two weeks, because of this incredible honey I was using,” she explained. At the time, it wasn’t as commonplace in chocolate-making, and Rope said it was “practically unheard of to have fresh truffles last so long” which she credited to the honey’s anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.

As well as her experimental side, Rope also had a real interest in design – which helped to set her product apart as she developed it. “I’ve always been creative, there’s a strong creative DNA in my family,” she said, mentioning the artist George Wright, as well as a relative who created stained glass windows for a chapel in Sussex. “My grandmother as well – she was an incredibly creative cook.”

Rope said she had “a clear picture in my mind, like a piece of art” for her first product of flower petals with chocolate on the bottom and decorative gold leaf. After sending them out to press, they were quickly picked up and stirred up coverage – “I think journalists like something new and at the time they were very unique,” she said. It led to an offer to go on Dragons’ Den, which she didn’t take, but the flurry of action led to her creating a site and starting up orders. She admitted it was hectic “but good chaos”.

Even now, Rope functions primarily as a “one-man band”, covering everything from recipes to sales and marketing, to online orders and PR. “I am efficient and I’m a pretty good PA for myself really! Though, I would like a proper office and a good assistant at some point.”

The past year has been a particularly challenging one – three people close to her died, including her business mentor, Pat Reeves, the philanthropic entrepreneur who started up Sofa.com. “On an operational level I was working and the business is obviously going on, but you’re not quite there,” she explained. “When you run a business, you don’t always think about external factors that can have knock-on effects on the business and the people running it.”

“It made me question the business and whether I really wanted to do it. So, this year, I’m going back to my roots of doing bespoke products which I love to do.”

While Rope has secured some big-name deals – Liberty and Selfridges both stock Amelia Rope chocolate – and she benefited from the exposure, she admitted that working with retailers can be more restricted as “you get dragged into margins and ways of cost-cutting”.

The initial retail opportunities came about after her breakthrough in 2009, when Reeves commissioned her to create 1,000 chocolate bars. Rope had to find the means to make this happen, and do it during November – which is the busiest time of the year for chocolatiers. “Nobody takes orders or commissions at that time,” she revealed. Reeves specified a request for craft paper, so Rope Googled suppliers as well as a printer and had a tip-off on the foil producer she still uses today. Selfridges got in touch in 2010.

Much of Rope’s initial progress came from utilising her own research skills, as well as people skills. “I would always say ask questions, get out there and chat. Growing a business is all about connecting with people – your own product will open doors for you, but people will do so much quicker,” she said.

This can be particularly advantageous when it comes to getting suppliers on side. As they’ll often be preoccupied with bigger orders, you have to build a relationship with them, and make sure you pay on time because the big boys don’t, she stated. 

The ability to cultivate meaningful relationships has been useful as Rope seeks to up her exporting for the coming year, saying “it’s really the only way to grow”. A trip to Japan has been a starting point on this front. 

“The whole process is very much a focused mission. They get buyers and distributors ready to meet you. I fell in love with Japan because of the design, and felt I came to understand the culture a lot more, thanks to the trip,” she said. It’s not just about getting these people to believe in your product but “believe in you as a person”. Rope mentioned the designer Paul Smith as someone she looks up to – as he was able to instil a level of trust that set the foundations for his brand’s great success in Japan.

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“I want to become even more channelled and pick an area where my product is likely to be popular, so I’m seeing where I’m getting interest from online,” Rope said. It has involved a great deal of planning and research – things Rope is all too familiar with. “You need to be aware of the need to refine your product and the legislation. You may need to reprint everything in a different language and create a smaller product to make it easier to get bulk orders, so a 25g bar instead of 100g,” she said.

Despite the single-handed plate-spinning Rope has going on, you almost get the feeling an assistant would slow her down – though she’ll definitely be bringing on new members of the team if the online expansion and exporting get going as she plans.

Rope gets up at six most mornings, and from September to December is working seven days a week “and 17 hour days”, which often means snacking on her chocolate bars rather than having a proper lunch.

“I have a real weakness for white chocolate which is terrible because it’s pure sugar!” she said. 

When it comes to creating new recipes, Rope steers clear of sultanas and fruit as she hates them in chocolate and will only create products she has tried herself. During previous work as an aromatherapist, Rope realised she had an allergy to lavender and doesn’t use that either, “but I do love using salt, which you can probably tell!”. Selections on her site include dark honeycomb and sea salt, pale lemon and sea salt and pale lime and sea salt.

Does the twenty-four hour exposure to chocolate ever get a bit sickening though?

“Sometimes I have a hatred for it – it’s consuming my life! During the busiest time of the year, I had a delivery of chocolate to my flat and I just dropped the box on purpose, because I was so fed up that day,” she said.

For the most part though, chocolate remains the fulcrum of her creativity and what she manages to create during the day-to-day whirlwind is very much worth it. “There’s a lot of competition and it’s not a particularly nice industry. Some days you go to bed feeling like you’re working hard for very little, but the next morning you’re up and back at it again,” she said wryly.

As an artistic businessperson, Rope feels the need to keep going, if only to find a home for all of her ideas. “I have so many recipes in my head – I can’t make them all a reality yet, but they’re there! I’m constantly innovating and I think that’s really important for growing businesses.”