York might be best known for Vikings, or it’s churches, or the walls that surround it, but for many, the beating heart of our fair city is the history of chocolate and sweet production, by way of the Nestlé (neé Rowntree’s) and Terry’s factories. Continuing the chocolate tradition in York is York Cocoa House, a charming, innovative and ambitious venture in the heart of the city. I caught up with Sophie Jewett, owner and proprietor (plus this month’s One&Other magazine cover star), on the eve of their second year of business, to ask a few questions.
Congratulations on your 1st birthday, Sophie. How has your experience been so far?
Thank you! Yeah, it’s gone really well. I’m pleased. There’s really best much to learn and so much that’s needed to be done, and still so much that needs to be done. In some ways it looks very much like a business plan did in the first instance, in other ways there’s still a little bit of work to do. Lots of high expectations, maybe.
What plans do you have for year two, if you can reveal them?
There’s two things that I really wanted to be able to do. My reason for setting all this up was to see if this way of selling chocolate would work. So, the two things I really wanted to do was first; one was to really establish York as being a chocolate destination and to really establish the significance of the chocolate industry, not only in the city, but also in the wider chocolate industry itself.
York is really known for its confectionery, isn’t it?
It is, and unfortunately, it kind of fell out of favour in the past decade or so, and I think there’s been an understandable level of feeling about the role the factories had in the city, and how that’s had to change in order for manufacturing industries to compete in the global market. There’s a natural evolution manufacturing industries follow in order to succeed in the industry, and to some extent we’ve been able to appreciate those decisions that’ve been made, and not just in York. What we wanted to do was see if we could make York really proud again of its chocolate heritage, because so many people in the city were employed by the industry.
What secrets have you unearthed about the confectionery industry? Surely there’s a few skeletons in closets?
That is a really, really dramatic story. It’s like reading a soap opera. Part of the work I’ve been doing, mainly through my own natural nosiness and interest in the industry, is my identification with such questions as, ‘Where did these confectioners start from?’, ‘How did they get into business at a really young age?’, ‘How did they work together?’ and, ‘Why did this chocolate city evolves it did do?’. I’ve just gradually got drawn into this spider’s web of a soap opera as to how the story all comes together.
One of the bits and pieces I’m most fascinated by at the moment is the fact that Henry Ernest, father-in-law of Noel Terry, one day in 1915 he joined the board of Terry’s and became chairman. He was the first non-family member to do that. It looks like there was this enormous rift in the family at that time, and I’m not entirely sure how it’s pieced together, but sadly, in 1923, Ernest committed suicide. He had forbidden his daughter, Kathleen from even being in any contact with Noel, so they communicated via a series of up to 800 letters between the two of them at a really young age. What these letters reveal is a wonderful drama which would rival anything you would see on television, on Downton Abbey, in real life, and in people’s own words. I’m really interested to know what was so important about Henry, that he was able to just do that.
How welcome has York made you?
Tremendously. I think it’s very important for us to acknowledge that we’ve not done anything on our own here, because people have contributed to us hugely, and really engaged with what we wanted to do, and that’s fantastic.
Finally, what’s your tip for visitors to York? What’s your insider’s secret?
I have to say, since discovering it, probably Goddard’s. [Noel Terry's family home, recently opened to the public by The National Trust.] That’s my absolute favourite place. I’ve been fortunate enough to go out there for meetings, but to discover the place I’ve been very lucky. You can hear the roar of the A64, but when you get in, it’s an absolute haven. Just to wander around that place, and just to imagine what the family must’ve gone through, and how he entertained people. I spoke to one of the Rowntree’s family, and he said as a child he would go out there to have forenoon garden parties with the Terry’s children, and you can just imagine these two big movers and shakers of the chocolate industry, but at the heart, they were family friends at the same time, which is something really important to remember, especially if we adopt the same principles. No-one exists in isolation, and to survive in today’s economic climate we must work together, to become stronger together.
Thank you, Sophie. Good luck for the future!