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The business of chocolate in County Wicklow

It’s hard to find a household anywhere on the planet that wasn’t charmed by the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Film buffs would be aware that the film, starring Gene Wilder, was an adaptation of the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and it brightened up many festive childhoods over the years.

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The movie is even still available on

In the magical, musical fantasy for the young, and the young at heart, the mysterious candy maker extraordinaire Willy Wonka hides a Golden Ticket inside five of his famous candy bars.

The kids who find them are invited on a grand tour of the wondrous, wacky Wonka factory, and a chance for an even grander prize owning their own sweet factory — if they can resist temptation.

Why has the movie endured for the best part of half a century?

Because of everyones dream of winning a life changing lottery ticket and a near universal love around the world of….chocolate.

How many children dreamt of having their own chocolate factory? Truth is, one family in County Wicklow did grow up with one outside their back door. Their own Chocolate Garden.

The Healys. Parents Jim and Mary here pictured with their offspring.

Robert (18), Aisling (16) and Niamh (14), not forgetting Doug the dog!

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‘Robert is strong on IT, which he plans to study, and helps with IT systems in the business.  The girls are great for helping out in the shop, in production, in workshops and at online social media marketing. 

‘They are always happy to give their tuppence worth on discussions of the business activities and plans, and it is interesting to get their young perspective on things.’ says mum Mary.

No doubt the envy of all their school pals, the business is entering it’s 20th and arguably most challenging year ever but the couple behind it are more passionate than ever about their enterprise.

Mary and Jim Healy are the owners of the Chocolate Garden of Ireland located at Rath just outside Tullow County Carlow but inside the Wicklow border, in what’s known as Ireland’s Garden County. (We see what they did there!)

The pair spoke to about their experience of running a business today and being married while negotiating some of the major challenges for all company directors today.

In business since 2001, and in their current location at Rath East near Tullow since 2009, like all companies around the world, dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is the biggest challenge in their entrepreneurial history.

However online sales are sustaining the company, if at a smaller scale, and covid-19 has actually presented a business opportunity.

‘Lots of people are actually looking for chocolate cocooning hampers or to send a gift to someone for their birthday that they can’t go and see. For family for friends, for their mother or father, or brother or sister. ‘ says Jim

‘We do a personalised gift card on each hamper that we send out as well. So that’s a big plus that actually they’re sending something that’s personalised as well.’

‘We have a great variety so there’s something for everybody be it a hurl and sliotar or chocolate flower, chocolate shoe, gardening toolset, a golf set – all sorts of different kinds of gifts. Then back to the traditional, you know, handmade chocolates and different flavours artisan gourmet bars.’ says Mary.

You’d wonder who comes up with the recipes or the new chocolate lines?

In his response Jim underlines that he obviously missed out on a career in the diplomatic corps. “The work on making a recipe is not something that just in one individual in the business can do. The work of making a product is always done by consensus, because you have to let different people taste it.

‘Myself and Mary will obviously taste it and try to get the best flavours but then we will give it to the other staff, friends and people that we know to taste it so we come up with the best recipe. Our most popular flavour at the moment are our 70% dark chocolate salted caramel – always a big winner.

‘Our milk chocolate salted caramel again is a huge huge favourite. We’ve won a lot of gold in Blas na hEireann and the Great Taste awards for our products and those two, in particular, have one Gold for us. We always work to get the best flavour and best taste.’ says Jim.

‘We get ideas from different sources. Going to events or travelling, you might taste something and say ‘that’s interesting’ and that would bring about innovation and we might try flavour in a praline or a texture or flavour in a caramel which we hadn’t tried before perhaps.’ adds Mary.

Their idea for a chocolate business rose phoenix like from the embers of another local business that sadly had to close down.

‘Initially, we weren’t making chocolates. We were making waffles. And this came about due to closed waffle plant in Baltinglass nearby. Jim had some familiarity with this business prior to it going under. There was a liquidation sale and the assets were up for sale and we said sure, we’ll give it a shot. We had this dream of working together back in the day in the honeymoon romance days!

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How it all began. The Healys initially started making waffles. Pic supplied.

‘We put a bid in and, lo and behold, we got the equipment. We had to go to Holland to learn how to make waffles. And we always, from the outset, knew we were going to diversify into different products, perhaps not quite as far as we have come. Because we’re now doing hampers, we’re now making ice cream and, and obviously the chocolates as well and chocolate spreads and different things. But in the waffles, that was our first foray into food. And neither Jim nor myself had a food background. But we did have some business skills and plenty of life experience and work experience to apply.’ says Mary.

Would they recommend working together as a couple? Jim decides bravely to go first.

‘It has its challenges there’s no doubt about it. It’s not always easy, because your tendency is to carry your work from your work environment to your home environment and that’s sometimes not the best idea, but it naturally it happens.’

‘It takes a bit of work. It takes a bit of discipline and sometimes at eleven at night I say to, Jim, you can have the rest of the day off.’ adds Mary.

Jim is pleased to get a good an half hour off every day!

But how do they feel about the weeks and months ahead?

We can see growth in the online market as we move into gifting seasons, there is a huge increase in that happening. And we’re kind of uncertain about the school tour business, the tourist season, the social distancing issue and the impact of making this change for our business, but you have to try to keep your eye on everything and move ahead. The one thing you’re sure of in business is that there’s going to be changes. So you’ve got to react to the changes. In a small business you are better, maybe at some things including making the change, whereas in a larger business the model may be very fixed. We’re flexible so we change our model to meet requirements of today.’ says Jim.

‘There is a huge shortfall, obviously, in the sales. And there’s nothing anyone can do about that, you know, that’s happening across the board throughout the country in every business – unless you make hand sanitising gel! All you can do is focus on what is in demand in the market and put your efforts there.

Many SMEs are wondering how their businesses will fare once the economy is fully re-opened.

Mary acknowledges there are big hurdles in the food sector to be overcome before you start banking your profits.

‘Business, as time goes on becomes more and more complex, particularly in the food industry. The level of regulation around labelling, process and hygiene monitoring – there’s a huge overhead there in managing all that. And that adds no ‘value’, in a sense to the business. It’s a cost, it’s all cost. So that that is a challenge for a small business in particular, certainly when volumes dropped, sales drop, you still have the same level of regulation to adhere to ‘with less resources and, and less volume to spread the cost over.’

The Banks🙄

The pair are another two customers who are trying to get their heads round the workings of the modern day pillar financial institutions.

‘You now have a relationship manager and they have a very limited say. So if you ask for a loan, if you ask for anything, it has to go up to Dublin for decision making on somebody’s desk, someone who has no idea of who you are, what your real risk is. Whether you’re a genuine person or not, whether you will, you know, go to the ends of the earth to pay your bills; that’s that local knowledge and has been stripped away from the banking side of things. Having said that, there are other options for finances, crowd-funding and all sorts of different options as well. So that’s a plus in the modern economic climate.’ says Mary.

Coping with the new normal will also be a big challenge for businesses dealing with the public acknowledges Jim.

‘In talking to other businesses that are in the same category as ourselves, moving forward is trying to organise your working space. You have put social distancing arrangements in place and try and actually make that work for you, practically and economically.’

But Mary believes online could be the saviour of many enterprises. ‘It has never experienced a surge of sales as it is experiencing right now. I think some of that is going to be here to stay. And for all businesses, their level of sales will be rising. I would also say for a small, local independent shop, there has been a huge opportunity. People want a shorter transaction time and a more personal touch. And so that, I think, will hopefully bring a revival to the small local trader. We’re working with, which is a marketing arrangement for local producers’ foods with an online-offline dimension. So I think there’ll be more of that. And I think that’s positive for that kind of shop for the future.’

How have they managed parenting with running a business running and being husband and wife though?

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Aisling and Niamh Healy doing their bit for the familu business!

‘On the plus of it our children are teenagers, and they can come and help when the pressure is on. They were all drafted in for the Easter rush. So that’s a big plus. And on the positive side, it means when we sit down and have meals together, we share ideas more often now than we did before. We can go for a walk most evenings down to the local woodlands. And that’s really nice as well. So we actually spend more time together.’

‘Obviously, like any, they have their moments when they dig in the heels and they don’t want to do anything, you just have to work around that. Thankfully when they were younger and Jim’s mom was around, she was great support; local family supports when they were younger, that was essential.’ says Mary.

The fact that they are a hop and a skip from the family home is also helpful.

‘We have a ‘walk to work’ policy’ says Jim. “We’re 50 steps from our back door to the door of the premises so commuting isn’t a problem!’

‘It’s always nice to hear the traffic news and smile, knowing we don’t have to put up with that.’ says Mary.

Now everyone’s thoughts are about the future and the Healys are no different.

‘We’ll have to look at building new markets and increasing existing markets. In the short term, you know, there will be no events and our café and venue is on hold. Sales volume on that side, on the direct selling – visitor centre experience and Café – is going to be way down.

‘And so we’ll have to look at other marketing tools. We haven’t really engaged hugely with LinkedIn or Twitter and it’s time to build on these kind of things and to do more a with Instagram, to work Social media.’ says Mary.

‘There may be opportunities with corporates and we’ve had some of those already over the last few weeks, more than is typical. We send the gifts directly to their employees because a lot of employees are working from home now. So they like to just kind of keep them in mind and give them a small gift of appreciation. We’ve had gifts for virtual dinner parties – a bottle of wine and box of chocolates for after. These kind of gifts can even be personalised, and all will have a hand-written message included.’

What would the couple say to anyone who might be exploring entertaining or thinking about the idea of their own business?

‘Whatever challenge it is, you have to be hugely committed to sticking with your own business. Because the one thing that we’re always sure of is you get change in business. And it seems to happen every seven to ten years. You’re going to experience a change in the market, you are supplying. This one [Covid] has been quite difficult, right? But you have to be able to make that change and be flexible enough to make the changes but if you’re up for it, give it a go. Too many people are afraid to give it a go. And what if it’s not working? We shouldn’t be in a situation where we’re afraid to say that we have to stop. If it works, it works. And if it doesn’t work, you make the changes and you do something else, or you stop the business and start again.’ according to Jim.

‘But there are always ways to make it work, you know, there are lots of opportunities as well out there. So people have to look at how they deal with the situations that arise in business.’ Says Jim.

‘I think in any path you choose, there will be benefits, and the flexibility that having your own business gives you is wonderful. And it has been a journey for us in our life, in our business life and in our personal life. It has given us time when we needed it. And there are other times when you have to give all your hours and you have to make sacrifices. But I think in any choice you make, there’s going to be that balance of commitment versus free time. But as Jim said, if you have it in you, and you want to do it – go for it because life’s too short! Says Mary.

Here is the couple’s pitch for their business.

Future purchase decisions

As we all begin to tailor our purchase decisions a little bit more than before February the Healy’s want us all to spend a little more time thinking about where we are spending our hard cash.

‘We’re located in rural county Wicklow on the Carlow border and we’re providing jobs locally. The people we employ are spending their money locally. So think about that, when you’re going online and buying from far-flung places.’ says Mary.

‘We source as many ingredients and raw materials as we can that can be used in our business from locally as well. So it all impacts, not just the jobs we provide here, but on the services and products that we buy from other people around Ireland as well. When you buy Irish you’re supporting Irish jobs and you’re supporting all the crisis-supports that support you during a time like this.’ says Mary. Hard to argue with that.