Taking Kiwi flavours to the world

The Seriously Good Chocolate Company owner Jane Stanton (front) and staff (from left) Bridgette Keil, Raphael Rausch, Heather Soper and Lisa Churches display some of the company's produce outside its Invercargill store. Photo by Sally Rae.
The Seriously Good Chocolate Company owner Jane Stanton (front) and staff (from left) Bridgette Keil, Raphael Rausch, Heather Soper and Lisa Churches display some of the company's produce outside its Invercargill store. Photo by Sally Rae.

The Seriously Good Chocolate Company in Invercargill stemmed from one woman's attempts to cheer up her hairdresser by making some chocolate truffles. Now Jane Stanton is exporting a taste of New Zealand to the world, as business reporter Sally Rae reports.

Jane Stanton is a seriously determined woman.

She is the founder of the The Seriously Good Chocolate Company, an Invercargill-based business with its roots in Hokitika that produces chocolate that can now be found in the likes of Harrods, arguably the world's most famous department store.

Despite being originally from Auckland, Ms Stanton could be described as a typical southern woman, with a refreshingly matter-of-fact approach to both life and business.

''When adversity comes along, you've just got to carry on,'' she said.

And there have been plenty of challenges to overcome, including, most recently, breast cancer and a hip replacement.

But not to succeed was not an option, Ms Stanton (who gave her age as ''29 plus GST plus a wee bit'') said.

The story of The Seriously Good Chocolate Company began when Ms Stanton, who was then teaching at Fiordland College in Te Anau, made some chocolate truffles for the local hairdresser who was ''a bit down in the dumps''.

The recipe had been handed down from her grandfather, Tik Heenan, a former mayor and fire chief of Hokitika. Along with his civic duties, he also owned a book and chocolate shop in the West Coast town.

The hairdresser started handing the truffles out to her clients and Ms Stanton started getting phone calls asking her to make them.

''The joke of it all, I was diabetic,'' she said, laughing.

She started giving test chocolates to her pupils and joked that she had ''perfectly behaved'' children in her classroom.

Then Ms Stanton had the idea of infusing her truffles with pinot noir wine. Using a bottle of Gibbston Valley pinot noir, she made some samples and took them to Gibbston Valley Winery, where she was met with an enthusiastic response.

She had further developed the wine chocolates over the years and believed she was the only chocolate-maker in the world doing them.

When she moved to Invercargill - which, at that stage, she thought was at ''the end of the Earth'' - she opened a store in Windsor, later shifting to her current premises in Spey St.

Ironically, Weight Watchers' headquarters used to be upstairs in the building.

''They loved coming down here,'' she said.

The business, which includes a cafe, employs eight staff, including chocolatier Raphael Rausch.

Originally from Luxembourg, Mr Rausch married a New Zealand woman and has been in New Zealand six years, working for The Seriously Good Chocolate Company for four.

A pastry chef and baker by trade, Mr Rausch said the best part of the job was the creativity involved.

Ms Stanton estimated her chocolate was stocked in about 300 outlets throughout New Zealand.

As well as specialising in wine chocolates, the company was now doing beer chocolates using the same formula and she was also working with a tea company.

Seriously Good Chocolate was stocked in duty-free stores offshore, promoting New Zealand wine to the world through chocolate, she said.

Exports of Seriously Good Chocolate to China and Hong Kong were through New Zealand Focus, it was stocked in the Melbourne Museum - a contract secured through Te Papa which also stocks the brand - and it was also available at Harrods. Ms Stanton was also eyeing the likes of Singapore and Dubai as export destinations.

She said she tried to work ''a little bit outside the square'' and had a focus on Kiwiana chocolate, using New Zealand flavours.

Whether it was Bluff oyster chocolate (cinnamon and sauvignon blanc), muttonbird (caramel and salt) or ''sheep poo'' (freeze dried boysenberries coated in chocolate), she wanted to ''export New Zealand to the world'' through chocolate.

A very keen cook, Ms Stanton had also launched the The Seriously Good Food Company, a business she was ''just quietly growing'', which included the likes of freeze-dried cheese, chutneys and sauces, and dukka.

A qualified primary school teacher, Ms Stanton said she ''wasn't business savvy at all'' when she started the business.

She had to learn as she went along and she had made a lot of mistakes, but the key was to turn them into opportunities.

The first person to get her ''on track'' with what she was doing was a man she knew only as Ralph, who ran the gourmet store in Auckland's flagship department store Smith and Caugheys.

''He knew his game, he knew chocolate. There's no-one like Ralph - nobody's got the knowledge he's got,'' she said.

Whenever she went to Auckland, she took her latest developments to show him.

She now had an advisory board for her business, which had been a welcome addition, and she recently finished a strategic plan for 2014-20.

Every year, the business was growing. But, like any small business, it was under-capitalised and a decision on whether to get investors on board would need to be made ''in the next year or so'', she said.

Ms Stanton was incredibly grateful for the support of the Southland community, saying the region had backed her ''to the hilt''.

In the last year, a food group had been set up in Southland, involving various businesses, and they supported each other.

Ms Stanton said she was passionate about promoting Southland, the region that was now very much home for her.

While there were some disadvantages to being based in the Far South, the positive aspect was ''you just get on and do'', she said.

It was easier to stay focused and she did not worry about what competing businesses were doing.

She could also do smaller runs, change the flavours and bring out new products regularly. Although the South Island did not have the population of the North Island, businesses in the South supported each other ''and keep going''.

Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt was supportive of businesses and her company, while she had even had Prime Minister John Key making chocolates in the premises.

While the chocolates were all initially made by hand, over time she had got machinery, including a chocolate cutter, specially made for the business, and a keg was converted, showing some true southern ingenuity - to roll the chocolates.

The premises were small but, over the next year, quite a few changes would be occurring, she said.

She had been lucky with her staff and it was a close-knit team.

Ms Stanton's big dream was to be the top gourmet chocolate company in the southern hemisphere. She also wanted to keep promoting New Zealand to the world while growing the market and the appreciation of New Zealand chocolate, and, at the same time, have fun.

The Seriously Good Chocolate Company was ''going to be here for a long time'', she said.

- sally.rae@odt.co.nz

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