King-size worries for chocolatier

Chocolate runs in Dunedin’s blood.

The city’s long involvement with the delectable treat stumbled and nearly ended when Cadbury shut up shop at its central Dunedin site in March 2018.

The sometimes mean forces of global business and consumerism, displayed during that period by Cadbury’s global owner Mondalez International, had deemed the factory here was not making enough money for its requirements, even though it was still a profitable enterprise.

Once the final batch of Pineapple Lumps spilled from the conveyer belt, and the 350 employees walked out the gates for the last time, the future for chocolate in Dunedin seemed grim.

No longer would the exotic aroma of chocolate macaroons, Turkish delight or peppermint cream waft gently through the city centre at night from the Cumberland St factory.

There was a chocolate lifeline, though. Ocho had been operating as a small craft-chocolate company for about four years when Mondalez announced in 2017 the closing of the Cadbury plant.

The shock and concern which reverberated across Dunedin at that news catalysed moves to keep chocolate making in Otago.

Ocho became an incorporated company as the Own the Factory crowdfunding was launched.

The response to that battle for money was rapid and significant, as locals looked both to give Mondalez a two-fingered salute for what it was doing to a Dunedin institution, and to also support the home-grown operation.

In less than 36 hours, $2 million was raised for Ocho by bringing in 3549 new investors.

Campaign mastermind and leader, and now Dunedin city councillor, Jim O’Malley, initiated a second fundraising effort in 2021 to offset a Covid-related drop in income, and raised just shy of $500,000.

During this time, Dr O’Malley was Ocho’s managing director and deferred $70,000 in salary to help the company get back on its feet.

Now, sadly, Ocho’s financial problems have caught up with it again, and Dr O’Malley, who was also chairman of its board until last October, is unlikely to get paid for his efforts during that difficult Covid period of 18 months or so.

Most Dunedin residents, and especially chocolate lovers and supporters of all local industries in the South, were left stunned again this week when news broke of a proposal to put Ocho into voluntary liquidation later this month.

Ocho chairman Pete Lead said it appeared the company would be unable to make enough sales to get out of a financial hole and had "no prospect of achieving future profitability" with its existing business arrangements.

That meant the board would be considering a resolution to appoint a liquidator on June 26. The 11 staff will be paid in the meantime.

To say Ocho’s situation is disappointing would be an understatement.

The hopes and dreams of staff and the board, of Dr O’Malley, of customers, and of all those who invested in the company or were just out there cheering it on, have been tied up in its success.

What is disappointing, however, is hearing from Mr Lead of the lack of support for Ocho from beyond the South.

It had tried, unsuccessfully, to get its chocolate goods put on sale in supermarkets across the country and as in-flight snacks on Air New Zealand flights.

It is at least a tiny bit of good news to hear that sales have been up in the past year, despite costs growing at a faster rate.

Ocho is solvent and has been able to pay its expenses until now.

Mr Lead says the company wants to close "with dignity" and ensure everyone gets what is owed to them.

For more than 150 years, from Richard Hudson’s biscuit bakery to Cadbury Fry Hudson and finally to Cadbury, chocolate making has been an indispensable part of Dunedin’s social and economic fabric.

Maybe this is the time for one of the South’s great philanthropists to put their hands in their pockets and come up with the cash to keep Ocho going.

While dignity is something we embrace, many will not want a bar of the notion that Ocho should close for good.