The company behind Keswick’s famous Ye Olde Friars chocolate shop has guaranteed itself a sweet future through booming online sales and sustainable rebranding.
The store has been a feature of Main Street since 1927 and Michael Webster, who runs Friars with his brother Richard, said that since the company moved online in 2010, it has not looked back.
He said: “The biggest part of what we do now is the online business.
“We sell 40 tonnes of chocolate a year, including more than 5,000 chocolate Santas and four tonnes of chocolate buttons.
“We’ve also provided corporate gifts to Loreal, Google, KPMG, ASOS and many more.”
As Friars expands, Michael said staff were working to improve the sustainability of the brand. They are now making their own range of vegan chocolates and are moving over to biodegradable packaging.
“We used to go through hundreds and thousands of little plastic bags for chocolates each year,” he said.
“Now we’re using bags made of plant-based plastic which is easily broken down in your compost heap at home. Our own brand chocolate boxes are all recyclable too.”
The traditional shop has been a favourite destination for visitors to Keswick since it was opened by Michael’s great uncle in 1927. Ironically, the company was born out of a family feud.
“My grandmother’s brother opened the shop because he had a fallout with his dad and sacked him off,” explained Michael. “His dad had a shop on Main Street, too, which sold fruit and vegetables and my great uncle wanted to go his own way.
“My grandmother took Ye Olde Friars on after her brother died, and then my parents, John and Gina, and then my brother and me.
“Richard and I own the business now with my parents, but we run it from day to day. My parents are still very interested and involved though.”
Ye Olde Friars’ traditional Bavarian look is inspired by Michael’s mother.
“She is from Berlin originally and we know that traditional chocolate shops do really well in Germany,” said Michael.
The chocolates which Friars do not make themselves are also sourced from Germany.
“We go to a trade fair in Cologne every year where you can get anything and everything when it comes to chocolates and sweets. We try absolutely everything we sell ourselves,” said Michael.
“My brother and I, and our staff at Friars kitchen, select the chocolates. We trust their tastebuds and we don’t like to sell anything we wouldn’t pay for ourselves.”
Friars also likes to choose chocolates which are a little bit different. Flavour is top priority, so Michael said that even for subtle tastes like gin, customers should be able to recognise the gin straight away.
“Sometimes people are left wondering what the chocolate tastes of and that’s a bit rubbish. We think chocolates should be what they say they are on the tin,” he said.
Real cherry liqueurs are Ye Olde Friars’ most popular offering in Keswick.
“We take a real cherry, surround it with a brandy liqueur and coat it in dark chocolate,” said Michael. “When you bite into it, the liqueur just pours out. They’re delicious.”
Lead chocolatier at Ye Olde Friars, Nicola works at the firm’s chocolate kitchen in Main Street, Keswick, creating fabulous new chocolates for the long-established firm.
It is a role she has had since April and it’s non-stop.
One of her first major projects is to develop the company’s vegan range. Friars has sold vegan chocolate for a while, but is now expanding the range as part of its new, eco-friendly direction, said Nicola, who has been tasked with thinking up new, brilliant flavours.
She said: “I’m developing a toffee apple vegan chocolate for bonfire night and playing with flavours at the moment to get it just right. We’ve also been experimenting with natural colourings. People don’t want vegan chocolates to be all E numbers.”
Nicola works alongside assistant chocolatier Adele Bosward and chocolate porter David Wales. The team make their vegan recipe from scratch and Nicola said she is now happy with their version, which is made of cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla and rice starch as a substitute for milk.
She added: “It doesn’t taste very different from non-vegan chocolate at all.
“We make sure to run the mixture through a machine for 24 hours. The longer the chocolate is run through the smoother it will be.”
The chocolates are then filled with a flavoured ganache and dipped, or hand-rolled by the team.
Nicola said she taught herself many of her chocolate-making skills.
“I’m quite a crafty person and I always liked playing about in the kitchen,” she said. “My dad did a lot of the cooking growing up and my grandma was a very good baker.
“I worked at Debenhams for 17 years, but I always enjoyed baking and dabbled in chocolate making at home.
“My sister has worked at Friars for many years, so she challenged me to try making vegan chocolate at home.
“I taught myself to temper (heating and cooling chocolate to stabilise it and give it a glossy finish) with videos online and then when I started at Friars, I perfected making a basic ganache.
“Now I am constantly being challenged. It’s always interesting at Friars.”
Even though Nicola spends all day making and tasting chocolate, she said she was not sick of it yet. “Our peanut butter chocolate is probably my favourite. It’s made with crunchy peanut butter, so it’s got a bit more texture.”
She added: “Chocolate making is not quite as glamorous as it sounds though. There is no keeping clean — the chocolate gets everywhere!”
Nicola meets with the whole Friars team once a week to discuss future fabulous flavours. “The creative side is definitely the best part of the job,” she said.
“It’s a totally exciting journey and I love the creative side of it. Someone getting pleasure from something you’ve created is the best feeling in the world. I love making other people happy.”