A serious truffle maker

A serious truffle maker

Meet the Highland chocolatier behind a thriving gourmet business which is helping to put the Perthshire village of Grandtully on the map.

No tartan, no shortbread and no trill of bagpipes in the background? Legends of Grandtully certainly differs from some of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions in that respect but then chocolatier Iain Burnett, the man behind the Scottish Chocolate Centre – part of an ambitious tourism and artisan chocolate-making venture in the village of Grandtully, near Aberfeldy – is not one to conform.

It’s a cold but crisp day in early March and the shoots of spring are very much in evidence in beautiful Highland Perthshire.

At almost four o’clock in the afternoon, the small but vibrant chocolate and coffee house at Legends of Grandtully is surprisingly busy.

A delightful young lady – a trained barista – serves coffee and the most exquisite hot chocolate to visitors from nearby Perth who have brought friends from the north of England to experience Scotland’s very own shrine to fine chocolate.

“There’s nothing like this in our neck of the woods,” says one of the English visitors.

“What a gem of a place. Who’d have thought Scotland would have a chocolate centre? We’ve had a great time looking at the exhibition and learning all about chocolate and its origins. And the best bit? It hasn’t cost us anything. We’ll definitely come back.”

These visitors could easily have carried further up the A9 to the House of Bruar, for example, or visited one of the many distilleries in the area.

Tourism is a competitive industry and it is always about customer satisfaction at the end of the day.

Legends of Grandtully can certainly tick that particular box today. As the satisfied foursome polishes off some deeply rich chocolate torte and other home-baked delights then heads for the gift showrooms where the ladies, most certainly, are lured by the eclectic range of vintagestyle goods, homewares, fashion accessories and gifts galore, Iain Burnett – running late and “chasing my tail as usual” – bounds into the coffee house like an excited schoolboy, explaining that he’s been spending time with a new employee.

Quickly exchanging pleasantries with the visitors, he is then free to talk about his favourite subject – chocolate.

First, however, he launches into a dialogue on the “unnecessary bureaucracy” and frustrations that go hand in hand with dealing with local planners.

His plans to quadruple the size of the chocolate production area – due to increasing demand from leading chefs and top-end retailers for his superb gourmet chocolates – and create new office space are, at last, progressing well.

But Burnett had hoped to be much further down the line at this stage. Remember, this is the first visitor centre in Scotland dedicated to chocolate, an enterprising business that has revitalised an otherwise sleepy conservation village on the Tay.

Since opening two years ago, the Scottish Chocolate Centre has won a Four Star Visitor Attraction grading from VisitScotland and features in the 11th edition of Pete Irvine’s “tourism bible”, Scotland the Best.

It also won the 2011 Scotland Food & Drink Food Tourism Award. So why would the planning authority not welcome with open arms expansion plans by a business that is already boosting the local economy? Looking at the wider importance to tourism of food and drink, figures show that £1 in every £5 spent by a visitor in Scotland is on food and drinkrelated activity, equating to more than £500m for UK visitors alone.

“There’s been no deliberate attempt to thwart our plans but everything happens so slowly,” Burnett explains.

“We invited everyone in the village to come and listen to our proposals and not a single person was against them.

On the contrary, what we’re doing here has rejuvenated the village and brought some life back to it yet the planning system seems to get bogged down with minute details that can grind your entire business to a halt.

“We’re so excited about what we’re doing here and there’s nothing controversial about the plans. So it’s frustrating when all the red tape takes so long to cut through. Why? I wish I knew the answer. It’s the process that’s the problem, not the people. I think Scotland’s planners do accept that the system is crying out for change, otherwise businesses like ours will simply not bother – it’s too much hassle for a lot of people and, in our case, the delays have cost us a lot of money.”

It’s all systems go now, however, with workmen – all locally based – at long last renovating old garage premises that will boast a stunning glass frontage to allow visitors to watch Burnett and his team of skilled chocolatiers at work in the purpose-built chocolate kitchens.

Discussing the plans in more detail, he brims with enthusiasm as he explains how he drew his inspiration for the future of Legends of Grandtully from other visitor attractions.

“When you are making a product that hopefully people will want to buy and take away with them at the end of their visit, I think it’s really important to give them an insight into how it all happens,” says Burnett.

“With chocolate, you have a product that is steeped in history and mystery – people want to find out more about where it comes from.

“We also want to share with our visitors the things you can do with chocolate, and show them how we combine different ingredients and marry them together in the way that only a skilled and experienced master chocolatier can. It’s designed to educate but we also want it to be thought-provoking because I don’t think many people have any idea of just how much skill and dedication goes into the production of gourmet chocolates.”

The Scottish Chocolate Centre features a slick multi-media presentation telling the chocolate story, display areas and a showcase of elegant chocolate wedding cakes, breathtaking chocolate sculptures and delicate wedding favours, all made by Burnett and his chocolatier team. Visitors can also pre-book a tasting tour.

“It really is a unique concept for Scotland, and gives us an unrivalled position as an exciting tourist attraction as well as cementing our position as a leader in the gourmet chocolate marketplace,” suggests Burnett.

Burnett prefers not to divulge the financials involved in the Legends of Grandtully journey so far but it is obvious even to the casual observer that the investment has been substantial.

With just 15 staff, it’s also a tight team and while Burnett has tended to take an “all hands on deck” approach to running the business, he has accepted that this is not the best way forward for an ambitious, growing company.

“I now realise that I can’t do everything,” he admits. “When it’s your business and you love it, you think you can take on the world. That’s what I thought we started it back in 2005. But as you grow, everyone wants a little piece of you and you find yourself running around trying to organise this and that – you don’t use your time productively when you do that.

“We’ve grown on average 45% for each of the last three years and turnover is now £500,000 – in this economic climate I think that’s pretty impressive. So why am I in the office checking paperwork when I have hugely capable and committed people who can do that? I need to be in the kitchen with the team, exploring new product ideas and working with chefs to ensure we can provide them with the chocolates they want, when they want them.

“As far as The Highland Chocolatier is concerned, the quality of our product is absolutely crucial and we cannot afford to let that slip for a second.”

So while Burnett concentrates on the chocolate side as production director and head chocolatier, Janice Kennedy, former head of UK sales at Honda, has joined the business as managing director.

It’s a bold appointment by Burnett and one that represents a real step change for the business.

“We’re very lucky to have Janice,” he says. “She comes from a completely different industry so that in itself brings with it wider business experience and whole new mindset and has an incredibly sharp mind that will be of enormous benefit to us. I think the time is absolutely right for us to ramp up our sales and marketing strategy.

“Yes, times are tough but it’s the same for every business and you have to take a measured approach to risk. With Janice on board and Julie Collier, our business development manager, who is already doing some sterling work for us, there’s a real air of confidence about the business – that’s a great feeling because the optimism rubs off on everyone; visitors feel it too.”

As a member of (industry organisation) Scotland Food & Drink, the company was able to tap into the organisation’s free “Manager for Hire” service which saw an experienced consultant spend time with Burnett and Collier, discussing and advising on various aspects of the business – and helping them focus on key areas.

“There’s so much help and advice available for small businesses if you take the time to seek it out,” Burnett points out. In recent months, for example, the brand Iain Burnett – The Highland Chocolatier has gone global. The business has expanded into Japan where a major department store chain is importing the chocolates, and also into Oman, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Germany. China and the US are also in the sights of The Highland Chocolatier.

Says Burnett: “Despite the economic picture, the quality of what we produce is not affected because consumers still like to treat themselves to high-quality produce – particularly chocolate. We’re also getting a lot of help from Scotland Food & Drink, plus we’ve got development funding from Scottish Enterprise.

“We’re account-managed by SE and that’s a real help for any growing business, I think, because you get access to a lot of valuable support mechanisms.”

Key customers at home include Michelinstarred chefs Martin Wishart and Gordon Ramsay, and five-star establishments such as Claridges, The Lanesborough and, of course, Gleneagles.

Meanwhile, the legendary chef Albert Roux is a recent convert and one of a growing band of renowned chefs and connoisseurs who recognise Burnett as a true chocolate artisan.

Retail outlets include Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh and The Food Hall at McEwen’s of Perth, as well as online.

“Our website is an important selling tool but needs a lot of work,” says Burnett.

“It’s an area Janice will be looking at but just now it’s like a shop up a back alley – it’s there if you take the time to find it.”

While the Perth visitors and their friends have pledged to return and will next time see the fruits of Burnett’s current labours, they remain blissfully unaware of The Highland Chocolatier’s own personal journey.

A qualified product design engineer, Burnett moved into teaching after deciding he wanted to “work with people, not machines”.

He taught refugees and asylum seekers in Newcastle before moving to northern Japan with his wife Rachel, an oil painter.

It was in Japan that his passion for chocolate began, fuelled by a chance meeting with a maitre chocolatier who had created a truffle using only natural and fresh ingredients.

Burnett was intrigued and wanted to learn more. He took the plunge and embarked on his new career in earnest, training initially in Japan then under master chocolatiers in the Belgian, Swiss and French schools before creating his own award-winning Cocoa Dusted Velvet Truffles, taking three years before he was satisfied with the recipe for what has become The Highland Chocolatier’s most popular product.

In the process, he unearthed what it means to be a genuine artisan chocolatier – techniques and processes that require a great deal of time, skill and experience.

But his attention to detail and passion for fresh, local produce goes back to his childhood in Mull where his father, David, an accomplished cook, taught him basic kitchen skills and how to combine the best Scottish ingredients with exotic spices to create new flavours and textures.

Most of Burnett’s hand-crafted chocolates are made with fresh Scottish cream sourced from D and D Dairies in Crieff while local fruit, fresh herbs and honey are also key ingredients, along with more intriguing ones such as Assam tea, Madagascan vanilla and Chinese root ginger.

He also uses a uniquely flavoured, single-origin chocolate from the island of São Tomé in the South Atlantic.

The idea for the business itself took root when Burnett’s mother Hilarie, who previously ran a large tourist accommodation business in Tobermory and her husband, Peter Hounam, an investigative journalist formerly with The Sunday Times, bought the Grandtully premises.

Burnett laughs: “We’re still learning – I don’t think there will ever come a time when we’re not learning.”