After studying catering at New College, Durham and Leeds Metropolitan University, Paul A Young quickly worked through the ranks of a restaurant kitchen to the position of head pastry chef for Marco Pierre White (MPW) at Quo Vadis and Criterion.
He then began to specialise in chocolate, opening his first shop on Camden Passage in Islington in 2006 with his business partner James Cronin. Since then Paul has been creating products that have won numerous industry awards, wowed customers and earned him the reputation he has today.
“In 1989 I was still living in Trimdon Station in County Durham and I moved to London 20 years ago where I spent six and a half years working in four different MPW restaurants,” Paul told BQ.
“Before that I had spells in Leeds and Whitby and I’ve held product development jobs for M&S, Sainsbury’s and been head chef at a cookery school, all sorts of things.
“I’ve also helped setup a dessert company in Wales - I’ve done a lot of stuff crammed into a short space of time!”
It was during his time working for MPW when he met his soon to be business partner James, who saw the saleable potential in Paul’s work.
“I’ve known James for around 16 years,” he said. “I met him through working in restaurants for Marco many years ago. He was a regular customer I met through friends.
“James and I decided that we wanted to put a completely new spin on chocolate - more innovative, more exciting, more pure and natural, and realised there was a gap in the market.
“People liked what I was making and developing and we decided it was time to do something a little different so we took that leap and 10 years later - we’re still going!
“He is the business side of the company and I’m the creative side - I run the day-to-day operations and he manages all of the stuff in the background.”
The gamble paid off and the duo opened their first store in Islington back in 2006, which proved to be a resounding success. Naturally, more stores followed.
“We launched our first store in Islington 10 years ago. 18 months later we opened our second store at the Royal Exchange in the City, literally right outside of the Bank of England.
“That store is nine years old this September. After that it was another three years until we opened our Soho store.
“Each store has its own clientele. The Islington store for example is a favourite among families and local residents whereas the City store is jam packed Monday to Friday with workers.
“As for the Soho store, the clientele varies from every age group. Local residents, tourists, workers, people simply passing through – it attracts all kinds of customers!”
And what separates paul.a.young Fine Chocolates from other chocolatiers? According to Paul, the brand’s success is down to one key ingredient, innovation.
“What separates us from other brands is the fact that we’ve always been really innovative and creative with our ingredients.
“We only ever use natural ingredients and all of our chocolates are hand-made, which gets batted around a lot nowadays but 13-14 years ago you couldn't find handmade, unpreserved natural chocolates made using innovative ingredients.
“It wasn't heard of. Now it’s getting more commonplace and that is what makes us stand out really - the fact we’re simply more exciting than the norm.”
This pioneering method of creating chocolate has helped paul.a.young Fine Chocolates cement itself as one of the City’s most popular chocolate brands and has wowed critics from across the UK.
2014 was a particular highlight, when Paul was awarded the ‘Outstanding British Chocolatier’ accolade at the annual International Chocolate Awards.
As well as impressing judges and locals however, the brand has also become a firm favourite with a number of sweet toothed celebrities.
Paul said: “Over the years we’ve had the late Prince, who loved our chocolate, David Schwimmer, Girls Aloud, Victoria Wood and Emma Thompson pass through our doors.
“Most of them are repeat customers, David Schwimmer, also known as Ross from Friends, comes into our Islington store quite regularly when he is London.
“It’s nice because they’re just like any other customers but it's added motivation for the team and it is always nice for them to chat to people they admire.”
As well as lining the stomachs of locals and passing celebrities, Paul has ambitious plans for the company which could see it catering for chocolate lovers across the UK and overseas.
“We’re definitely looking to expand, added Paul. “That has been in the pipeline a little while - we’re always looking for potential new locations and sites but it wasn't quite right last year and with the recent Brexit vote we are probably going to slow things down slightly - but we are looking to open more stores.
“We’re looking at more stores in London and some outside of the capital. We don’t know where yet but we did have a brief look in Manchester last year and there will definitely be three or four in Scotland, the North West and the North East, it just depends on where the footfall is and what the clientele and property is like. Picking the right location takes time.
“We’re not in a rush, but we know it will happen. When you find the right location, you just know when it feels right and when it will work.
“In five years time we’ll have stores across the UK and hopefully abroad. We’d love to open in New York and San Francisco, that’s something that has always been in our business plan.”
The recent Brexit vote has already impacted a number of businesses across the UK and paul.a.young Fine Chocolates is no different.
As a company which sources ingredients and items from overseas, the weakening pound has already started to cost the company.
Paul is determined to not let this dampen his spirits however, and firmly believes the UK will pick itself up and battle through it.
“The Brexit has already hit us as a business,” Paul said. “Costs have gone up as we buy a lot of our ingredients and products in euros and dollars so the weakening pound has affected us quite a lot.
“Quite a high percentage of my workforce are also European. Being in London, the city has a large European population so we will need to wait and see what the scenario is with work permits and permissions for them to stay.
“It’s not an ideal scenario for us as a small business but like all other businesses hit by the decision, we just need to pull our socks up and brave it.”
Having survived the great recession of 2008 and faced difficult times along the way, the brand is in a strong position and Paul couldn’t be happier with how the business has grown.
Asked what he thought was his greatest success to date, he said: “The fact that we’re still expanding. We’ve battled through the recession and difficult times and we’re still here today.
“We’re still innovating, we’re still going, we’ve still got people coming through the door and people are still interested in what we’re doing.
“They know they'll get quality from us not just in the quality of the chocolate but also in our customer service.
“That’s the most successful thing - that we’ve kept on going - and we’ve kept our team together and have plans to grow. That’s what keeps us motivated.”
This success hasn’t come without challenges however. As with any new business, it takes a lot of time and effort to get it off the ground and Paul was no different.
“One of the main challenges facing any start-up business is physically marrying yourself to your business, it’s full on, full-time, in fact more than full-time, and it’s all the time. And you really have to love what you’re doing and have to inspire other people even when you’re exhausted and tired.
“You have to inspire your team and keep them motivated - I think some of the biggest issue are finding the right people, keeping them motivated and happy - without them you don’t have a business really.”
As an entrepreneur who has turned his passion into a successful business, BQ was keen to find out what advice he would pass on to budding entrepreneurs looking to emulate his success.
Asked what advice he would pass on, Paul told us: “Oh gosh, there’s lots of advice.
“Firstly I’d say don’t underestimate the amount of work you’ll have to do. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be challenging.
“I’d also tell you to keep ahead of the game. You have to be a leader, not a follower, and have to innovate. You’ve got to want people to follow what you’re doing.
“Lastly, don’t be afraid. What’s the worst that could happen? A lot of people don’t start a business because they get scared of expansion and growth but its about taking that leap.
“It also sounds boring and clichéd but a lot of people don’t grow their business because they're scared of growth.
“It’s about getting the right advice and not being scared to speak to people, especially those from businesses similar to yours, where you can learn from each other.
“So get out there, ask people about their business, what they’ve done, and share the advice!”
As well as passing on his recipe to success for business, Paul is also eager to pass on his recipe for chocolate with the launch of his latest book, Sensational Chocolate.
The book features recipes for some of Paul’s best selling chocolates and deserts over the years and also the favourites of a number of high profile friends.
“I have another book coming out later this year in October and all of the profits and proceeds are going to one of the charities I support, The Children’s Air Ambulance.
“I started it last year and it has taken quite a while with me being so busy. It’s called Sensational Chocolate and it features 40 well known celebrities and chefs with their favourite recipes and some brand new recipes from me.
“Some of the people involved include Emma Thompson, Dorothy Bussell, Sir Brian Blessed, Marco Pierre White, Giorgio Locatelli, Nigella, authors and well known faces I’ve worked with or have friendships with.”
If you’re thinking of popping into one of Paul’s stores in the near future to pick up some chocolate, he recommends his classic Sea Salted Caramel.
When asked which was his favourite, he told us: “Oh that is difficult. My Sea Salted Caramel is the first chocolate I ever made and helped me launch the business. Without that chocolate I wouldn't be in business so I have to say that remains my favourite!”