Three daughters with multiple food allergies proved to be the inspiration for Amy Granger’s chocolate business but, as Paul Robertson finds out, she has overcome many personal difficulties to grow her Essy & Bella brand.
If your child is lying in a hospital bed, fighting for her very life, it is difficult to focus on anything else. That was the situation Amy Granger found herself in five years ago but, as the battle was thankfully won, it was also the spark for the 35 year old to take control of her own destiny.
Now, five-year-old Esmé is thriving along with elder sister Isobel, eight, and three-year-old Cicely as their mum’s business is set to expand to cope with the demand for her range of chocolate products – all developed and handmade by Granger, free from the top 14 allergens.
“When Esmé was born, she was very poorly with pneumococcal meningitis and septicaemia,” says Granger. “Nobody thought she would survive the day – it was horrific.
“She was in hospital for three weeks and because she was so small we had no idea how she would be affected by it if she survived – would she be able to talk, would she be able to hear, would she have any additional needs? I’d had 14 months maternity leave and I thought how am I going to continue in a full-time job with a child who may need additional needs and so began to think what I could do.”
This pivotal moment for Granger and subsequent decision was at odds with the path of her career to this point. Born and brought up in Gateshead, she went on to study sports science at York St John’s University and then on to do a master’s degree in international sports law.
She started work at a Bannatyne’s health club before successfully applying for a job in Spain for the Australian Institute of Fitness, which trains people to be personal trainers. “I spent 18 months out there, met my now ex-husband and was doing my master’s at the same time,” she says. “The recession hit so we came back to the UK at the beginning of 2009. I ended up working in banking, investigating payments for signs of terrorist activity, which I really enjoyed, before going back into health clubs and then to another banking job handling complex credit card complaints.”
With Isobel starting school and Esmé progressing well, the planning for her future began – but what was to be her inspiration?
“I have always loved food,” Granger says. “I would get the 4pm bus home from school in Sunderland just in time to make a cup of tea and a biscuit before Ready Steady Cook started on TV – I used to love it. I was always into experimenting and baking so it has been an interest from an early age, but I never thought food would become my career.”
The fact she and her young family all had more than one of the top 14 allergens set her thinking of products they might like.
“Originally, I thought about dairy-free ice cream and made loads of the stuff,” recalls Granger. “But there was so much involved and lots of cost for freezers etc that I couldn’t see the business opportunity. I did a lot of reading and research while on maternity leave and identified there was a big gap in the market for quality chocolate for people with allergies.
“I could have gone on courses with the best chocolatiers in the world but none of it would have applied to me because it is dealing with milk, butter, cream – everything we couldn’t eat – so I had to work it out for myself. For those of us with allergies, the only thing available was orange or mint dark chocolate and I thought there has to be something better than that.
“I have been vegetarian since 12 and vegan for many years. There are so many of us who have allergies or make lifestyle changes so why should we put up with a lack of choice?”
She describes her first effort – melting chocolate into plastic moulds then mixing it with a coffee liquid – as not especially nice.
“I had never done anything like this before, so it was trial and error.”
She came up with a brand – Essy & Bella, named after her children – and began experimenting with different flavours. “My maternity leave ended so I went back to the bank and continued researching and experimenting with flavours in my own time,” she says. “I found out just four months later that I was pregnant again. I dipped my toe in the water at a vegan festival in Newcastle but then Cicely was born at 32 weeks and so things were on hold.”
She did her first proper festival in November 2015, taking Cicely with her as she was breastfeeding. “I went to a number of festivals during my last maternity leave, selling the products and word got around, especially on social media through vegan groups and Facebook groups for mums breastfeeding babies who have allergies,” says Granger.
“It was then someone from the Department of International Trade got in touch and I began thinking can I really go back into a full-time job with three kids, especially as I am always at hospital with one of them due to their conditions. To allow my business to grow I needed bigger premises because it was getting ridiculous in my kitchen – the house was being taken over.
“The trade adviser put me in touch with another company he was working for and who, like me, was looking to export. It just so happened it was another chocolatier – Davonport’s chocolates.
“We had a great chat and they offered to rent me some space in the adjoining building they owned. It gave me the opportunity and the confidence to turn Essy & Bella into a business of scale.”
Every product is handcrafted in small batches using the highest-quality, ethically-sourced ingredients without any unnatural preservatives. She has a range of 13, high-end chocolate products plus seasonal specials, made with rice milk, and her range of gourmet bars include black forest, cherry Bakewell, banoffee crunch, honeycomb and gin (juniper, really, as there is no alcohol in any of her chocolates).
“My dad [Mick Laidler] is ‘head of packaging’, apparently, but other than that it is just me,” says Granger. “But we will be employing people in the very near future.”
Her marriage break-up has made her more determined than ever to build on the solid foundations the business has achieved. A map on the factory wall is tagged with all the countries where Essy & Bella products are sold – across Europe to the United States, Dubai, Japan, Nigeria and Australia to name but a few.
Turnover is set to grow at least fourfold over the next financial year with investment planned in new machinery, as well as employees to meet the growing demand. Artisan festivals have largely been superseded by trade fairs, there are two distributors plus the artisan foods company providing routes to market with Essy & Bella’s website and social media being a big driver for sales.
Christmas 2017 started last June with a new range of products including a Rudolph lollipop and, for this Easter, the hot cross bun bar makes its debut, containing all the ingredients you might expect such as sultanas, cinnamon and nutmeg, with alternatives to dairy such as cocoa butter, rice powder and rice milk.
“We have had a very high number of pre-orders, which is proving challenging to meet demand,” says Granger. “I can currently do 500 bars a day, but we are under pressure to increase this significantly.
“The business takes up all the time I am not being a mum. Isobel comes to the festivals, she is a proper little sales person, when people walk away without buying she says, ‘Would you like to try some’ and gives them the sales patter – she loves it.
“The kids are my motivation. I am a single mother of three quite young kids. I have been told I could just sit and claim benefits but that’s not me.
“I make sure I do the school runs every day – we are at gymnastics club five days a week – and I do everything for them, with great support from my dad.
“I am setting an example to them, showing them they can do whatever they want to do – run a business and still do the family things. They are excited by the map on the wall showing where we are on sale and looking at Instagram pictures of people enjoying our products – they brag about me being a professional chocolatier. At the minute they don’t plan to follow in my footsteps, they all want to be doctors.”
If coping with all this wasn’t enough, a serious spinal condition led to an emergency operation and regular visits to the hospital for herself for pain relief and possibly more surgery on the cards, but Granger is undeterred. Already she has won a string of awards, she is developing products for the second half of the year targeted at supermarkets, and has a determination to be number one in the marketplace.
“I am very proud of what Essy & Bella has become and is achieving,” she says. “The kids love it, they don’t get much of the chocolate, but it is a treat that is an alternative to the mainstream products.
“My aim is to make sure nobody misses out – chocolate is something you shouldn’t be denied. It is a treat. There needs to be an alternative for people with allergens.
“I have a huge vault of products in the back of my mind, but it is getting them done and to market as quickly as I want to do them. The free-from market is huge and only growing so who knows where we can go.”