Steve Rudkin - the Derbyshire-born founder of organic chocolate company Seed & Bean
- Credit: Archant
Pat Ashworth meets Steve Rudkin at home in Duffield
He has a kitchen for his recipes and he has wi-fi. What more could he want from working from home in Duffield, asks Steve Rudkin, affectionately known as Chocolate Steve?
I’m sitting in that kitchen now and I can tell you that if this were an audio interview, you would hear a conversation liberally punctuated with mouthfuls of chocolate. This is Seed and Bean, a small organic chocolate company making huge strides in the UK and European markets – not to mention New Zealand, its most recent customer. The name reflects his own ‘chocolate history,’ Steve says: ‘an expression of nature, a nod to the soil, if you like, a bit earthy but not highbrow.’
The market is not an easy one to crack – a large proportion of small organics businesses in the UK have gone under in the last six years – and Steve has come through hard times himself to reach this point. Derbyshire born and bred – he describes Ashover as ‘the most beautiful village in all the world’ and the Ashover Show as his fondest memory of the county – he was brought up in the tiny hamlet of Mill Town and from an early age worked evenings and weekends on the family farm, selling eggs from his own hens by the age of 10.
He left Tupton Hall School at 16 and got a £26 a week YTS job at Chesterfield council offices: a very illustrious start, he wryly observes. At 19, he moved south to Derby, ‘for a life. You can’t “go out” in Ashover and there are only so many Young Farmers do’s you can go to...’
His upbringing taught him about commercial agriculture: how the old ways were being lost to make way for 1,000-5,000 acre farms; how farmers were struggling to hit the prices demanded for cheap food and spending more on fertilisers and soil-ruining pesticides in the hope of better yields. It gave him a passion for organic produce that dictated the path he embarked on and which still fires him.
‘But don’t buy it because it’s ethical,’ he urges. ‘We should be making food in an ethical manner by default: it’s not the customers’ concern. It’s the taste that matters, and by default they’re eating organic food, without all the song and dance about it. Buy it because it’s amazing and fabulous and still relatively affordable.’
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He’s been living and breathing this philosophy ever since getting a loan from the Prince’s Trust 25 years ago and starting up his own cruelty-free, health-oriented natural cosmetics company, run from the top floor of the rented house he and his wife, Claire, moved into when they met 20 (something) years ago. It was a one-man show and he did everything from recycling the glass jars to circulating the catalogues, making up the boxes and delivering the orders on his bike. ‘It had to be something that was putting back, not taking out, and trying to do good,’ he says. ‘I’ve been going in that straight line ever since.’
Anger was part of that trajectory too – ‘all the stories about the rainforests and the environment,’ he remembers. He became a vegetarian for a while and embraced holistic things like aromatherapy that were ‘all part of the alternative view. It was a very natural thing for me to get into organic. And I always wanted to create a brand, something that would be there longer than me.’
He didn’t succeed with a small shop in Belper and realised he needed to go and work for someone who was making money at it. He was in luck with Holland and Barrett, not having seen their advertisement and turning up on spec to see if there were any jobs going. ‘You’re in luck,’ they told him. ‘Come and see us on Monday.’ He started on Tuesday as an assistant buyer and began to learn that successful selling was ‘all about margins and sales rates.’
The chocolate maker, Green & Blacks, was one of his accounts, and when a job came up with the company (then known as Whole Earth), he took it. ‘It was a classic “alternative” business, started in the late sixties by Craig Sams. He was a legend. That’s how I got into chocolate,’ he says. The business boomed but when the investors moved in, he went to work for the wholefood and macrobiotic company, Clear Spring. It was there that he came across a company doing roasted pumpkin seeds as a snack. And the rest, as they say, is history: in 2005, he started Seed and Bean.
So here we sit at the kitchen table, steeped in the aromas of fruit and chocolate. I’m getting a run-down on chocolate-making that involves a lot of finger–licking and murmurs of satisfaction. I’m learning new words like ‘couverture’, base chocolate that is high in cocoa butter. It comes from growers in places like Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, good suppliers who are paid much more than the average to produce it ethically and in sustainable ways, stopping the drift of young men and women seeking work in the city slums.
‘They’re taught to grow it in organic ways, without harsh chemicals, and earn up to five times more for each crop than they did in the old days,’ Steve says with pleasure. ‘It affects the whole way of life, because suddenly there is money in the family trees. The schools and local environment are all changed for the better. It’s all part of the bigger picture.’
The cocoa beans are shipped to a supplier in northern France, who makes the couverture and sends it over to England in 25 kilo sacks of chocolate drops. The chocolate is hand-made in artisan kitchens in Northampton, in batches of 45 litres. The large, generic manufacturers make it on an industrial scale of up to 50,000 at a time. ‘And we only use real fruit, never a “flavour”, never a “hint of”,’ Steve says. He disappears to melt down ‘some bits and bobs’ of chocolate to demonstrate how he works on new flavours, which is ‘by trial and error. We’re very hands-on.’
It’s like being in an alchemist’s lab. Glorious. ‘Try that one,’ he says, ‘it’s very orangey.’ It is. Massively. Like sucking an orange. ‘I just keep adding until I go, “Oh!”’ he says. Fresh fruit can’t be added directly because it is water-based and chocolate hates moisture. So the fruit is freeze-dried and then comes in powder form. I lick my finger, liking the raspberry very much. Aniseed is going to be a popular flavour, he predicts. And liquorice. ‘I’ve got 18 flavours now, so I feel like I shouldn’t be creating any more at all,’ he suggests. ‘But what I might do is liven up some of the ones I’ve got...’
Bit of a taste testing now, he says. ‘That’s hazelnut... all right for you?’ Oh yes, I say fervently. The hazelnuts come ground from Sicily – ‘We can’t do inclusions. This is a nut bar with no nuts in it. It throws people,’ he comments. Then, ‘This is lavender, a bit of an extreme. Like it or loathe it. Try a small piece.’ It tastes of the smell of lavender in my garden and that’s it, he says, pleased – ‘You eat the smell. I’m always tweaking the lavender, because chocolate tastes different at different times of year, depending on the harvest. The recipe then changes.’
Now I’m sampling the mouth-watering best-seller, Sea Salt, inspired by learning that President Obama has salt shipped over from Anglesey to make the salted caramels that he loves. Sales of this and all the other flavours have rocketed since Seed and Bean was rebranded with new look packaging, logo and strap line of ‘Kaleidoscopic Moments of Pleasure’.
There is special packaging and three summery flavours for the Glastonbury Festival, for which the company has a four-year contract. They are in the larger Waitrose supermarkets now, as well as specialist food shops such as Bennetts and Sound Bites in Derby, the fairtrade shop in Wirksworth and delis, chocolate shops, farmshops and the rest, including online sales. They are big in Denmark, Sweden, Finland with their massive organic markets, and in Ireland too with its alternative health store culture. It all went ‘horribly wrong’ for a while, he owns, when the exchange rate dropped, the euro fell and his costs went up by a third. But now it’s good. ‘We’ve got the story behind us: we are the real thing,’ he says, proud to be the only fairly traded, organic chocolate to be given 100 per cent accreditation in the Good Shopper guide. Even the wrappers are compostable.
Ginger is warming my throat. Wow. ‘It’s fun, isn’t it?’ Steve responds. ‘We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we try to keep the price down. It’s moments of pleasure. There’s no good reason for chocolate. What I’ve learned is that there are two types of people. Those with receptors in the brain open to the cocoa and the seratonin, get a small hit from that. Then there are the people who like it because of the sugar and fat hit. You’re born with it or you’re not.’
Does he live and breathe chocolate? ‘I do, really,’ he ponders. ‘I’m surrounded by it all the time here. When you’ve been away from home for a few days, you come back and think, yes, it does smell of chocolate... We do need to have words with the kids, though: we were finding so many wrappers under the beds, in the bins...’
They moved into the Duffield house just as everything started to go wrong in the business, and have been ‘living in some turmoil for the last few years, waiting for things to pick up.’ Since the re-branding, Seed and Bean has gone from strength to strength and the house is full of sawing and hammering as the family gets things done. And the company is moving forward, with, among other developments, a big investment in its own mould. ‘Like a proper chocolate company,’ he concludes with satisfaction.