Three years ago, two Highlands-based chocolatiers made a pitch for investment on the BBC show Dragons’ Den. Things did not go as they expected.
Paul Maden and James Findlay run Cocoa Mountain, a small luxury chocolate-making business near Balnakeil on the Sutherland coast, 105 miles (169km) north of Inverness.
They have been in business since 2006, working from a renovated former officer’s mess at a closed-down Cold War RAF station.
Since that time, their product range has grown to include a variety of truffles and a hot chocolate powder.
Because making the chocolates and the drink involve different processes but the same equipment, Cocoa Mountain’s small factory has to be shut down while the necessary adjustments are made for the hot chocolate formula.
This means the making of the drink has been limited to only small batches.
Paul and James decided the best way to rectify this situation was to have a separate production line for the hot chocolate.
But they needed finance and Dragons’ Den offered an opportunity to secure some crucial investment.
Going into 2015’s series of the show, the chocolatiers believed they had a strong case to win backing.
But the Dragons refused to green light their hoped-for £80,000, 15%, stake in the business.
The chocolatiers were told by the Dragons that they should have set up their business somewhere closer to markets in the south, and that the far north west coast was a “diabolical” place to try to run an operation such as theirs.
“Coming away from the recording of the show I felt deflated,” says Paul. “But I knew they were wrong and we were right.”
‘Nearly killed us’
Worried about how their “humiliation” on Dragons’ Den might affect their business, Paul and James tried to find investment from elsewhere before the show was broadcast.
Initially they were told that it would be five to six months before it was broadcast, but later told that it would be on TV screens in two weeks’ time. The businessmen’s investment plans went out the window.
“We didn’t watch the episode we were in when it went out,” says Paul.
“Instead of watching the show we sat and watched Twitter. At 10 to nine, the time we were on, our Twitter went crazy. So did our Facebook page and our website crashed about six times.”
Paul adds: “Over the next month we took enough orders to double our turnover.”
Meeting the increased demand was stressful, admits Paul. They did not have enough stock to fulfil orders immediately, so they offered pre-sales and met those orders as quickly as they could.
A recruitment firm sourced four extra staff from Lithuania. Paul says this was the quickest way the business could increase its workforce.
“For five months James and I worked from 6am to 2am,” he says. “It nearly killed us.”
“We met the backlog and delivered all of it time for Christmas. After the New Year I think I spent three weeks in bed.”
Since then, Paul and James have opened a shop in Dornoch and secured the investment they need for a new facility in Perth dedicated to making their hot chocolate.
The new site is scheduled to open next year, 12 months later than Paul and James had hoped it would due to an unforeseen delay.
From just being able to produce three batches of hot chocolate in 18 months, they hope to be able to meet demand properly.
And once operational, the factory will see Cocoa Mountain create new jobs to add to the staff already employed at Balnakeil, which is seasonal and fluctuates between about 24 workers in summer and 10 in winter.
And that old episode of Dragons’ Den?
“I still haven’t watched it and I never will,” says Paul. “It’s too painful.”