Holly Whittaker is surprisingly svelte for a chocolate empire heiress who has had unlimited access to Peanut Slabs all her life.
The fourth-generation Whittaker is brand manager for the family business. She grew up minutes from the Porirua factory and worked there in her school holidays to earn pocket money but still eats chocolate every day, claiming to never get sick of it.
“I always go for a milk sante. If you only have a little bit at a time it’s not a problem, I don’t find.”
At 28, she is the same age her great-grandfather James Henry Whittaker was when he set up the business in 1896, after quitting his apprenticeship at Cadbury to make his own confectionery at home, which he sold from a horse and van.
Today Whittaker’s has more than a third of the local chocolate market and is New Zealand’s most trusted brand after 116 years in business. Recipes for the K Bar and Peanut Slab have remained unchanged since they were launched in the 1930s and 1950s respectively.
Holly Whittaker’s dad Andrew and uncle Brian have steered the business since 1978. Although their names are included in Whittaker’s advertisements to emphasise the fact the company is family-owned, they have maintained a virtual media black- out for more than 20 years.
The last interview on record was a 1991 article where a journalist labelled the keen car racing enthusiasts “rich kids”, stating Andrew had imported a $100,000 custom-built car from Britain. He responded by asking for several corrections to its claims about the levels of funding Whittaker’s put behind Wellington’s street race.
The brothers, who both live in Plimmerton according to Companies Office records, have equal interest as the sole shareholders and directors of the business, which reported retail sales of $27.6 million in the year to May 2010.
Holly never aspired to work at Whittaker’s. Older brother, Matt, works as the company’s national sales manager and is involved in raw materials procurement, and another brother living in the United States is a professional showjumper. “As kids we were always just encouraged to do whatever we wanted, whatever made us happy.”
She studied fine arts and psychology at university and worked in creative advertising in Melbourne and London, coming home when her British work visa ran out to become brand manager in the Whittaker’s marketing team.
“The time was just right to come home I guess. I’ve been here for nearly a year. I can probably say two years ago I didn’t know I’d be here right now but it has been a really fun year and it has been really interesting learning more about the family business.”
Working for her father and uncle was “so far, so good”, although it could be “quite challenging” at times.
The brand is known for its attention to quality and this ethos clearly runs in the family. Whittaker was anxious the products pictured in photographs were not tainted with the slightest crease.
“I don’t want to get in trouble,” she said, smoothing out the packaging on a box of Peanut Slabs then swapping them out with a more perfect specimen.
It took several days to get factory clearance for us to photograph her beside an assembly line of freshly produced chocolate bars. The company’s chief marketing officer of a decade, Philip Poole, sat in on our interview, piping in with various facts and figures.
Whittaker’s used to be sold by weight from large slabs at corner stores and is the only major chocolate company in the country that imports, roasts and refines its cocoa beans. One of its taglines is that it is a “bean to bar” company. It roasts beans in 180kg batches at its Porirua factory, using ingredients from all over the world in its chocolate – United States almonds, South African peanuts, Turkish hazelnuts, Vietnamese cashews, orange peel and hokey pokey from local producers and macadamia nuts from Australia.
In the mid-1990s it launched 250g blocks of chocolate to rival main competitor Cadbury. They now occupy shelves in every supermarket nationwide with 24 flavours in the range, up from 18 five years ago. The Peanut Slab was re-launched in its wrapped form in 1984, the year Holly was born. “When dad and Brian first became directors there were only four products: the sante, Peanut Slab, K Bar and Toffee Milks. Over the last sort of 30 years it has gone from four products to over 70.”
The firm also sells mini slabs in packs of 12, individually wrapped sante fingers of chocolate, bars it calls chunks, 10.5g squares and nine different flavours of slabs.
Kiwis are constantly suggesting new flavours. One of the weirdest Whittaker remembers was Marmite chocolate, which would not be made. Fans post unsolicited suggestions on its Facebook page for flavours such as chocolate with popping candy, chilli chocolate, white chocolate filled with caramel, dark chocolate hazelnut, walnut cream and caramelised peanut and sea salt.
It had considered Easter eggs, a $28m market in New Zealand dominated by Cadbury, but would need to invest in new equipment to make them.
Last year alone it launched four new flavours in its block range. White Raspberry was inspired by students at Holly’s old high school Samuel Marsden, who asked Whittaker’s to make a chocolate that encapsulated “the flavour of pink” to fundraise for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation. Sales quickly raised $70,000 for the charity during October.
While the White Raspberry took only two months to make within a tight brief, Berry and Biscuit took longer because of trouble finding a biscuit without palm oil. Eventually the firm decided to import biscuits from Britain. Peanut Butter flavour took a year to develop because it was more difficult to create filled chocolate products than moulded blocks like Fruit & Nut or last year’s fourth new flavour, Hokey Pokey.
“The development stage is really critical in terms of what you end up with and whether it is a success. With the peanut butter it was a huge issue. We were trying to reach the best solution and one of the key things was whether to make it with salt or without salt.
“We thought if we did it without salt we would lose a lot of people because they were used to the flavour of [American filled peanut butter chocolate cups] Reeses with salt, but in the end we stuck to our guns and thought the one without salt tasted better, was smoother and had a cleaner flavour that allowed for the peanut to come through with the chocolate. . . . It’s quite critical to get it right.”
The company doesn’t always nail new product flavours. Duds over the years include a dark chocolate ginger block that was pulled from the market after weak sales and a mocha block laced with shards of coffee beans that proved unpopular.
A Peanut Slab ice cream was launched several years ago, made by Dunedin-based Gourmet Ice Cream Company, that had short lived, limited distribution, but it has had another go at frozen treats. Last month it launched a line of gourmet ice creams in collaboration with Emerald Foods’ high-end brand Killinchy Gold.
“With the new ice cream products we managed to create an 18 per cent chocolate ice cream base rather than just breaking up chocolate and adding to vanilla ice cream so I think the product has been able to translate in far better form this time round. Ghana Peppermint [flavour] sales are the best, followed by Creamy Milk then Fruit & Nut.”
Whittaker’s has been growing in Asian markets. It is sold in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea. The Almond Gold slab is its top seller in the Malaysian market, while the Kiwifruit block is popular in South Korea alongside the Berry & Biscuit flavour.
“They like the sweeter ones, but in the Asian countries definitely the Almond Gold is the main seller. In Australia, Hazelnut and Coconut are the top sellers whereas here Coconut is not one of our best. We don’t know why that is.”
The company is looking at expanding in to the Middle East and United States, having recently doubled its capacity by purchasing a 5-roll refiner machine from legendary Swiss chocolate machine producer Buhler, the same machinery used by some key competitors like Hershey’s. It achieves a fine and uniformly even micron size when mixing the chocolate for a “smoother mouth feel”.
Most sales are still in New Zealand, but Whittaker’s hopes to have one or two products on American shelves within the next year and plans to increase exports from around 30 per cent of sales to 40 per cent in five years.
Whittaker believes being family-owned is what encouraged Kiwi consumers to choose Whittaker’s over multinationals Cadbury, Nestle, Lindt and other leading brands in supermarkets, to make it the second biggest seller after Cadbury.
“People feel a closer connection to the brand because they’ve grown up with it and it is still produced in their country by New Zealanders from a New Zealand family. That resonates with our consumers really well.”
However, Coriolis Research director Tim Morris was not convinced anyone bought Whittaker’s chocolate because the business had iconic Kiwi company connotations.
“It’s good for their brand story, but I think people just buy it because it’s a good product.”
Only one of the chocolate blocks in its range, the Madagascar Milk, was certified Fair Trade but the company hopes to extend the certification to other brands in future when the quality of beans it requires are available reliably in large quantities. It is one of more than 90 members of the World Cocoa Foundation that works to improve conditions for cocoa plantation workers.
The company sold $10m more worth of chocolate during the 2009-2010 period when it promoted itself as palm oil-free, following public outcry at rival Cadbury’s use of palm oil, production of which contributes to deforestation in areas endangered orangutans call home. Sales were $17m in the year to May 2009, then shot up to $27.6m by May 2010.
Many customers seemed to have switched to Whittaker’s for good as it has maintained a share of more than 33 per cent of the New Zealand chocolate market.
Whittaker said consumers could expect new innovations in the next two years but would not reveal details yet.
“There definitely will be new innovation from the brand – new things for our chocolate lovers to look forward to.”
Originally published in the Dominion Post