Chocolate is one of the few foods that has a universal appeal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a simple chocolate bar or a delectable, unique masterpiece of confectionery. At both ends of the spectrum – blissful, indulgent pleasure is likely to be the verdict by whosoever is eating.
Referred to as the ‘food of the gods,’ by Swedish botanist, Carl Linneaus in the 18th century, chocolate and confectionery production in Ireland is worth €239 million Euros to the Irish economy and employs 1,725 people. In 1933, Cadbury opened its Ossory Road factory in Dublin and ever since the nation has taken the beans of the tropical cacao tree, named Theobroma Cacao, to its heart.
Such an unadulterated chocolate experience can be enjoyed in owner and chocolatier Michael Donegan’s Kilbeggan Chocolate & Coffee Shop based in the rural Westmeath town. A beautiful old stone building next door to the town’s distillery, doubles as both a coffee shop and a base for making chocolate.
Donegan is a bean-to-bar chocolate maker so every bar of his chocolate is made directly from fresh cocoa beans. This method is currently only used by five chocolate makers in Ireland. The process of bean-to-bar is rather labour intensive but allows the chocolatier to combine different flavours to create confections that are unique, supremely delicious and look like works of art. Firstly, the beans are roasted, then they are sieved and have their shells removed and become cocoa nibs. The cocoa nibs are then crushed and ground till they became a thick paste called the liqueur. The liqueur is then pressed and turned into cocoa butter or cocoa powder. The chocolate ingredients are combined with others to create whatever the final type of chocolate is required – bar, truffles, ganaches or bonbons. All of the chocolate Donegan produces is organic.
“My wife runs the family grocery store in Kilbeggan. I had been looking at setting up a complementary but unique food business and had a eureka moment when I picked chocolate. Nobody was making chocolate locally and it ticked all the boxes as far as I was concerned.”
Donegan did some thorough research to learn about the basics of chocolate making and finally decided to start his journey with chocolate about six or seven years ago. He sought out and bought his first two chocolate-making machines using a spare credit card he had. (Those small chocolate machines that he used time and time again to perfect his recipes and skills, now take pride of place in the coffee shop itself.)
He started by making milk chocolate. A combination of cocoa beans, cocoa butter, sugar and Irish milk butter. His chocolate recipe tasted very good and he knew that he was on to a winner. That precipitated him to seek professional marketing supports from his Local Enterprise Office which helped him to turn his idea into a fully-fledged business.
Although he wasn’t personally fond of dark chocolate, lots of people were enquiring about it so he decided to offer a dark chocolate product as well. “I went to a supermarket and bought loads of dark chocolate to eat. I wanted to develop a taste for dark chocolate. Then, I found a recipe online and tweaked it until I got the dark chocolate to 70% pure cocoa content. Again, as with the milk chocolate, I made sure that I only used three ingredients in my dark chocolate: cocoa beans, cocoa butter and sugar. Our 70% dark chocolate was born.”
The next real core product after milk and dark chocolate was sugar-free chocolate that could be eaten by diabetics – unlike the first two. Once again, he took a look at what was available already on the market, chose the one he liked the most taste-wise and then developed his recipe.
Whiskey and White Labeling
Donegan had already been making and selling his home-made chocolate from his base but it was when he approached his neighbours at Kilbeggan Distillery that the corporate white-label side of his business took off.
“We approached Kilbeggan Distillery and then with their blessing developed our Kilbeggan Whiskey chocolates. I make a cream ganache using Kilbeggan Whiskey and place that into the chocolate. Whiskey and chocolate complement each other. They sat down with us and helped to develop the boxes and packaging which was produced locally by Print Plus in Tullamore. The product was launched. We sell the chocolate to them at a wholesale price and they then sell it on themselves to their customers. Kilbeggan Whiskey chocolates can be bought in the Kilbeggan distillery itself; are stocked in James Fox Cigar & Whiskey Store in Dublin and are proactively promoted overseas by Kilbeggan Whiskey’s team of 13 brand ambassadors across the United States.”
Donegan then rather shrewdly created a whiskey chocolate product from a bottle of Green Spot whiskey and then approached its producer Mitchell & Son of Dublin with it. They liked the chocolates and another deal for the enterprising chocolatier was struck. Kilbeggan Chocolate strategy sidestepped again as it moved from whiskey to other forms of alcohol. Lough Ree Distillery, Lanesboro, County Longford launched Slingshot Gin in 2018 and the chocolates that bear their brand name are made in Kilbeggan.
Kilbeggan Chocolates supply chocolates to over 20 companies both large and small. They have supplied chocolates to Bank of Ireland and to local companies such as Hodson Bay Hotel. For the Hodson Bay Hotel he provides chocolate for guest bedrooms, weddings at the hotel and for the hotel’s corporate business.
In 2018, Kilbeggan Chocolate started making money thanks to all the corporate work Donegan was doing. In 2020 came Covid-19 and he explains how it affected his business, losing 90% of his revenue.
“On March 14th the world stopped when the first lockdown happened. 90% of my trade is tourist-based with hotels and distilleries.
One of my corporate clients is Mizen Head Lighthouse, their order for the summer of 2020 was cancelled because of Covid-19. At the same time, another contract to create heart-shaped chocolates for The Irish independent fell through as well. They were launching an online subscription service for their paper and were going to send it out to every new subscriber.
Just before Covid-19, Donegan had taken out a bank loan to build a kitchen in the coffee shop so that he could serve meals.
“Two years ago, Kilbeggan Distillery closed down their restaurant so bus tours of visitors were coming to me for food, but we couldn’t offer any food. Last February before the tourist season started, I borrowed money to buy a high-powered oven that can cook breakfast in 90 seconds, cook a pizza in 3 minutes. We used the lockdown to refurbish the coffee shop and opened up again around June 29th.”
Although the revenue on the chocolate side has been lost, the refurbishment and oven purchase turned out to be a lifesaver for Donegan.
“When we re-opened on June 29th, we started offering breakfast, lunch, pizzas etc. which started attracting local people. I now have the local trade which I didn’t have before, as well as, the passing trade of people heading towards Dublin or Galway. We have built up a steady food trade while the chocolate is quiet.”
Second Lockdown and the future
There are also some small shoots of recovery for the chocolate business. Prior to the second lockdown this year, he had secured a new contract with the Wineport Lodge in Athlone and was back to supplying chocolate to the Hodson Bay Hotel.
Donegan has a new website in development that he hopes will increase his online presence and sales but needs the lucrative Irish tourist trade to return.
“I need the tourists back, where the coffee shop was paying the rent, it is now the main source of income for the business. The chocolate business is on life support and just ticking along. We are always looking for new companies to work with and are preparing a new leaflet to showcase our new products. You just have to stay positive and move onwards. Our turnover is slowly climbing, but certainly won’t be back to pre-Covid levels till next year.”
While away an hour or so at the Kilbeggan Chocolate & Coffee Shop in a picturesque little rural village. Taste a piece of some exquisite home-made chocolate made by an expert Irish chocolatier and then let it melt away in your mouth. Then have another piece as life is for living.
This article was published across the Topic group 03/12/2020.