Dream job? What it’s really like to run a chocolate shop
We know Willy Wonka's take, but how does a real choc factory work? Hiding engagement rings, chocolate corpses, and — yes! — nibbling chocolate are all part and parcel for the Rumsey's staff.
Wander down the high streets of Wendover and Thame on a chilly morning and first you’ll smell something sweet/nostalgic/tempting, then you’ll see them… Their little faces pushed up against the window, there they will be, a gaggle of children peering greedily through the windows of Rumsey’s chocolate shop.
It’s our very own Willy Wonka, right in the heart of Bucks and Oxon. A family business that started nearly 20 years ago, Rumseys delights its cutomers with its kitchens in full view, so passers-by can gaze in at the chocolatiers tempering, spreading and moulding their chocolate.
The project of chocolate master Nigel Rumsey, it now has a thriving online shop alongside the two bricks-and-mortar sites, and churns out a staggering quantity of chocolates and cakes every day, all entirely handmade — no mass-producing machines here.
How does it work? Is there a secret team of oompa loompas moulding praline in the back? Over to you, Nigel.
LIKE A WELL-CHOCOLATED MACHINE
As it happens, we’re short on oompa loompas (and not to cast aspersions on the ethics of Willy Wonka, but that kind of unpaid labour wouldn’t fly in our shops…). Rather, a Rumsey’s chocolate shop works like a well-oiled machine. There’s a series of different roles happening all at once: chocolate chefs (that’s myself, and my accompanying team of five), the chocolate wrappers, patisserie chefs, and the front of house. Each have their own daily tasks, working side-by-side to keep our good customers in plentiful supply of excellent artisanal chocolate (and cake, and coffees).
Let’s start with the chocolate chefs. Our day begins at a respectable 8 or 9am, and ends when the shop closes at 6pm. First up in chocolate-making is always that stuff of Bake Off meltdowns – tempering, which means carefully heating the chocolate to ensure a shine. From here, our work is divided up in stages over several days. Since everything is done by hand, it takes time to be precise — we might make a ganache on one day, and only cut it into diamonds on the following day, once it is firmly set. Precision really is the name of the game here!
Once a chocolate has been (deep breath) moulded, piped, set, filled, dipped, cut, decorated, and then set once again… then it can be wrapped and packed. This is all done in full view of the windows, so it helps that our team all really enjoy the process — it certainly makes for a better show.
Working in chocolate, a lot of our schedule is dictated by the time of year. People want tiny sugared pumpkins at Halloween, big chocolate Father Christmases in December, eggs at Easter, ice cream in the summer. Since chocolate-making takes time, we have to stay ahead of schedule — though only within a product’s shelf-life, of course. This means we’ve finished prepping Halloween, give or take, and are already looking towards Christmas. (But we’ve had to input a strict ‘no-Christmas-songs-until-December’, for sanity’s sake.)
We get a lot of proposal gigs. Engagement rings hidden in a chocolate egg — that kind of thing. I’m always a little afraid the ring will get eaten, though we’ve yet to have a report of it happening, thank God. We do have to balance requests with our USP, though. As a handmade artisanal shop, we don’t want to make something that’s just been ordered as a novelty, and won’t get eaten: so, we did turn down a request for a stupidly huge chocolate rugby ball.
With our online shop, we also get the odd massive corporate order. One company ordered 20,000 chocolate pumpkins with very little notice — clearly forgetting that they were asking for 20,000 individually handmade chocolate pumpkins! We did, though, make a special order of tiny chocolate corpses for a legal firm specialising in wills. A delicious bit of gallows humour…
Being creative. A big aspect of working on the Rumsey’s team is coming up with new ideas — once upon a time it was all my recipes, but (though we keep a lot of old favourites, lest the customers revolt) now we have an open policy. A good idea can come from anywhere, and the whole team loves the ‘playtime’, when we can let our imaginations loose and come up with new combinations.
COFFEE AND CAKE
Though we’ve moved away from being a café and returned to our firmly chocolate-shop routes, we do offer more than just chocolates. That’s where the patisserie chefs come in: it’s a similar role to chocolatier, but they make cakes, macarons, marshmallows, and our signature ultra-thick hot chocolate – so rich it’s served in espresso cups. The rest of our hot drinks and milkshakes are made by the front of house staff, who also help bake the morning pastries, whip the cream, and arrange the chocolates. Though the hours are flexible it’s quite a physical job — lots of heavy trays — so no gym membership needed!
THE BIT EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW
Yes, we eat the chocolate. Of course we eat the chocolate. No one who works here doesn’t want to eat the chocolate. It’s a necessary part! Us chefs have to be sure it all tastes right, and we want front of house to know everything about what they’re selling — we train them all in chocolate tasting. Strangely, we’ve yet to have any complaints…