Question: did you ever think vegan chocolate could tempt you as much as the ´real´ thing??
Well the brilliant Karen Waller, with over 15 years of experience including as Head Chocolatier for Rococo Chocolate in London, is making it her mission to surpise and delight…and, without a doubt, succeeding!
Tempt opened it´s doors earlier this year, in a distinguished backstreet of York and since it´s inauguration has been offering mindblowing and mouthwatering chocolate treats that are not only totally plant-based but truly ethically sourced (hint: that how we´re connected!)
We needed no better excuse than it being World Chocolate Day to speak to Karen and get some top chocolate tips!
What is your background?
I’ve been a chocolatier for fifteen years, and a chocolate maker for two. It’s hard to gain a professional training in chocolate in the UK, so my skills have been learned in several different companies including 3 years as Head Chocolatier at Rococo Chocolates in London before it changed hands, but the artisanal skills I use at the moment at Tempt are mostly self-taught. I have a great love for, and interest in the chocolate industry and many of the people in it. I judge for the Academy of Chocolate every year.
Working in the chocolate industry, a lot of dairy is used, and there’s never any mention of the ethics of it. I’d been what I would call a ‘conscious meat-eater’ and a dairy-dodger for years before I went vegan 18 months ago.
How did Tempt Chocolate come about?
Tempt was a result of several things coming together. I’d been frustrated with the lack of ethics in company after company that I’d worked for, and was at a point of quitting the industry. Then I realised I have such a valuable skill set – why was I using those skills to work for people whose ethics are opposed to mine? So rather than changing career, I decided I should try to do it my way first – making great ethical chocolate with the best ingredients I can afford.
At the end of last year, I decided I didn’t want to work with dairy anymore either, and ran a couple of trial recipes using oats and cashew nuts to make both White and Milk chocolate. They were better than anything I could buy from any supplier and at any price-point, so it meant it was possible. And so the seeds of Tempt were sown and it grew quickly from there when I found the right premises, almost in the shadow of York Minster.
Tempt is, in a way, an attempt to create a little bubble for myself – a place where I wake up and know that I’m doing my best not to hurt anyone or anything with what I do. It’s about avoiding exploiting animals, but equally it’s also people and the environment – bringing everything together in a way that represents both myself and my passion for what I do.
What does being vegan mean to you?
Being vegan to me is about caring about all creatures. It’s not about never making a mistake, or being perfect, but it’s about trying the best that you can. It’s hard sometimes when you ask people in the shop if they’re vegan and they look a bit sheepish and admit they try but fail. That’s why I chose to call Tempt ‘Plant-based’ – I want it to be inclusive.
I’ve tried as hard as possible to make everything vegan – from the paint on the walls, through to packaging and labels – it’s quite unbelievable how many places animal products turn up once you look into it. So vegans can rest assured it’s pretty much as vegan as I can get it. But it’s also about more than that – my sourcing is also as ethical and as eco as I can afford to be. It costs money, but if I can’t make it work that way, I’d rather not do it at all.
And what has been the general response to a vegan Chocolaterie?
The response to a vegan chocolaterie has been great! Obviously a lot of vegans who come to find us are incredibly excited – and often overwhelmed by the choice that they’re not used to having! I also get just as many happy people with dairy allergies and intolerances – it’s been quite a shock to me just how prevalent it’s becoming, and surely makes you question what the reason is.
I already have some loyal customers – many who aren’t vegan or dairy-free, but who are just trying to make a few small steps for the environment, and yet more who just really like great chocolate. And that’s sort of the point of this – to prove that dairy just isn’t needed and won’t be missed. Of course some people have been sceptical, but with time as people try the chocolate, that will change!
Do you have a personal favourite item that you sell? And is there a favourite of from customers?
I get asked what my favourite is all the time, and my genuine answer is that I like everything I make! That’s part of the fun of having your own chocolate shop – being able to fill it with things that you enjoy yourself. If I have to choose, I’d say several things made with our ‘Milkt’ chocolate, so Caramelised Macadamias & Hazelnuts if I want something to munch on, or the Rose Otto Milkt bar for pure luxury and indulgence.
Customers love the Oat Flat White bar, which is our Vanilla White combined with roasted coffee. Also, being in York, you can’t beat the classic Chocolate Orange – this is probably the customer favourite across the board and we have everything from a bar, through Orange Slices, through to big slabs of orange Milkt chocolate with crunchy hunnycomb.
What have been the biggest challenges of setting up your own business.
The biggest challenge of setting up my own business has obviously been cash-flow! I’m pretty much going it alone, with savings and a loan, and got a much needed boost from a successful Kickstarter. Time is always going to be a challenge – there aren’t enough hours in the day. The important thing is to find some balance, but it’s always going to be tough to begin with, especially when paying for a York city location and a premium for ethical ingredients.
Some people called me brave and some people called me crazy for starting up a vegan and ethical chocolaterie at all, let alone in a pandemic. But I don’t see it like that – there are so many people who care about animals, their own health, other people and the environment – why shouldn’t we have somewhere that makes great products for us too?
And the biggest successes?
The biggest successes I would say are every time a customer tells me that they’ve enjoyed something – in person or on social media. It genuinely makes me so happy and helps to give me the energy to keep going. When a non-vegan tells me they can’t tell the difference between my Milkt chocolate and dairy chocolate, or a person who hasn’t had dairy in a decade gets emotional over a chocolate orange slice – that’s quite something to have achieved and makes it all worth it.
Why did you choose to source cashews from Liberation?
I was so relieved when I found Liberation! After so long in the chocolate industry, I’m acutely aware of the ethics of sourcing cocoa, and also of the challenges in achieving ethical sourcing and that things are often not as simple as they might first seem. I’ve met people from many countries and many stages in the supply chain, and I know how responsible sourcing changes lives. I was aware that cashews can be just as controversial as cocoa, and can actually be worse for the physical health of the workers. I needed cashews as an important ingredient in both my White and Milkt chocolate, but was struggling to find any with any sort of ethical status.
When I came across Liberation and your story and sourcing, I knew it would be ok as I’d found nuts that wouldn’t carry the risk of the terrible workplace conditions I was aware of. The cashews I buy are both organic and fair-trade. Price is important to sustainable farming, but so is consistent demand so people can plan and live with some kind of security. The company buys from cooperatives of small-scale farmers and growers, and those farmers own more than 50% of the company. The network created also means there’s investment in community projects.
Where else do you source your ingredients from? As you are a small business do you also go for small, independent producers? Can you tell us about any of the other producers you buy from?
Sourcing ethically, sourcing locally, and supporting other small businesses takes time and effort, but it’s worth it. I’m building a portfolio of suppliers gradually.
The most important for me is my chocolate and cocoa. The majority of my dark chocolate, cocoa nibs and cocoa butter are from Chocolat Madagascar and are processed in Madagascar itself, giving a Raise-trade product which means skilled jobs are created in the country rather than just shipping a raw commodity. Add in the fact that the chocolate is fantastic in both texture and flavour, and it’s the perfect match for Tempt!
I ship in organic Piedmont Hazelnuts from a company I know in Italy too. There’s no challenge to the flavour or quality of a Piedmont Hazelnut, and it also means again that I’m confident there are no questionable labour practices in operation at source.
I’m also passionate about supporting local, and creating supportive, sustainable circular economies. Another key ingredient in our ‘Milkt’ chocolate is local organic oats which I source directly from Stringers farm just a few miles away from the chocolaterie. The oats are beautiful, and make great porridge as well as chocolate! It helps to support a local business, and it also brings down the carbon footprint of our chocolate.
I also recently discovered Yorkshire has its own sea salt, from Whitby! So now all our chocolate is made using local sea salt. Another great company, Whitby sea salt use solar and wind energy to dry the salt. There are plans for a Whitby sea salt bar, and of course Whitby sea salt caramels, and our Cashew Cocoa Nib Clusters get a little dusting of the salt to finish them off.
Where do you find inspiration for all your creations? How do you decide what you are going to make next?!
I’ve always loved making things, and I’ve never struggled for inspiration. I’ve created hundreds of products over the years and many have won awards. I’m a Francophile and so many influences have come from holidays in France over the years. Also local or seasonal ingredients interest me greatly, as does using the products of other local producers, or interesting ingredients from around the world.
A great chocolaterie has to have some consistent classics – so we always have things like Orangettes that we make from scratch with organic oranges from our local supplier. The bonbons are really the main thing thing that changes – I’m going to change the collection every 3 months, so the inspiration will largely be seasonally-inspired, so say Raspberry & Rose Caramels in the Summer, and Sticky Toffee Pudding ones in the Autumn.
You also are clearly a big advocate of supporting other small businesses. Can you tell us about any you think are particularly special/ we should keep an eye out for at the moment?
When I saw Beau’s Gelato I instantly wanted their ice cream in the chocolaterie. I’ve had a million things to do, so it went on the back-burner, but it’s my next thing to do. The fact they aim to be as clean-label as I do, combined with their ethics by sourcing their cashews from Liberation means they’re ideal for me. There are already some good vegan ice creams, but they’re often packed with a lot of different ingredients. I believe that Beau’s will be at the forefront of a natural evolution in plant-based ice cream in the same way that Tempt is with chocolate.
Tell us something surprising about chocolate?
Most people have tried chocolate from different origins now, or different varieties of cocoa, and it can taste totally different depending on who makes it and how, but also the cocoa from different coloured pods can taste and feel totally different! My good friends Dormouse Chocolate did a Red Pod – Yellow Pod experiment that was fascinating. The chocolate made from red pods was a different colour, texture and flavour to the chocolate made from yellow pods, even though they were from the same trees. Some varieties of cocoa also make dark chocolate that’s so pale in colour that it looks like milk chocolate. I could probably go on for ages with random little facts!