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Living and breathing chocolate: Wright family talk about journey to creating Marimba Chocolatiers

For almost 15 years the Wright family has lived and breathed chocolate. Dark, white, milk, and the latest big trend, ruby… their livelihoods are built on the nation’s favourite sweet treat.

It now seems a long time ago that mother and daughter Jackie and Katherine Wright began to experiment by making a few of their own chocolate truffles.

Next year, the family firm Marimba is likely to work its way through more than 70 tons of its crucial raw ingredient.

Jackie Wright making nut cluster chocolates
Jackie Wright making nut cluster chocolates

Handmade truffles, pralines, caramels, giant buttons, bars, thins, decorated tablets, and a huge range of flakes for hot chocolate are among the delights that emerge from their kitchens.

Since they opened their first café their business has been built on a reputation for fine quality chocolate.

David and Jackie Wright, and son Brad, launched their business in Sudbury with a café called The Cocoa House that specialised in hot chocolate made from top quality, single origin ingredients.

Brad Wright taking a phone order
Brad Wright taking a phone order

.A couple of years later they took on another shop opposite the café and daughters Katherine and Josiane in due course joined the business.

“We had a shop in front and a small kitchen at the back, and that’s when we got into chocolate making ourselves,” said Brad.

“When we took the shop we were just importing all sorts from all over the world, then thought we could possibly make all this ourselves.

“When we began we were just making on a small scale with five or six different truffles. At the start Mum and Katherine learned how to make the chocolates.

Helen Brown from Telesales
Helen Brown from Telesales

“We’d been using real chocolate in the Cocoa House all along and replaced it with our own.

“Then people were saying ‘it would be really nice if we could get your hot chocolate in other places as well’.

“A café owner from Newmarket was the first to have it, and we did a trade show and started getting into garden centres.

Karen Hanlon from Telesales
Karen Hanlon from Telesales

“Over the years as that took off, and wholesale took off, we got a bigger kitchen on Bury North industrial estate where all of our manufacturing is now done.

“We’ve now got two kitchens there. One is the flakery, where we make the hot chocolate flakes. The other is the more technical one where we make the chocolates.

Malgorzata Solarz despatching a parcel
Malgorzata Solarz despatching a parcel

“We now send out hot chocolate to 550 cafes all over the UK. Our customers include the Ivy and the Dorchester in London.

Brad says that by a lucky stroke of fate Marima has escaped the worst effects of Covid-19 because since February they have been geared up to do most of their trade online.

“We never had a proper online shop until the beginning of this year. Because of that we have been able to carry on even when we had to close down in Sudbury during lockdown,” he said

They also closed their second Sudbury shop and moved the chocolate sales into the cafe.

“We’re now doing more business out of one shop than we were doing with two because people are doing both sides of the business, whereas before they would either go to the shop or the cafe.

Mark Wagstaff and Josiane Wright in the Flakery
Mark Wagstaff and Josiane Wright in the Flakery

“We feel almost guilty because we have done quite well. It’s excellent for us, and a good news story for Sudbury, but it would be nice if everyone was doing well.

“Hospitality being closed for so long has been so difficult for so many people. Sixty of our wholesale customers have been lost to the pandemic.”

In the Bury kitchens Jackie and Katherine, along with Sarah Cant, are still in charge of chocolate making.

“My sister Josiane and her fiancé Mark do the flakes, and we also have a chocolate artist, Feriyalle Sharm,” said Brad.

Sara Cant pouring some white chocolate
Sara Cant pouring some white chocolate

“She hand-pipes the decoration on the tablets. It’s all done freehand by eye. She will draw a design, then pipe it straight onto the tablet.

“She did very well with art at school, but before she joined us she had always worked in hospitality.

“We make all our own products out of single origin chocolate which comes from all over South America, Africa and Indonesia. They all taste completely different.”

Their menu includes more than 20 different kinds of giant buttons, from Uganda 80 percent dark chocolate to strawberry flavour, Papua New Guinea milk chocolate, dairy-free, and current best-seller ruby.

A few products are made ‘bean to bar’ where they grind the cocoa beans themselves. But most start with couverture - another name for high quality chocolate - produced in Belgium.

“Our most popular thing this Christmas has been ruby chocolate,” said Brad. “It’s very creamy, with natural pink colour and a strawberry-raspberry flavour to it.

“People often think it must be a flavoured white chocolate, but it is completely natural and has no colourings or flavourings added. The types we use are grown in Brazil and the Ivory Coast.

“The first time I saw it was on a Kit Kat, and then the fascination with it started. We turn it into hot chocolate, buttons and bars.

“Our best-selling items this Christmas have been ruby giant buttons, and tubs of hot chocolate flakes.”

People often ask Brad if he ever gets fed up with the smell of chocolate. His answer? “No, because we do so many different things.

“With 20 to 30 types of chocolate buttons, and 24 different truffles and specials, whenever anything is going on in the kitchen, even if you tried a bit yesterday, it’s something different today.

“I don’t do any of the making, he confesses. “I tend to break things so I’m not allowed. I spend more of my time in an operational customer service role.”

He is also a self-appointed chocolate taster and makes it a priority to sample every product.

“I always stick my head in the kitchen, and there is always a tray of truffles, so I have to make sure they’re right!”

Even those who work with the chocolate day in day out still find it hard to resist, he adds.

“Quite often people from the kitchen will come up quite proudly and say ‘I haven’t eaten any today’.

“All of us love chocolate, and we’re all wanting to try new things. We all like different kinds, as well.

“My favourite is Venezuela milk chocolate, 43 percent cocoa, but we do go up to about 80 percent.”

He says the division between “milk” and “dark” chocolate can be a little blurred, but a good test is if it does not contain milk powder, it would be classed as dark.

It is not just the chocolate-makers who come up with ideas for new flavours - suggestions are welcome from everyone.

This winter one of the special chocolates, a chilli and coconut truffle, was the brainchild of Karen Hamlon who works in wholesale.

“As a small firm we can be more nimble and react quicker and get a new idea out in two to three weeks. We also have a new chilli syrup for our hot chocolate,” said Brad, who loves the combination of the two flavours.

The run up to Christmas has been a frantic time for the Marimba team of 15 people, which includes the family.

Their seasonal specials - now sold out - included treats like Christmas pudding thins, white chocolate snowballs, Christmas pudding truffles, and dark chocolate with orange and cinnamon.

But they are still making handmade chocs for winter which include toffee apple caramel, whisky and ginger wine, and mint fondant.

“Our busiest week was up to December 11, when we sent out our courier with two tons of chocolate. That doesn’t include what we sold in the shop,” said Brad.

“I know that won’t seem a lot compared to a firm like Cadbury, but when you look at what it actually is, it’s an awful lot of very technical, handmade things."

There will be little time for them to relax once the festive season is over because of the need to prepare for the special occasions in early 2021.

Soon it will be on to creating treats for Valentine’s and Mothers’ Day, and moulding Easter eggs.

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