Sweet success: A chocolate-coated love story in Cork's English Market
The Cork shop with artisan chocolates from near and far.
They say that you cannot buy happiness, but you can buy chocolate - which is more or less the same thing for many of us. For Niall Daly and his wife Rosemary, who run The Chocolate Shop in Cork city's English Market, chocolate is not just a passion, it has become a way of life and led to an increasingly successful business over the last 16 years.
The Dalys set up The Chocolate Shop in Cork's historic English Market in 2000 with the aim of stocking the largest range of the world's chocolates under one roof.
Niall has been involved in buying and selling chocolate since 1994.
Before opening The Chocolate Shop, Niall worked in the wholesale business, where he was first introduced to the chocolate trade by a colleague who imported it from Belgium.
Niall soon began to buy this Belgian chocolate wholesale, a business which he continues to this day, supplying the likes of Avoca and Thomas's of Foxrock.
However, the retail arm of Niall's business - The Chocolate Shop - is different, specialising in a more extensive, luxury, high-end and exotic collection of artisan products.
"About 18 years ago, I was just wholesaling at the time and I was inside the English Market in Cork queueing for olives with my daughter, and immediately it struck me - it was a Saturday morning at 10 o'clock and I was actually in a queue for olives in Cork," Niall explains. "That is when I knew the market was changing from just fruit and veg and butchers and fishmongers into something more. So we felt that there was an opportunity to open up a retail unit."
The Dalys applied for a stall within the exclusive and historic marketplace, which is run by Cork City Council. A year-and-a-half later, a stall came up and the Dalys quickly found themselves amid one very sweet success story.
"The market has become quite artisan-focused in recent years and they are very keen to keep that and to do something different, and have a wide range of products available here," Niall says. "I had access to a wide range of chocolates when we opened first of all, but over the years it has grown further again and we have improved the quality of what we have to offer."
The first learning curve Niall remembers was having to adapt to the distinct differences between retail and the more familiar wholesale territory.
"Selling to the end user is quite different to selling wholesale," Niall says. "We discovered at a very early stage that in our loose chocolate we had a very high quality, but our bars of chocolate were not the same level, so then we went looking for more upmarket products."
Customer feedback was key to this process, with some of the pricier products - such as the French Valrhona chocolate - winning few fans at first, but over time attracting copious amounts of devoted followers.
"That took a fair old while before it took off, because at first people were reluctant to spend what might be considered a lot of money on a small bar of chocolate, so there was a very long education process where we were giving out tasters, but we felt that it was the start of something and it certainly was," Niall explains.
The Chocolate Shop's French range has expanded over the years to include Cluizel and Pralus chocolates. From Italy they have Amedei, Domori, Caffarel, Venchi chocolate, with Marou direct from Vietnam, Menakao chocolate from Madagascar and Cote D'Or and Callebaut from Belgium.
Closer to home, producers such as Wilkies by Shana Wilkie in Midleton, Clonakilty Chocolate, CocoaBean Chocolate, Skelligs Chocolate, Mella's Fudge and, of course, the famous Cork-born Hadji Bey Turkish Delight also feature prominently in the store, as well as the UK's Willie's Cacao made by Willie Harcourt-Cooze, who grew up in the Rebel County. There is a huge range of loose artisan chocolates too, from a vast array of suppliers too numerous to mention, and with high cocoa content, single-origin chocolates.
They also stock organic, gluten-free and diabetic chocolate, chocolate-covered nuts, biscuits, chocolate-covered coffee beans, cooking chocolate, drinking chocolate, chocolate lollipops, marzipan and nougat.
There is therefore no mystery as to why The Chocolate Shop has earned itself not just a sterling reputation for providing consumers with something a little new and different within the vast confectionery landscape, but also thousands of fans from all over Ireland and beyond.
The Chocolate Shop can even boast a number of high-profile admirers, including Britain's Queen Elizabeth, who browsed in the English Market during her Irish visit in 2011, actor Cillian Murphy who pops in regularly, former President Mary McAleese - who personally made a brief stop off to pick up a box of chocolate truffles during her presidency - and British Monty Python legend John Cleese.
What makes The Chocolate Shop truly unique is its independence from any single manufacturer or franchise, which has given Niall the freedom to personally source high-quality products from artisan chocolatiers throughout Ireland and the world. This independence has also attracted high-end producers to seek out The Chocolate Shop for themselves, favouring Niall's more artisan-friendly approach to the market and viewing his business as the best 'fit' for their high-end products.
"I wouldn't have been able to get Wilkies Chocolates if I had been tied to a franchise," Niall explains, referring to Shana Wilkies' premium chocolate; an ethical brand made in Midleton, Co Cork, using only natural and organic ingredients, which produces a loose chocolate collection exclusively for The Chocolate Shop called the 'Bean to Bonbon' range.
"It is unique to us here and it is all dark chocolate 75pc and she has beautiful salted caramels, dark praline, orange creams and the like," Niall adds.
Now well into its second decade in business, The Chocolate Shop is well-known by chocolate lovers across Europe and beyond. Their customers are very loyal.
"We go to a big trade show in Germany every year and get introduced to new producers and at this stage we are well established and an awful lot of our clients now find us too, which is great, but we constantly have feelers going out," Niall tells me. "Even our customers will come into us with packets of stuff they have got abroad and liked."
The Chocolate Shop is almost equally as delicious looking online as it is in reality, with a website and strong social media presence across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which Niall's wife Rosemary looks after, drawing customers in with regular updates, news and mouth-watering photographs displaying all manners of treats.
And when distance or time gets in the way, the Chocolate Shop's customers can also satisfy their chocolate cravings by ordering their favourites online, by the case load if the mood takes them or they can send a chocolate gift box to that special someone. Personalised wedding favours and corporate gifts are other very popular services provided by The Chocolate Shop.
But while chocolate certainly enjoys year-round consumer appeal, it is not the 'recession-proof' business that some might suggest it is, according to Niall.
"With the wholesale side of things, December is very busy and so pre-ordering starts as far back as June and July," Niall explains. "With the retail then all through November and December it's fairly manic in here and then we have a major lull in the first week of January before Valentine's day comes around and straight away then you are into Mother's Day and Easter. Christmas and Easter are the two biggest times of year by far, but during the summer we are also very busy with tourists coming into Cork. So it is steady enough.
"It's not recession proof, but at the same time it is an affordable luxury. There is no question about that," he adds. "To buy the best wine in the world it could cost you €100,000, but to buy the best bar of chocolate in the world it would cost you under a fiver. We have stuff here that nobody else has - if you like chocolate, it is all here."
So does Niall have a favourite type of chocolate after all of these years of sampling the best chocolates from across the world?
"It really changes all of the time," he laughs. "We have so many bars of chocolate that what I try to do on a Saturday night is pick out one that I haven't had in ages, so that I can refresh my memory and explain what it tastes like when someone asks.
"One of the biggest-selling products that we have is Cherry Crush Liqueur, which is literally a whole cherry that is surrounded by liqueur and all held together in dark chocolate. It's the only chocolate that gets a full tray to itself on the shelves," Niall adds.
"There is nothing that I don't like chocolate-wise, no - but I must admit I don't like marzipan too much."
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