102 years, 100,000 tons later...
I don’t know about you, but my working life has rarely had much space, or indeed indulgence in sentimentality.
So today Friday 20th October was a very special day for my family with a visit to our old factory site at the kind invitation of the current owners Barry Callebaut.
The biggest chocolate company you’ve never heard of
You’ve likely never heard of ‘BC’, but you will almost certainly have eaten their products, as the no1 cocoa and chocolate bulk producer in the world, with 66 factories, making 2.3 million tons of chocolate (for the record, a ton of chocolate is about the size and weight of a small car) and turnover of about £7 Billion. Some examples of brands they supply chocolate for are below!
A little family history
Our family company was established by my grandfather, Leslie H. Atwell on 20th October 1921 (coincidentally his birthday) at a site near Wormwood Scrubbs prison in London. You can read more here.
Above: The first known picture from early 1920's of Lesme Ltd.
They made chocolate in bulk for patisseries, artisanal chocolate shops, cake and biscuit manufacturers. However, he was a very innovative founder, co-creating the first ‘Choc-Ice’ with Walls in 1927 after a chance meeting in a restaurant...
And then created the UK’s first chocolate-chip cookie (Maryland Cookies) in 1956 after seeing the trend for 'cookies' in the US in the 1940s...
Leslie continued to run the company into the 1960’s, was awarded the OBE for ‘services to chocolate and exports’ in 1961.
The next generation
My Dad, David joined the company in 1957, and ran the company jointly and then solo from the 1960s until 1990. It was David who realised that a multi-story factory near central London would hinder long-term growth and expansion, so he purchased an 11 acre site on the outskirts of Banbury in 1977.
One of my (Giles’) earlier memories is visiting the very muddy building site where the factory was taking shape in 1978 (see above photo in full 1970s gear!)
David (in the white coat) opening the site with his fellow MD Derek in 1978
This expanded site facilitated growth with biscuit, chocolate, cake and ice cream manufacturers in the UK, Europe and beyond. David led the company through acquisition in 1983 and mergers with other chocolate producers to making a substantial 50,000 Tons of chocolate per year. He ultimately retired in 1999 as a non-Executive Director of what was then S&A Lesme after over 40 years in the industry.
A special day
Fast forward to today and 102 years after the establishment of the company, David, Giles and Steve and several other Atwell family members toured the site in Banbury.
Steve (left), David (centre) and Giles (right) visiting the factory in October 2023
From our original family business ‘5 men and an idea’ and the very first order of a 7 lb block of chocolate, it’s now the biggest chocolate manufacturing site in the UK, producing comfortably over 100,000 Tons per year!
Paul (a company veteran who knew David) and Andrew (a relatively recent arrival who had worked with Giles and Steve at both Cadbury and Godiva,) guided us all around the factory and gave us, and particularly my Dad the opportunity to understand how the facility had substantially expanded and automated.
It was very special touring the factory, taking in the strong cocoa aroma and watching millions of chocolate pieces come down the line.
David Atwell inspecting a modern chocolate line
I hope you will excuse this somewhat self-indulgent post. It was an unusual day out of the office for Steve and I – returning back to my chocolate roots with the family.
The Russell & Atwell fresh chocolate branded start-up is certainly different from my old family chocolate ‘bulk’ business, but I like to think there are some connecting strands including pride in making a quality product, innovation and seeking to do business differently including having strong relationships with suppliers and customers.
Giles & Steve
P.S. Back to the modern day and we’ve just finished making a fresh batch of our popular and award-winning Seville Orange!