As the name suggests Chocolate Velvet is a business that specialises in happiness, glorious cake happiness.
Established in 2004 by Phil and Leanne Lash in a building at home they had converted into a commercial kitchen, it wasn’t long before their reputation for excellence spread and they needed new premises, so two years later they moved into the current building on Nayland Road that was converted to a specialty bakery premises for them.
They started the business by specializing in wedding and birthday cakes with the goal of being a specialized bakery producing top of the line cakes all made from scratch (no pre-mixes or packet mixes).
When they started, like any small business, they had to build up a regular clientele so they produced a whole lot of products that they thought would be good for the restaurant and café industry.
Phil told me “the plan was to be their specialty bakers, we laid out about 20 sample boxes, put them in the van and hit the road, we picked up a few customers and the reputation for delivering a high-quality product spread.
“That meant that as well as making specialty cakes for weddings and other celebrations within six months of starting we were wholesaling our cakes to cafes and restaurants and developed a range of desserts for them too, we quickly earned a reputation for quality along with a commitment to ensuring customer satisfaction.”
“Because our customers knew they could rely on us to deliver the business grew very quickly and we were working all hours of the day seven days a week before bringing on some staff.
“At this stage the core of the business was 90% wholesale, today it is about 10%.”
Chocolate Velvet was relocated to the Nayland Road premises in December 2007 “we went from 27m2 to 250 m2 and we put a huge amount of time into making sure we had the design right.”
Like any business relocation the process wasn’t fast, it took about six months just to get all of the consents they needed to turn an old indoor paua breeding farm into a high quality bakery facility.
Today those wholesale customers get product daily but Chocolate Velvet no longer relies on the restaurant and café market, “firstly, the frozen distribution market is flooded with product and we don’t compete on price, we want to focus on quality fresh products.”
“The second thing about dealing with the hospitality trade is that some of them really struggled through the winter months and some didn’t always pay on time. We have a retail focus now selling the vast majority of our food through our retail shop so we don’t have to worry about competing on price or not being paid.”
The range of food at Chocolate Velvet has also changed since the move to the current location, food cabinets are bulging with house-made pies, slices, cheesecakes, muffins, and a wide range of “ready to go” food. And of course, a cake chiller with beautifully decorated an incredibly tempting cakes.
Then there is the bespoke cake side of the business that specialises in celebration cakes “We probably sell between 50 and 80 specialty cakes a week, depending on the time of the year. We have one person working full time decorating cakes, preparing cake decorations and training other staff” says Phil.
But you don’t start a successful bakery business without having the right skills to both make the product and run the business and that is where this husband and wife business partnership really comes into its own; Phil is a baker by trade, completing a bread and cake bakery apprenticeship at Coupland’s in Christchurch before he spent some time travelling overseas. He came back to New Zealand and worked for a dessert company in Christchurch before becoming the pastry chef at the Grand Chancellor hotel where he designed specialty desserts and managed functions at the hotel for two years.
Born in Golden Bay, moving to Nelson in 2002 was a homecoming really, he worked for Tozzetti and what was Big Fresh (now Countdown by the Library) but he had always wanted to be self employed.
“I came home one day and said I didn’t want to be getting up at all hours of the morning to bake bread so we decided to have one go at setting up our own business and if it didn’t work I would go and drive a truck, but it has worked and we have loved the journey so far.”
While Phil is the baker Leanne has extensive food retail experience, “she is a fantastic woman, Leanne really is the glue that holds everything together here”.
She worked as the Foodstuffs South Island seafood manager where she set up, and was support for, all of the seafood areas in each New World and Pak ‘n’ Save supermarket in the South Island. That role involved staff training, arranging supply agreements, promotions, and helping design the supermarket seafood counters.
“She left that job in 2002, Foodstuffs are a great company to work for and her training means she is really good with costings and the retail side of the business.”
They also worked incredibly hard on planning and goal setting for the business as well as working huge hours in the business to make it work, “it hasn’t been an easy ride, especially after I hit a tree head on while I was riding my motorcycle off-road in 2009.
“June 13 2009, cold and wet and dark, I had mates around me running backwards and forwards between the gates in the forest, where I was laying, ferrying cops and ambulance guys on bikes so they could get to me.”
That meant Phil was out of the business for six months before returning to limited work while going through some pretty intensive physiotherapy for about 12 months, the long term result is a semi paralysed right arm, “but that has never stopped me doing anything.”
Eight and a half hours of surgery to rebuild his arm and had a huge effect on his ability to focus and function effectively, “I had an office at home and gradually was able to do more but while I was at home I had time to think and plan, working on the business rather than in it, I sorted recipes, dealt with orders, kept the business ticking over paying accounts and all that, lucky financially we were in a situation where the bank was very good to us, the fundamentals of the business were great so they knew we would come through the setback.
“ACC was an amazing support for me personally, what a great system New Zealand has to have this service for citizens.”
Some of the time Phil spent recovering was used to think and plan and resulted in a second business, Succulent Spit Roasters, “I realised we were sitting in here doing wedding cake consultations just selling people a wedding cake and saw an opportunity to do catering as well, we had a kitchen not being used in the weekends so had the facilities to run the catering business from, we started in a low key way initially but it is a fantastic business now.
So while Chocolate Velvet has a catering component specialising in business lunches, morning teas, board lunches and similar small functions the event catering is delivered by Succulent Spit Roasters; they cater for large scale parties including one last year for 800 people.
But life isn’t just about work “we all come to work to make money so we can have a life” so when he isn’t baking or planning his next venture “me and a couple of mates rally cars, I am a member of Nelson Car Club, I have a wee Mazda 323 4wd – a total rally car but specially modified for me, my arm has a rotation problem so one hand holds the steering wheel, the left hand does all the driving, windscreen wipers and other stuff controlled by my co-driver, the accident hasn’t stopped me doing anything, I just adapt.”
So while Chocolate Velvet now employs nine fantastic staff who create, bake, decorate, develop new products, help customers, answer queries and are passionate about what they do Phil and Leanne have plans for another business, this time helping others learn how to succeed in business.
First published in the Nelson Mail. Click here