March 13, 2012
I spent an interesting morning debating all things chocolate with the founder of GU.
It is not often you get an audience with a founder of one of the most successful food businesses of recent years. So it was with not a little trepidation that I made my way to meet James Averdieck, creator of the pudding giant that is GU. From where I was standing we only had chocolate in common.
What would he be like? A captain of industry checking his watch while I stammered out my questions? Or a chef gone stellar, with a large paunch as evidence of all those chocolate ganaches tested?
The answer was none of the above. He was utterly charming. Relaxed and handsome in jeans and a crisp blue shirt, he was far too fit looking to suggest any over indulgence in his own favourite subject. He was generous with his time, open and communicative, and we had chocolate to discuss. We were away!
My own views on all things chocolate are so immersed in the smallest and finest end of the market, that it was an eye opener to meet someone whose mission has been to put a high-end product, a restaurant pudding, at the reach of the mass market. With modesty he says; “I could see that there was a fantastic opportunity for restaurant desserts, and it was just of case of then executing that.”
Yes well, I’m sure it wasn’t quite that easy. At the time that GU began, their famous chocolate soufflé leading the way, their puds were darker chocolate and more expensive than anything else on offer.
And with those breakable glass I-made-it-myself pots they came in, they were pitching quite high. James wanted to make an indulgent treat. The aim was to make something that made people think: “These are better than you can make at home, so why bother?” He obviously got it right, because as James says: “The rest is history.”
GU is now a massive international brand. The stand at the Salon du Chocolat in October was vast, dominating the entrance. But this is all GU after James, as he sold the company two years ago and is now exploring (no doubt delicious) pastures new.
His take on chocolate is obviously somewhat different to my own. He has worked hard to bring a more refined taste to mass market by pitching it right, balancing considerations of taste and quality with those of image and pricing. Meanwhile I am busily seeking out the most exceptional chocolate I can find, and championing what is currently a niche area to anyone who will listen. James is the man who believes that niche businesses are laboratories, experimentation grounds, places to find great ideas that can then be made into big business.
But chocolate, high-brow or low-brow, is a gloriously unifying thing. It has many different places in our hearts. Even the most die-hard connoisseur has their candy fix, usually something associated with childhood. Mine are peanut M&Ms because they were discovered visiting family in the US, long before they were available here. To me they still taste of that rarity, and of my memories.
Before parting I asked James; “What is your Desert Island Chocolate?” His answer reflects his own interests, and his acknowledgement of how much companies like Green & Blacks and Lindt have done to improve mass-market chocolate. The answer: “Lindt; Milk, Lindor or 70% dark. Why? I just like it.” That’s a good enough answer for me.
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