James Averdieck, founder of GU, interviewed by Cat Black

March 13, 2012

James Averdieck is the founder of GU, the ‘top-notch chocolate pud brand.

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  • James-Averdieck

    James Averdieck: So you want to talk about chocolate?

    Cat Black:I want to talk about chocolate? But actually I am not just interested in chocolate, I am interested in you. Because you did an extraordinary thing, by taking a refined taste, a dark chocolate upmarket pudding, and put it in every supermarket.

    JA: Yes that’s true.

    CB: What were you doing before GU?

    JA: My experience was in the food industry. I worked for St Ivel, sales and marketing. But I have always been entrepreneurial, and I could see there was a fantastic opportunity to stick a brand round Belgian chocolate patisserie. And it was just a case of then executing that. I love a commercial but creative challenge. It was basically restaurant desserts to the mass market, that was the whole idea. My partner in the business had a patisserie in North East London and had very good chefs, who could develop recipes.

    CB: It started with quite a small range.

    JA: Yes, we had three products. We had this terrific chef called Katrina, who developed my ideas into really interesting products. The first was a fondant, what we called our soufflé. It’s a lovely product, it’s crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. And I think the thing about GU was, these are better than you can make at home, so why bother? Well some people can, but not many.

    CB: The only people who serve me chocolate fondants at home are friends who are chefs. Chocolate Fondants are the things with which everyone always comes a cropper on Masterchef, which I watch avidly; there is a graveyard of chocolate fondants. So there is this mythology around chocolate fondants. That’s why people won’t attempt them, because it seems too difficult. So it becomes aspirational.

    JA: Exactly it was perfect; that’s why it worked. To be honest they’re reasonably easy to make. It’s a sabayon, and then you fold the ganache into the sabayon. There was marketing as well. It was a nice brand. The rest is history.

    CB: You got the look right too.

    JA: It looked the business. And it was the business, so it was a promise delivered. Then it just basically took off.

    CB: There is a much bigger range now.

    JA: A much bigger range, yeah. It then became a challenge about how to scale the range, how to add new lines, but also how to put it in more stores. That was the reason it grew so strongly.

    CB: Why did you get into chocolate?

    JA: That was what seemed to me held the great opportunity, but it is a business story. When you can take something that has only been available to the few and make it available to the masses.

    CB: GU now has nothing to do with you?

    JA: No nothing to do with me. I built it up, got the elements right, it was a really nice business, and then sold it two years ago.

    CB: Before GU, personally were you a foodie?

    JA: I was interested in food. I’m not a chef, but I love food, I’m a greedy bastard. But I think the taste of chocolate maxes out fairly quickly. I don’t think the hundred pound box of chocolates is that much better than the ten pound box of chocolates. So I’ve always been interested in the ten pound box of chocolates.

    CB: That’s the businessman in you, that’s the entrepreneurial brain.

    JA: I think good chocolate is all about packaging, all about branding.

    CB: I don’t know that I agree with you.

    JA: I have a theory about food. I think the experience of going to a restaurant is all about who you go with, having fun. I think the food has to be good enough. So my big philosophy on food is that it has to be good enough. After that everything else makes it, the people you are with, the way it is presented. There is also an elitist thinking, which is over the top. I am not very interested in that. I would be interested if there is something technical and new, if there is something incredibly special about this new invention. From a product point of view, I have this ‘good enough’ philosophy, which I think the vast majority of people in the UK do.

    fondant close up

    Chocolate Fondant

    CB: I think you are right, but I think that what is ‘good enough’ happily has changed a bit, with chocolate.

    JA: Yes that’s right. And I like to think that I played a part in moving the needle.

    CB: I think you did. I wonder where you think it was and where it is now?

    JA: I wouldn’t say there was nowhere left to go. But there was a big gap, in desserts anyway, when I launched GU, a gap which is no longer there.

    CB: Yes all the supermarkets have their own copycat versions, the market is totally established, and GU did pretty much invent it. But I remember dark chocolate being a rarity that people weren’t very interested in. I think that has changed enormously.

    JA: I think the people who changed it, the two brands who changed it were Green & Blacks and Lindt. They basically did a fantastic job.

    CB: I was talking to Jo Fairley the founder of Green & Blacks a few weeks ago, and she was fascinating about it. She said that when she wanted to start Green & Blacks, people just laughed at the idea that she was going to put 70% chocolate in the supermarket. No one would want it, no one would buy it. Things have radically changed. You changed it too, just in a different product aisle.

    JA: It’s called premiumization and it is going on in every area. The people who have led that are Marks & Spencer’s. They have led the fresh food revolution in the UK. We did our bit in desserts, Innocent did their bit in juice, Covent Garden Soup did their bit in soups. Green & Blacks did their bit. But M&S were the biggest innovators.

     

    CB: So if that is premium, what do you think about what I would call ‘fine’ chocolate? I think that the chocolate market has changed completely. It’s not just that it is dark chocolate, not just that it is 70%, it’s how it is made, which bean, how it is treated, fermented, roasted and conched.

    JA: Most of the chocolatiers are not making chocolate, they are melting chocolate, re-tempering it. The people who I think understand making chocolate are Valrhona. They are actually going from bean to bar. Even premium chocolate is actually just melted, or maybe blended.

    CB: There is a boom in numbers of those who are actually making.

    JA: Small makers who are actually roasting, like a microbrewery.

    CB: For example Oialla by Bo Bojesen in Copenhagen, Duffy Sheerdown in the UK and Amano in Utah. Last Christmas, at the Chocolate Festival, for the first time Valrhona had chocolate from the plantations they own. So not just country of origin, but plantation of origin.

    JA: They certainly source from single plantations. I am not an expert on chocolate, but I am hungry for knowledge. From what I understand the problem with origin chocolate is the same as any farmer will tell you, that the taste will vary depending on the harvest, the conditions. It is very difficult to produce a different flavour every year, because climates change and blending is the way that most companies have overcome that. So there is a Green & Blacks taste, there is a GU taste. Maybe I am stretching it a bit with GU, as we used a blended formula, we use a bit of 53% a bit of 70% and a bit of milk chocolate, and Callebaut had already done the blending, so we had a consistent flavour. Of course that is what consumers like. Consumers like consistency, and the problem with all of this single origin, or going right back to the farm, is that it is like wine, you will get a different vintage every year.

    CB: It’s exactly like wine, and the fine chocolate market is going to take all those variations into account. Like wine it becomes part of it.

    JA: I think what would be interesting is if you have Valrhona, Criollo, 70%, or whatever, and then the year. Because depending on the year it is different.

    CB: That’s exactly what they’ve done, that’s what they are doing with these single plantation bars.

    JA: So that is where they are going. I think that is quite interesting. Whether chocolate and cocoa has got the same sensibility that wine has I don’t know.

    CB: I think it is really different. The aging of wine makes it a different thing. You are not going to lay down chocolate for a hundred years! The complexity of wine tasting has generations of experience behind it. But I think there are parallels. Because unlike another food chocolate is transformative. It affects mood, it is given and shared in celebration, and it makes you feel great. Wine and chocolate are both sexy things. If you do set out to taste it seriously you can find great complexity of flavours.

    JA: That is true, whether there is the consumer appetite for it I don’t know.

    CB: I don’t think it is as big as the wine trade but it is starting to be there to some extent.

    JA: Yes that’s true. And the history of chocolate fascinates me. Rowntree, Cadbury’s, Fry’s, how they all started is so interesting. One of the things that’s interesting is how wars have transformed chocolate production. During the second world war, Mars really took off. The gulf war was another example, getting the contract to supply the American army. The huge challenge there was how to keep chocolate from melting in the desert. Those are the big inflection points of companies like Mars. And all of these companies start with a very eccentric extreme person. I am quite an extreme person myself so I can identify with that. The guy who started Mars was a bit of a nutter and a drunk and a womaniser. He abandoned his family, and went and started making chocolate. When he moved to Chicago, his son worked with him for a bit. But the son felt he was doing all the work and asked for a stake in the business. He was told to piss off. So the son went to England and started Mars UK. He made a huge success before the War, becoming the supplier to all the armies. There were then two Mars, one in the UK that was son, one in America which was father. Son then goes back, buys father out, and turns it into this incredible business machine. I am also very interested in the history of why chocolate tastes how it does? Hershey chocolate is overly sugary, seemingly to disguise an off taste. The reason for that is that the milk came from Wisconsin. Hershey were in Pennsylvania and this was before powdered milk. So they developed the Hershey Process, which is less sensitive to the freshness of the milk. The result is particularly sweet and has a slightly sour taste. Then this taste, because tastes are formed in childhood, needed to stay the same. That is one of the reasons that American chocolate is sweeter.

    CB: When I was researching chocolate from a technical point of view I was surprised to find the legal percentages for milk and dark chocolate are different in America to those in Europe. It is quite a hotly debated subject.

    JA: Yes, I really like Cadbury’s chocolate. Do you remember it was said that it wasn’t chocolate, so it can only be called ‘family milk chocolate”. That’s ridiculous. What does that mean? Family chocolate but not proper chocolate. Cadbury’s is synonymous with chocolate. I think what is interesting in chocolate has been what has happened in the niche market, and how that has evolved. I see niche markets as little laboratories. They are interesting, but they are slightly irrelevant, until someone takes hold of their ideas.

    CB: What is happening in the niche markets now is very active and very interesting. Those are the things that end up potentially filtering down. And finally, what’s your desert island chocolate and why?

    JA: Probably Lindt, I quite like their milk chocolate, their Lindor and I do like their 70%. I just like it.

     

    To contact me… cat@chocolatecouverture.com