Richard North, 05/04/2021  

Bank holidays are deadly for news, and Brexit is no different. While the legacy media is struggling to keep up though, occasion of Easter gives the perfect opportunity to address the topical issue of the moment: chocolate – and Easter eggs.

The Sun made a start a couple of days ago, with a classic tabloid headline: "BR-EGGS-IT BOOST". Brexit Britain, we were told, is exporting more Easter favourites such as lamb and chocolate eggs than ever.

Lamb, or course is a story on its own, but the issue here is chocolate. Oddly it's the New York Times that takes the story further, in somewhat more detail than The Sun can manage – although that isn't difficult.

And, for the Times, things are very different as it tells us: "How Brexit Ruined Easter for Britain's Chocolate Makers". Exports of chocolate to Europe, it says, have turned into a nightmare of paperwork and delays, making fine British chocolate scarce in Europe.

The story features Aneesh Popat, the owner of The Chocolatier, which sells dark chocolate salted caramel water ganache Easter eggs and other treats out of his premises in Bedfordshire.

And Mr Popat is an unhappy bunny. "We've lost our entire European trade", "Worse than that, we've lost our reputation, because when we send pallets of chocolate to, say, Germany and it disappears or we can't track it, our customers don't blame the courier. They blame us".

"We sent a pallet of drinking chocolate to a customer in Paris on 4 January, and it came back to our company yesterday", Popat complained a few days ago. "It's just embarrassing. So we decided that instead of trying to explain that we have no idea where our shipments to Europe have gone, we should just stop shipping there".

Although the industry is dominated by a handful of players, including Cadbury – one of the largest chocolate-makers in the world – the people who are being hit are family-run companies cropping up around Britain, emphasising ethically sourced ingredients and bespoke batches. Until Brexit took effect, they were big sellers in Europe.

A customer of these Brexit "victims" is Hishem Ferjani, the founder of Choco Dealer in Bonn, Germany, which supplies grocery stores and sells online. "We have customers complain to us all the time: 'Why can’t I buy my favourite British chocolate?'", he says. "We have store owners with empty shelves".

Ferjani finds himself having to explain that it's not his fault and not the fault of the producer. "It's Brexit", he says. He has a list of 100 customers who have asked for alerts once British chocolate starts arriving again.

One of his customers is Simone Schlief, a fan of The Chocolate Tree, an Edinburgh maker of what the company describes as "visually stunning works of edible art crafted in small batches". Says Schlief, she's especially fond of the whiskey-flavoured nibs the company makes. "So is my mother", she adds. "I would definitely would have bought some for Easter, but I would have been buying them every month".

On the other hand, Alastair Gower, the owner of The Chocolate Tree, is just as annoyed. He has managed to successfully send exactly one batch of product to Europe since Brexit. And, says the Times "there were plenty of snafus along the way".

The shipment of about £6K-worth of chocolate sat in limbo for weeks on its way to Holland. Once it finally arrived, his customer was asked to pay the equivalent of about £3.5K in duties because Gower "had not filled out the import statement correctly" – or so the Times says.

"We’d been told the product would arrive in France, so we put Calais as the point of entry. It went to Rotterdam, where it sat for six weeks", he says. "Chocolate. Sitting in a warehouse. For six weeks".

Through a shipping agent, he managed to get the import duty dropped, and learned a lesson about filling out forms. That expertise, however, won't help him much. "It's impossible to find shippers that will deliver to Europe", he says, "because there’s a backlog of goods in the pipeline".

Another helpful victim is Coco Caravan, a chocolate maker in the Cotswolds. The stasis has meant that Europe has gone from 15 percent of the company's revenue to zero. That has caused Jacques Cop, the owner, to disappoint old customers and put off new ones.

In recent months, prospective buyers in the Netherlands, France and Germany have expressed interest. They say, "We found you online and love everything you do in terms of being ethically sourced and vegan, but how are you going to combat the import-export problem we will have with the European Union?".

Says Cop – it doesn't say whether he's a good Cop or bad: "We can't give them a clear answer, other than, 'Yes, there will be additional costs involved'". And that is especially the case as Cop is also confronting a challenge common among small chocolate makers in Britain: importing raw ingredients from Europe.

He stockpiled cocoa in 2020 from his source of choice in Amsterdam. Now that it is time to buy more, obstacles have emerged. Transportation costs have doubled, which is bad enough. But Cop says his shipper refuses to take new orders because of worries that a shipment will somehow get blocked between Amsterdam and Britain.

"It's to the point where I'm thinking of borrowing a Renault van and just driving to the Netherlands myself", Cop said. "It's a 10-hour drive each way. But I’m not sure I have another choice".

These, of course, are stories which are far too good to waste on American readers, so the Irish Times recycles them for its own readers.

So far though, the British media haven't followed the Irish lead but the Guardian has managed to find its very own choc-maker, without having to rely on the Septics.

This paper's prize exhibit is Tony's Chocolonely, based in Holland, which brands itself as an ethical producer aiming to eradicate slavery from the chocolate supply chain – right up the Guardian's street, which makesxup for it nor being a British firm.

It cites Ben Greensmith, the UK and Ireland country manager, who says that exports of personalised chocolate bars from the Netherlands to the UK have been badly held up, with many Easter orders delayed. 

"We do Easter bars. You can order your own personalised wrapper", says Greensmith. "The problems caused by Brexit have slowed us down at Easter, they slowed us down for Valentine's Day and slowed us down for Mother's Day. Normally you could get a bar to the UK in four to five days, but now we are seeing backlogs of a couple of weeks at customs. We have had to put a notice on our website saying this is totally beyond our control".

Very soon, though, Easter will end and the opportunity for a chocolate-coated whinge will be over. The media will have to cast about for another novelty to keep their dwindling bands of readers, listeners and viewers entertained.

As the growing season starts – even as snowfall is forecast in some areas for today – plants and other garden products might be a good topic for another go, turning Brexit into a novelty shop, to be visited every now and again when a topical theme can be cobbled together.

Nevertheless, now March is over, we can look forward to the first quarter's trade figures, which might give as a better idea of what is going on. But even then, until the end of the first quarter of next year, after the UK has implemented full import controls – not now due until 1 October – we're not really going to get a clear picture of the balance of trade.

Between then and now, there's plenty of scope for the "Advent calendar" style of reporting that we're seeing now, as we add to the entertainment quotient by trying to guess which topic the media will pick on next. It won't be long before some bright spark calls it "new variant" Brexit bingo.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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