John Slattery, master patissier and chocolatier, and current winner of the Baking Industry Award for Special Achievement, has no intention of resting on his laurels.

At the recent British Society of Baking (BSB) conference, he told delegates that shop customers like to experience ’theatre’. This is why he spent a tense Tuesday at the conference listening out for a phone call to find out if his latest bid for new premises had been accepted.

When John converted a derelict Victorian pub into the chocolate and patisserie destination of the North, complete with celebration and wedding cakes, a chocolate and cake shop, café, restaurant, patisserie school and meeting rooms for local businesses, many in the industry thought he had reached the pinnacle of his success. But now, John and family intend to go one, very large, stage further. They intend to buy a car showroom and offices near their current premises in Whitefields, Manchester.

It should be bigger, better, have even more live theatre and, importantly today, plenty of parking. But at the BSB conference, Slattery focused on one key ingredient and showed how, with a little imagination, humble chocolate rice crispies can be turned to profit. And he linked their success to the current recession! "Chocolate is a luxury item like lipstick," he said. "Sales go up when the economy goes down. Customers are looking for an inexpensive treat."

But he emphasised: "Chocolate can, and should, add value. And the product must taste good. First you eat with your eyes, so ingredients must be of the best quality. That is what brings customers back. A 3p difference in ingredient costs will show in return sales."

Taking the simple chocolate rice crispie as a base, he demonstrated his point. "For Valentine’s Day they can serve as a base for a heart-shaped seasonal Valentine cake, which can be turned into a sheet line. For Easter, turn it into a cake with eggs!

"The customer may come in for one product, if we can sell them another that’s good! An eye-catching rice crispie cake adds value. For a ’Happy Birthday’ version, make it in a mould. Or why not add a lollipop to the chocolate rice crispie base?

"Christmas is also very important. Use it to make products people think they want. A rice crispie Christmas tree and angel, a Father Christmas and snowman. Or, for weddings, a teddy bear bride and groom. A £5 product for 100 guests is another £500 in the till," he said.

Slattery also urged delegates to have fun and experiment. In the last two months, he had made some discs that had been turned into chocolate pizzas, with a thin layer of chocolate shavings on top, or sliced fruit. A white garlic bread chocolate pizza sells for £4.95; a smaller version for £3.95. Customers buy them as presents or jokes.

From burgers to meatballs

Next came a burger - in the form of a marshmallow and rice crispie cake. "At £5.95, it sells extremely well," he said. Then followed tagliatelle and meatballs, using a white chocolate base in strips with chocolate rice crispie cakes for the meatballs. At £4.40, it just had to be followed by spaghetti Bolognese. "And, after all the savouries you must want a dessert," joked Slattery. "How about an ice-cream sundae filled with marshmallow and cherry, not forgetting some crunchy meringue topped with chocolate?"

So how can other bakers take advantage of the chocolate ’treat’ upsurge? Well, Slattery does a short two-day course on tempering and chocolate-making. But he reminded delegates: "People are now much more aware of cocoa content, for its health benefits, so we highlight it on the pack."

Not all chocolate is ’equal quality’, he explained. Rather like coffee beans and grapes, it varies according to soil, aspect and climate. One 70% chocolate is not the same as another of 70%. "Try them out," he urged.

As an aside, he showed delegates a small Slattery’s 50g chocolate bar. "At £1.95, you can double the sale on a sandwich!"

Emphasising the health aspects, he said the higher the cocoa content, the better for consumers, as it decreases stress and is a mood improver.

Continuing on his theme of profitable lines, Slattery suggested making lollipops by piping chocolate onto a sheet, decorating it, inserting a stick, then inserting the lolly into hanging paper. A panel of 60 Eurohooks with six lollies per hook produces 360 lollies. These can be embellished with words such as ’Teacher’ or Grandad’ - and the words that don’t sell can be melted down. Larger, hand-piped lollipops sell for £3.95, while the production cost is just 60p. They sell better with a small bag of sweets, he said, and they can be themed, such as a lion and bones, monkey and bananas, rabbits and carrots.

Flavours in favour

To take the chocolate offering further, John suggested making an unflavoured ganache with chocolate, fresh cream and a bit of glucose. Buy some flexible hollow chocolate sphere moulds, put the ganache in the middle, then flavour it with Liofruit powder or a flavouring of your choice. Cocoa butter is also an excellent flavour carrier, he said.

So what might John himself do that’s new? He’s thinking of a chocolate bar in the shape of a lipstick. And for next Easter? That might be chicks in a box.

Of course, by that time, he may be busy moving to new premises. But whether it is traditional favourites or fun new ideas, his imagination, like his vision, is unlikely to rest. Let’s hope the car showroom vendor, the council and the bank all utter that essential ’yes’ very soon.


=== Slattery: the background ===

The Slattery business was started by John Slattery’s craft baker father, Bernard, and wife, Margaret. When John Slattery grew up, he diversified into chocolate and patisserie.

His two daughters now play leading roles in the business, with wife Marilyn providing support. Slattery’s sister Ann and her husband, Stephen, run the bread side, while two of their children work for Uncle John.

Soon, he hopes the whole business will be brought back together as one. "That’s how it was when my father started 40 years ago," said Slattery.