Talking Froth with The Cocoa Caravan

Cocoa Caravan

Festivals are all about the experiences. The moments. The memories. That is exactly what The Cocoa Caravan strives to provide with their alluring array of specialist hot chocolates. Less muddy hugs and more chocolatey mugs, we sat down with business owner Thomas Allen to find out about life in The Cocoa Caravan.

Running a food and drink business was a childhood dream for Thomas. He studied for this, following the well-trodden path of university to help actualise his dream. However it was only through discovering The Prince’s Trust that Thomas was able to bring The Cocoa Caravan to life:

It’s a little stereotypical but I’ve always had the dream, since I was a kid. Initially the idea was to have a café with my family – it all stemmed from my mum taking us to silver service tea rooms when we were younger. I loved the idea of having a tearoom, but I was never really the biggest fan of tea!

I studied business, accounting and worked on my IT skills at school in aid of this and went on to study enterprise and entrepreneurship at university. I didn’t really enjoy that so much, as the classes were too broad and vague, and it was all theory and no practicality – I wasn’t learning what I wanted and it wasn’t for me.

I then came across the Prince’s Trust who ran an enterprise programme geared to give you all the information, education and support you need. Simply put, they give you the tools necessary for you to realise your ambition, to put your plan into place. It’s a case of you get out of it what you put in. After completing the course, you have a chance to pitch your idea to them – like a Dragon’s Den scenario, and luckily, they were impressed with my presentation and provided some investment, helping to bring The Cocoa Caravan to life!

Ideally, I had envisioned using a campervan, but it just didn’t prove feasible. On a whim I had been searching online and found this caravan, for sale at £500. Went and viewed it the next day, it just felt perfect, and inspired the name – which we had struggled with for a little bit; it was like everything just fell into place!

The Cocoa Caravan has carved out a fond reputation among festivals and consumers alike, championing a ‘product and people first’ approach:

The majority of our trade is festivals – I remember the first one we did was quite eye-opening for the warmth that our hot chocolates gave customers. Literally and figuratively: it was a classic British summer evening full of cold and rain, everyone was soaked. We saw that people found in our drinks not just a warming beverage, but it was like a slice of home for them, a cup of comfort that really is more of an experience than simply a hot drink. That is exactly what we strive to provide.

We are bringing quality products to festivals, whereas a common approach among traders seems to be ‘catering for the masses’ – do it quickly and check out. That is the opposite of what we’re about.

We have to focus on the quality of the product because that’s where we make our money. If you go to someone selling a number of different items, they’re doing a lot at once so maybe can’t provide that meticulous attention to detail on the specific product.

That’s why I haven’t changed my business over time: we keep true to what we do, what people know us for and focus delivering that quality experience every time.

I love seeing repeat customers come back to us at festivals, year on year to the same festival we’re at, telling us how much they’ve looked forward to, and waited for, our hot chocolate. You just can’t beat that! It’s like they’re just as passionate about the product as I am and that really means a lot.

The festival trade can often be touted as lucrative for traders, but is not always the easiest to ‘break into’, just as Thomas found initially:

At the start I found it quite hard to get a foot in the door with festival organisers because they just automatically categorise you as another coffee trader, nothing more nothing less, and don’t really appreciate what it is you’re offering – which in our case is the most important. Of course, at the beginning, when you’ve got a fledgling reputation or any testimonials to speak for you, it is difficult.

So, as we speak (in January) I am in the midst of sorting out our festival applications. They start early, some we had to apply for back in October! Whenever I speak to festival organisers now, I always have to argue the point that we’re not just a hot drinks trader, that with The Cocoa Caravan what people are getting is an experience, a memorable moment just as much as the music aspect of the festival for example. I have to stress the point that we specialise in luxury hot chocolate.

A lot of coffee traders will close in the evening as they want to go and enjoy the festival too, whereas we recognise a lot of our trade can be later on so will often stay open until midnight. We want to make sure customers can have The Cocoa Caravan experience when they want – people love a hot chocolate before going to bed, for example. So, it would be silly of us to close early, but this also shows festival organisers that we are different, put customers first and will always offer them a great service.

I’ve had big caterers who are trading nearby look at some of our queues, inspect our unit, trying to gauge what’s going on. It’s this simple: we just focus on what we offer, are passionate about the product and provide good customer service. We’re not just here to make money, we treat people like people, not numbers.

This honest and direct approach has clearly worked for the now-festival-stalwarts, who recommend with festival applications that you should:

Keep it simple. Don’t try to offer too many options, focus on what you do and do it well! Have a product that people will want, provide quality service and the custom will repeat. Organisers go through loads of applications, so keep yours precise for them as well as yourself.

Be concise, and clear about what you’re offering: an image of your unit, and your product(s) should always be included. Follow up on applications, if you can try to phone and speak to someone, rather than just sending an email. This is a people business, after all.

Putting passion into practice is a key theme emanating here, so it’s only right we asked about what makes up their cherished hot chocolate beverages:

I’m going to be cheesy and say love and passion. No but seriously, we are incredibly passionate about the product and put the same attention to detail in every cup – we want each customer to have that quality experience. The fact we use real, quality, chocolate goes a long way – it’s the basis of the drink so it’s extremely important.

We have specific ratios, and the temperature must be right. With tea and coffee for example, they’re usually like 100°c – but that’s far too hot for chocolate. If it’s too hot, you obscure the flavour. We don’t call it hot chocolate; we call it drinking chocolate. I can’t stress this enough when I have to train staff, it is quite a refined process, but the end result is so incredible, topped with some whipped cream and the giant toasted marshmallows that people love to dunk.

We have a range for people to choose from – white, milk or dark chocolate for example. We like to create different variations, to offer this luxury, personalised aspect. The range of seasonal flavours we offer throughout the seasons are incredibly popular and a great example. We’d like to expand on this more by offering different origin chocolate flavours, perhaps create a ‘special edition’ drink tailored to the event we are at, which just makes the experience that bit more unique.

This popularity isn’t seen as an anomaly either, the signs are all pointing towards a growing trend:

I do think the popularity of hot chocolate is on the rise if it is done well. There are lots of people who don’t drink tea or coffee, and for a while it’s as if hot chocolate was forgotten about, or was reduced in people’s perception to a watered down, high sugar drink in powder form which has formed this cheap reputation.

I’ve certainly seen an uptake in businesses offering ‘proper’ hot chocolates since we’ve been trading – they don’t do it like we do it because again it is our pure focus, but I can see the trend growing. When it’s done right, it is as much of a delicacy as any of the food trends you see sweeping menus across the sector.

There are no illusions as to the sacrifices required to make such a business work, and the value of reputation takes centre stage:

I’m always conscious of our reputation. When it comes to staffing, you must be able to trust that everyone you employ is representing your business correctly. So, you need to have full confidence in the job they’re going to do. My staff consist largely of friends and family, and they’ll tell you that I can be demanding, but I am also very serious about my business and the second we begin trading, it’s no longer that family member, they are a staff member and have a job to do.

To me, having real pride in the business means I also wouldn’t want to entertain the idea of buying cheap cakes in to sell for example, as for me it’s all about seeing a customer come back with that delight in their eyes, knowing they’re getting a quality product. So much effort goes into what we do, not just the drinks but also baking the homemade cakes myself as we pride ourselves on that fresh and organic quality.

It absolutely kills me but it’s so satisfying, seeing your hard work come to fruition and the joy that you can bring people. I love it. I love the adrenaline of it, of looking out and seeing a queue for us to get through, the challenge of it. I’ve been bungee jumping, done skydiving but for me nothing touches that rush you get working at a festival.

Things are looking bright for The Cocoa Caravan and the future holds only more promise, with exciting plans in the works:

We are looking to expand, to do more festivals and bring what we offer to more people. Ultimately that means bringing in staff outside of friends and family and building a team that can deliver everything I want so I can let go of the reins a little. We have two units at the moment and I’d love to have our third ready this year – in keeping with the theme of our business, these are all Sprite caravans from the 70s. We love them as it brings that nostalgia for many of being back in the fields and serves to add another element to the experience people get with us.

It’s important to me to not focus too much on growing, but just get every aspect of the business and what we offer right first, then the growth will come. You must get the fundamentals right first.

We’re looking to submit some of our products to the Great Taste Awards this year too. We’re also thinking about packaging our product for ordering, make it accessible so people can take that Cocoa Caravan quality and experience home with them.

In an ideal world, I would love to open a bricks and mortar location somewhere in the Midlands. Just trying to speak the dream into reality!

Thomas and The Cocoa Caravan have gone from strength to strength in their quest. They have established themselves as festival favourites and received awards in recognition of their bespoke products. Their story is testament to determination, belief in the product but also a great reminder of the significance of keeping things simple: focusing solely on the people, and the product.

You can stay up to date with Thomas and The Cocoa Caravan here. Keep an eye out for other articles featured in Issue 49 of Catering Quarterly here.

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