Louis has got the chocolate business licked
After being bullied at school, life is now sweet for teenage entrepreneur Louis Barnett.
Back in the day when Jimmy Saville was fixing it for children’s wishes to come true, there would have been a fair number of begging letters from youngsters, raised on a diet of Cadbury’s and Roald Dahl, desperate to spend a day in a chocolate factory.
Sixteen-year-old Louis Barnett did not need an over-bleached DJ to help his dreams come true, just an astute head for business that one would expect to belong on far older shoulders.
Louis, who comes from Kinver, has established his own brand, Chokolit, which combines a luxury product with an ethical and environmental conscience.
Today he is one of the guests at the Taste of Selfridges weekend, part of their fifth birthday celebrations. He will be there to promote his Chokolit products which are now being sold in store.
The range includes the signature chocolate boxes, which cut down on packaging as that is edible too. He also makes chocolate bags and chocolate Champagne glasses, an idea inspired by a cousin’s request to make something special for his wedding next year.
Louis came up with the idea for the bags when he was commissioned to make a chocolate showpiece for a magazine launch.
Such is his creative flair that since last year he has been sponsored by Zurich based Callebaut, one of the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers.
Not bad for a youngster who dropped out of school at 11 after being diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia.
After leaving school he was educated at home and also started working part-time in a falconry centre.
He was a keen cook and it was his aunt’s plea to make her a chocolate cake for her birthday that started the whole (chocolate-coated) ball rolling.
“I can remember standing on a big stool in the kitchen when I was little helping mum to make mince pies, so cooking was always something I have done,” he says.
“I had never attempted anything with chocolate though, although I did love it. I used to have a chocolate drawer in the fridge, that was before I realised you should never keep it in there.”
He bought a book called Belgian Chocolate Cakes and Chocolate from the nursery next to the falconry centre and whipped his aunt up a chocolate mousse cake decorated with chocolate truffles.
As word spread about his chocolate and cake making expertise more orders started to come in, particularly for the chocolates.
Louis realised that he might have a viable business on his hands when people started “paying for more than just the ingredients, I started charging a bit for my time.”
Several people recommended that he take his chocolates to Waitrose as they were known to look favourably on small businesses.
“I went with a basket full of products which I left in the Post Room. I got a phone call three days later from the buyer.”
By the age of 14 he was both Waitrose and Sainsbury’s youngest supplier.
When orders started reaching the tens of thousands, Louis set up his own small chocolate making factory at a unit in Bridgnorth with his mum and dad, Mary and Phil, now working with him.
“I established the company but we each have our own roles to play. You can’t have a functioning business without a team,” he says sagely.
The name for the brand came from his inability to spell chocolate properly due to his initially undiagnosed dyslexia, which also left him struggling with maths.
His dyspraxia affected his co-ordination and his organisational abilities.
“I was called stupid and all the names under the sun because I couldn’t spell or punctuate.”
But Louis was clearly a bright child and his parents eventually took him to an educational assessor who recognised the condition.
After this he went back to school for a while.
“It was decided that to repair the damage I would have to go right back to phonics, learning to spell bat and cat.
“I would be taken out of class to do that and then I would have to juggle it with all my normal schoolwork.”
Louis emotional maturity also marked him out as a target among his peers.
He certainly sound as confident and as articulate as someone twice his age.
“Kids don’t accept people who are different and I have always had a different outlook,” he says. “I have always interacted with adults more. “I was quite impatient with children my own age, I couldn’t be bothered.
“I was quite sarcastic so you can probably guess what their reaction was. I won’t deny that it was unpleasant at the time but I think it has made me what I am.”
Although he has leap-frogged into the world of business, Louis seems to have found his niche. He has even learned to work round his dyslexia.
“My writing is better now but that is what we have got spell checker for. I try and keep away from maths though, even with a calculator I am dangerous. Fortunately I have got a good accountant.”
Like his chocolate-making forefathers, the Cadbury family, Louis also looks for ways he can make a difference. While they focused on social reform and improving the lot of the poor people of Birmingham, Louis has set his sights on global issues.
He is vehemently opposed to the use of vegetable oil, particularly palm oil, in chocolate because of the acres of rain forest that are being sacrificed for its production .
“There is no need to use it in chocolate, all it does is devalue the product and make it cheaper.”
He is also fighting to save endangered species and has now produced the Biting Back Bar, a bar with a hint of orange flavouring that was launched at Chester Zoo and which is being sold in aid of Orang-utan conservation. After that he has his heart set on helping the Amur leopard which is bordering on extinction in the wild.
“I have always been an animal person and interested in conversation. I have an owl now, which is a little reminder of my time at the falconry centre.”
Louis, who has been selected to receive the Lord Carter Award for excellence in the food industry, hopes to make Chokolit a household name in the UK and then to conquer Europe and America.
“I have already got a meeting lined up with a Swedish gentleman to take about exports,” he says.
“He is in the whisky trade so I will have to brush up on my knowledge...I’m too young to buy it so I’ll just have to read about it.”
* Louis Barnett will be in Selfridges foodhall today from 11am.