Isabelle Chappell has a job which many might envy. She runs a chocolate shop. Not any old chocolate shop, but a shop where she makes chocolates right in front of her customers.
The shop features a whole panoply of flavours. One of the favourites is a mix of caramel, praline and sea salt. “One lady rings from the US in advance to see if we have enough in stock for when she comes,” says Isabelle. “We are working on new flavours all the time.”
In addition to getting tips on new exciting flavours from her French suppliers, she visits a chocolate fair in Cologne annually.
Isabelle loves working for herself and can’t think of doing anything else now. “Working for yourself spoils you for working for someone else,” she says. “You work hard because it’s down to you to make the business a success, but you can take time off when you want. I can do something in the afternoon now and work in the evening. My time is my own.”
Mother of two Isabelle has, however, paid her dues in terms of the long hours corporate culture. She started out working for Liberty and then moved to Laura Ashley where she worked as a retail manager, merchandiser and buyer which involved a lot of international travel. She moved to Monsoon in 1990 to set up and ran their merchandising department. When the company decided to expand internationally via its offshoot Accessorize, Isabelle, who is half French, was asked to run its franchise in France. And the best way to do that was to move to France.
It was a huge decision for the family. Her daughters were nine and 14 at the time. Isabelle says she had to weigh up many things. “We had quite a safe life with family time at the weekends and an au pair. We always made sure we had time for our children. To give all of that up and go into the unknown was difficult. However, I was almost 40 years old and burnt out. I could not bear the thought of getting on the M25 for an hour and a half of my life every day for the rest of my life,” she says.
When they moved to France, the family took their au pair. They had had tried different forms of childcare in the past and Isabelle says some of the most stressful times she has had have been when the childcare she has had has not worked, particularly given that both she and her husband used to travel a lot for work when the children were younger.
Isabelle was out of the country at one point for 20 weeks of the year and she recalls one occasion when her daughter was ill and she decided to delay going to a store opening in Malta until the following day. “I felt so bad and like I had to justify myself,” she says. She describes a high stress life where she was very conscious of time management all the time. “I had planning down to a T,” she says. “I wrote a weekly menu to make sure the children had a balanced diet. I had notes on calendars of who needed money for which activity on which day, who needed picking up when. The weekends were so busy as I was planning for the next week. But we got there in the end and the children [now 25 and 21] are happy.”
She and her husband had to sell their house to take on the Accessorize franchise. “It was a nail-biting few months,” she says. “We had to be confident we would succeed.”
They built up the Accessorize franchise in France and then sold it back to the company and worked as retail consultants. Isabelle then did a chocolatier training course, purely out of interest because she wanted to find out more about what went into chocolate. She liked the course so much that she decided to set up a chocolate business. She and her husband put all their money from the franchise into the shop and her husband continued to do his consultancy work while the shop got up and running.
They were going to set up in France, but they were told England might be a better market because there was nothing like a chocolatier shop there. She and her husband opened their shop Chocolat Chocolat in London in 2006 while they were still living in France. They couldn’t move because their daughter couldn’t change schools. “I had to commute on Eurostar for a year,” says Isabelle. She and her husband would take it in turns to come for a week – Monday to Thursday or Wednesday to Saturday evening or Sunday. “We didn’t have much time for each other,” she says. They decided it would be easier to move back to the UK. “Travelling is such a waste of time and we permanently had our suitcases packed,” she says.
Five years after opening the shop, there was a rent review in the area and the rent shot up. It was also recession time and Isabelle and her husband, although they were doing fine, felt things could be tricky in the years to come. They decided to move out of London and to Cambridge. They now live in Hitchin which is fairly nearby and Isabelle often works from home.
The shop has its own website which has just launched. Isabelle has also started teaching chocolate making workshops in the last few years. This year she has taught 50 courses, including children’s courses, hen parties and courses for corporate clients. Every weekend until Christmas is currently booked with courses and she hopes to establish her own chocolate school in the near future. “My passion for the business keeps me going,” she says.