The latest bold move by Canberra organic chocolate business Lindsay and Edmunds has caught the attention of the city's gourmet food and retail communities.
Just four years since he arrived in Canberra and set up a stall at the markets to sell his European-style handmade, organic and fairtrade chocolates, former chef Peter Edmunds has moved his business into the Canberra Centre.
Returning to Australia after living in France, Edmunds and his wife Michelle initially moved to the Gold Coast, where they struggled to maintain their daily indulgence of enjoying a single handmade chocolate after dinner. The ritual - matched with their commitment to organic food whenever possible - inspired them to start their own chocolate-making company, working initially from his home kitchen.
Now, as Canberra prepares for its annual Easter chocolate splurge, Edmunds has joined the big guys in the Canberra Centre. ''The amount of people who have stopped to tell us how nice it is to see an independent store in a place like this has been really overwhelming," he says.
After Darrell Lea closed in the Canberra Centre, Lindsay and Edmunds opened a pop-up store in its place, and now it has signed up for the year. Edmunds describes it as a "coming-of-age" story for his business.
"We feel really comfortable here and it has become part of the quality reputation we have and the positioning of our products which are made from a single origin," Edmunds says. "It has been really satisfying for us that new customers who haven't seen us before are happening on the shop."
He finally pulled the pin on his stall at the Exhibition Park Farmers' Market last week, given the demands of his growing business and acknowledging also that his high-end product is no longer the best fit with the markets. But the decision wasn't easy. ''It's a bit of a wrench because you become so friendly with a lot of your customers, so you feel like you're letting them down a bit,'' he says.
When Edmunds moved to Canberra four years ago, he sold initially through the Southside and Old Bus Depot markets, as well as Exhibition Park.
He makes chocolate in premises at Fairbairn, near the airport, but has a still grander plan. He would like to move his kitchen to the city, and open a new outlet, where the chocolate making is open to the public and where he can run his popular fortnightly chocolate making classes, plus a cafe.
''I would love to have a circular kitchen where people are sitting down to have coffee and tea while everything is happening around them,'' he says.
For now, he's taking his move into big retail slowly, with a lease for 2013 only in the Canberra Centre, and a lower rent than permanent retailers pay.
He is also dipping his toes into the water of the big supermarkets. Edmunds has signed up with Coles to sell a new line, Cocopod. Edmunds says he was approached last year by Coles, which is trialling new gourmet sections in supermarkets. The trial is in one Melbourne supermarket and shortly in six, and if successful will be extended to 100 Coles supermarkets around the country.
Edmunds says he didn't want to sell the Lindsay and Edmunds brand through Coles. ''I didn't want them to have Lindsay and Edmunds. No matter how good quality your product is, as soon as you put it into the big guys the quality is instantly devalued,'' he says. The new brand, Cocopod, is still organic, fairtrade and single origin, but different products, such as slab chocolates half the size of his Lindsay and Edmunds slabs. With new custom-made Italian equipment on its way to Canberra, the Cocopod line will be expanded to include items such as chocolate-covered coffee beans, nuts and fruits. It also sells through IGAs in Canberra.
Edmunds says the new markets provide new challenges.
"That so far has been really exciting but dealing with really big companies like Coles is a change for us. They can be slow moving in terms of turn around and then all of a sudden we need to be ready for five more stores," he says.
Edmunds sells his chocolate in other parts of the country but says the past few years have been tough for niche businesses. As
some wholesale clients struggled in the wake of the global economic downturn, Edmunds focused on growing a larger wholesale base.
He is not, though, considering joining the growing band of chocolate makers who start with the raw bean. Edmunds buys his couverture from Belgium where it is made using Dominican Republic beans. ''I could spend 20 years trying to perfect couverture made from the bean and still not get it as good as the Belgians have been doing for hundreds of years,'' he says.
His biggest cost is labour - he has six full-time employees and five casuals. Head chocolatier is Megan Taylor, who joined Lindsay and Edmunds nearly a year ago after working in Michelin-starred restaurants in London, as well as in kitchens in Dubai and around Australia.
Easter is easily the peak time, with the store selling thousands of chocolates, every one unique, with handpainted designs, he says. He has been making large showpiece eggs, originally for display, but Edmunds says they're selling well.
The big eggs are made in a mould in two halves. First, natural food dyes are added to cocoa butter or white chocolate, which is sprayed on to the inside of the mould to make the patterns, then a coating of milk or dark chocolate is poured in, and once set a second coat is poured in, before the two halves are joined and set on a base. Yes, failures do happen, he says, especially when you release them from the moulds. The lace-pattern eggs are especially tricky, with patterns piped on to the moulds in a series of swirls.
Big eggs weigh from 1.5 kilograms to three kilograms. Smaller versions are 21 centimetres high, and depending on weight, sell for $35 to $60. The larger examples are 35 centimetres and cost $150 to $300.
The eggs are sold mainly to people who want to eat them, but not exclusively. "We recently had one customer commission us to make two eggs, one in the Canberra Raiders colours and another in West Tigers. The guy said they were going straight to his pool room."
Tom McIlroy is a staff reporter.