I have loved every minute: Helen Pattinson

The co-founder of chocolate company Montezuma’s on staying creative, being agile and taking stock

People 3 Feb 2021

Montezuma's co-founder Helen Pattinson

Montezuma's co-founder Helen Pattinson

Why did you and Simon [co-founder and husband] decide to leave your jobs as lawyers and set up a chocolate company?

I absolutely loved studying law but as soon as I started my training contract, I could see that the road to the interesting cases and clients was an extremely long and not a very exciting one. When Simon joined the same law firm, we quickly talked each other out of our legal careers and gave it all up to embark on a life-changing trip to South America. The idea for Montezuma’s hit us when we were walking around the beautiful town of Bariloche San Carlos in the Argentinian Lake District during our yearlong adventure.  It was filled with chocolate shops from tiny boutiques to a chocolate supermarket, but all boasting the most amazing chocolate, and demonstrating retail theatre like I’d never seen before. I was hooked and determined to bring the ideas back to the UK where the chocolate offering on our high streets was incredibly unexciting.

Being lawyers turned self-taught chocolate makers has meant steep learning curves and often reinventing the wheel but everything we do is carried out with a passion for creating chocolate we want to eat in an environment we enjoy.

What we certainly didn’t train for or expect in our wildest dreams was that a business started on a shoestring would arguably become Britain’s most innovative chocolate brand with a reputation far bigger than our actual footprint.

Montezuma’s Giant Chocolate Buttons

How did it feel celebrating 20 years of Montezuma last year?

When you set up and run a small business, there is rarely time to step back and consider what you’ve created, so celebrating 20 years gave us the opportunity to do just that.  We’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way but I am a firm believer that you really only learn from your mistakes, so they’re good for the business in the long run.  I can honestly say that in 20 years, I have loved almost every minute.

Can you tell us about switching to entirely eco packaging and how you’ve managed to do that?

This has been a huge undertaking. We have always been really careful to source packaging that we’re proud of and has environmental credentials. With more than 200 products however, we realised that items had crept into the range that could be better, so we decided to make it a top priority.  There are some new and exciting developments in the packaging industry, with new recyclable materials coming through, so we worked really hard with our suppliers to test them on our products.  It has been a real challenge as it’s essential to ensure that all our packaging is airtight and food safe; chocolate is easily tainted by surrounding smells and there’s nothing worse than cardboard-flavoured chocolate. But we are very proud that all of our packaging is now 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable and we believe that we are the only British chocolate company to have achieved this.  We have even repurposed old packaging by shredding it and using it in our gift boxes. It didn’t make sense to us to create a completely recyclable range and then just dump the old packaging in landfill so we’re having to be very creative to repurpose it.

You mention that sticking to your principles is a crucial part of your brand. Has this been a tough thing to do? 

Our principles have always derived from our personal values so generally it hasn’t been hard to stick to them. We have a lot of healthy debates in the business when we are considering many of our business decisions. Sometimes there is tension but so long as everyone feels as though they’re views are heard we normally end up with a decision everyone is happy with.

And how do you instil these values in your team?

I would say it’s more about recruiting people who already share our values and are as passionate about the brand. Our interviews always involve plenty of discussion about our values, what candidates know about them and whether they can demonstrate behaviour that might encompass them. If people arrive in the business with a naturally positive outlook and a desire to do the right thing, then we’re halfway there at least.

Montezuma's Butter Nutter, a favourite of Helen Pattinson
Montezuma’s Butter Nutter, a favourite of Helen Pattinson

What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned in the past 20 years about running a company?

It took me a long time to realise that not everyone in the business shared our vision for Montezuma’s and, over time, I recognised it was simply because we hadn’t communicated this to them.  Leadership is all about sharing your goals, values, vision and way of doing business with all your teams so that everything they do, however small, is working towards that end goal.

Can you tell us about your work with Children on the Edge and how that came about?

Children on the Edge is an amazing charity based in Chichester and working with marginalised children all over the world. We originally started helping out by donating chocolate to an Easter egg hunt they organised in the local park, around 15 years ago.  They were founded by Dame Anita Roddick and Rachel Bentley who is still the international director, 30 years after setting it up. They are entrepreneurial and willing to push boundaries and challenge convention, so we felt a huge amount of synergy with them and as we have grown, our support for them has grown too. Our staff and customers regularly raise funds for them. I became a trustee after visiting one of their amazing early years education projects in Uganda in 2016.

Creativity seems very important to Montezuma as a brand, how do you stay creative?

We take our inspiration predominantly from our customers and staff. We have the luxury of having our own retail stores which gives us the opportunity to chat to our customers about what they love and would like to see in their next favourite chocolate bar. Our chief chocolatier has the freedom to just play with new ingredients she finds and there is no shortage of people willing to taste her creations.

What are your ambitions for the future of Montezuma?

Our goal has always been to become Britain’s greatest little chocolate company. I would love everybody to be able to enjoy Montezuma’s, which means growth is still important so that you can buy it with your weekly shop or indulge your friends and family with big boxes of truffles. But the ‘little’ part of that ambition is that the business will always have family values and short lines of communication internally and externally. Success of a business should always be determined by the happiness of the people within it. 


How have you navigated Covid-19 and what have you learned from it?

I believe that smaller businesses are far better placed to cope with these drastic situations than large corporations. We make all of our own products in our own factory and so have complete control over all of our production and our sales channels. Our board is small, and our leadership team is used to making decisions quickly and under pressure. This hasn’t made dealing with Covid-19 easy, but I would say we have been sufficiently agile that we have been able to handle everything it has thrown at us. Closing our retail stores two weeks before Easter and then during the week before Christmas, with virtually no notice was potentially disastrous for a chocolate business. But the incredible team spirit shown by everyone meant that we were able to move stock around the business quickly and where we have lost out on retail sales, we have been able to pick most of this up through the website.  Opening up after the first lockdown was really worrying and I was very concerned for the safety of our retail teams, but we put in place plenty of measures to ensure social distancing and ensured customers and staff felt safe. This severely limited the number of customers we were able to have in store at any one time but generally people were happy to wait and queue at a distance outside. It’s not perfect and we’re still considering more permanent measures, so we’ll be ready to open again when allowed.

Do you have a favourite chocolate from the collection?

I have had many favourites over the years and these often depend on the time of day, month or even year. I tend to keep Absolute Black, our 100% cocoa chocolate, in the house as just a square or two of this is sufficient to satisfy my cocoa cravings (and the children won’t steal it) but for a more decadent treat, I will go for the Butter Nutter bar, our milk chocolate peanut butter truffle bar, or Moondance, a dark chocolate and almond praline truffle.

What chocolate trends do you think we can look forward to in 2021?

Key trends in the consumer chocolate market at the moment, which are impacting the market quite significantly are growing demand for vegan, sugar-free and gluten-free chocolate. We have a large range of vegan chocolate including our 100% cocoa chocolate, Absolute Black which is definitely not for everyone. With no sugar to sweeten it, the cocoa can take you by surprise but it’s fast becoming a best-seller for us so it would seem consumers are enjoying the challenge. The interest in plant-based diets has been increasing for many years, so many of our dark chocolate products are naturally suitable for a vegan diet but it is something we consider with all of our new product development.

Our range of milk chocolate alternative bars, called Like No Udder are a wonderful creation of chocolate that is as close to milk chocolate as possible without ever going near a cow. It’s as smooth as regular milk chocolate but made without milk so is also suitable for vegans.

Although we will have an eye on food trends, this isn’t what drives our new product development, we simply try to create products we love and are confident that our customers will love.