Family firm Choc-o-Bloc enjoying sweet success: Orders flood in from around the world for edible children's toy
A chocolate product made in Northern Ireland is set to take off in the USA next year after success in around 40 other countries and a hit Christmas TV advertising campaign.
Choc-o-Bloc in Newtownards is already exporting to almost 50 countries in Europe and the Far East and last year secured its first sales in Russia for its edible children's toy, Magic Choc.
Billed as 'chocolate plasticine', Magic Choc allows children to make models and pictures out of high-quality Belgian chocolate.
In the summer the company secured business to supply a chocolate modelling kit based on Vroomiz, a popular animated series for pre-schoolers on Chinese state television. The company also has a product based on the global hit Moshi Monsters.
Choc-o-Bloc's products are on display in the famous Hamleys toy store in London as well as being widely available in Toys R Us and Tesco. And as Christmas approaches the firm is hoping to score huge sales after winning key advertising space on television.
The company employs eight people at its manufacturing plant at Kiltonga Industrial Estate and has taken on five part-time staff to cope with the Christmas rush.
Next year, the firm plans to move into adult products, with Valentine's Day and Easter-themed kits in development.
Husband and wife Stephen and Karen Lennie run the company, and Mr Lennie said that the success of the products has exceeded all expectations. "We've secured a spot on the Home Shopping Network in the USA and we have lined up eight big American retailers to sell our products, including Target, and we have also pitched to Walmart," he said.
"Our main market is the UK with 50% of sales, and only around 2-3% of sales are in Northern Ireland.
"The rest is export to the rest of the world. We sell to around 250 Tescos stores with other 300 more to be added in the New Year and Asda are set to come on board late next year.
"We're also making a move into the adult market, with a Valentine's chocolate heart maker which can be sold as a gift, and of course can be personalised, and an Easter Egg maker, which may not be ready for 2014 but is certainly in the pipeline.
"The product is interactive and can be enjoyed by all the family. It is sensibly priced and the feedback has been amazing."
Following the adverts for the Magic Choc Picture Maker product being beamed across TV screens last week, Choc-o-Bloc said it even knocked world-leading confectioner Cadbury off the top spot of Amazon's chocolate bestsellers list, just weeks before Christmas.
There was also a huge sales boost after Magic Choc was featured on the Paul O'Grady Show on ITV, which saw popular crooner Michael Buble testing out the product in the run-up to the festive season.
The firm works with international toy wholesaler and distributor, The In Thing in Lancashire, to increase sales of its products.
Head of marketing and Downpatrick native Kieran Murphy said that television exposure had helped sales explode.
"Some of the TV ads were placed between episodes of Come Dine With Me on Channel 4 and as soon as they broadcast, stock almost sold out," he said.
"It was the right audience at the right time. The exposure on the Paul O'Grady Show really helped as well. The product went straight to the top of the Amazon chart, knocking Cadbury off the hot spot in the chocolate section and Twitter also went nuts."
Chocolate changed pair's life
Co Down man Stephen Lennie went from 'chocks away' to 'chocs away' when he changed career to work with his wife Karen on their confectionery product.
Formerly a process engineer, he worked for planemaker Shorts, now Bombardier, and Thales, the defence product manufacturer in east Belfast. "Karen had started a chocolate-making workshop and she was finding that she was busier and busier," he said.
"She also had issues with chocolate melting when people were working with it and was wondering how to find a better balance with melting and tempering.
"I took the task of making a melting machine for her workshop and, to my surprise, I discovered the machine I came up with was unique in the industry and I was able to get a patent for it.
"We were able to change the melting point for chocolate and everything took off from there.
"I met up with someone in the toy industry who suggested making the equivalent of plasticine made out of chocolate, or mouldable chocolate, and all the exports have fallen off the back of having this unique process to hand.
"My life has gone in a completely new direction and so has Karen's. My expertise was how you make things happen.
"Karen's was working with the kids and the public. We've been able to use our strengths to make a really good selection of products.
"My kids have grown up with this business and one thing I have learned is that you don't get sick of chocolate."
How the Magic of rebranding helped confectionery company take the globe
Launching the Magic Choc product in Russia required a complete change to packaging, appearance and brand identity, the company said.
Choc-o-Bloc worked with a Russian company to create a much more traditional look for the product, with the addition of a cartoon child for the product. The product was also renamed 'Wokoaenka'.
Set in the mythical town of Vroomville, Vroomiz, screened on Chinese state television, combines a child's attraction to anything on wheels with their love of animals. Every citizen of Vroomville possesses the unique traits of a specific animal along with the style and performance of a particular vehicle.
The Vroomiz Magic Choc chocolate model making kit features a combination of milk, dark and white chocolate, an anti-bacterial wipe and a model ideas booklet.
Picture Maker allows children to design and create their own chocolate bar, then eat it.
By melting the chocolate packs in a bowl of warm water, children can pick a stencil and choose their own character and shape the bar as they wish.
The product is sold in Toys R US and the famous Hamleys toy store in London.