Lashings of care sees cake business rise

Phil Lash of Chocolate Velvet.
MARION VAN DIJK

Phil Lash of Chocolate Velvet.

As the name suggests Chocolate Velvet is a business that specialises in happiness; glorious cake happiness.

Established in 2004 by Phil and Leanne Lash in a building at home they had converted into a commercial kitchen, it wasn't long before their reputation for excellence spread and they needed new premises, so two years later they moved into the current building on Nayland Rd that was converted to a specialty bakery premises for them.

They started the business by specialising in top-of-the-line wedding and birthday cakes made from scratch (no pre-mixes or packet mixes).

Some of Chocolate Velvet's special creations.
MARION VAN DIJK

Some of Chocolate Velvet's special creations.

Part of the plan was to be specialty bakers for the restaurant and cafe industry.

"We laid out about 20 sample boxes, put them in the van and hit the road, we picked up a few customers and the reputation for delivering a high-quality product spread," Phil says.

Within six months they had also developed a range of desserts. The rapid growth saw the working "all hours of the day seven days a week before bringing on some staff.

Chocolate Velvet has expanded in size and range since moving to its Nayland Rd premises.
MARION VAN DIJK

Chocolate Velvet has expanded in size and range since moving to its Nayland Rd premises.

"At this stage the core of the business was 90 per cent wholesale, today it is about 10 per cent."

Chocolate Velvet was relocated to its Nayland Rd premises in December 2007 going from a 27m2 space to 250 m2 in premises formerly used by and indoor paua breeding operation.

Today the company's wholesale customers get product daily but Chocolate Velvet no longer relies on the restaurant and café market for several reasons.

Phil says the frozen distribution market is flooded with product "and we don't compete on price, we want to focus on quality fresh products.

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"The second thing about dealing with the hospitality trade is that some of them really struggled through the winter months and some didn't always pay on time.  We have a retail focus now selling the vast majority of our food through our retail shop so we don't have to worry about competing on price or not being paid."

The range of food at Chocolate Velvet has changed since the move. Its cabinets are bulging with home-made pies, slices, cheesecakes, muffins, and a wide range of "ready to go" food, as well as a range of beautifully decorated cakes.

Then there is the bespoke cake side of the business, specialising in celebration cakes.

"We probably sell between 50 and 80 specialty cakes a week, depending on the time of the year. We have one person working full time decorating cakes, preparing cake decorations and training other staff." 

Phil is a baker by trade, completing a bread and cake bakery apprenticeship at Coupland's in Christchurch before he spent some time travelling overseas.

He came back to New Zealand and worked for a dessert company in Christchurch before becoming the pastry chef at the Grand Chancellor hotel where he designed specialty desserts and managed functions at the hotel for two years.

The Golden Bay native returned to Nelson in 2002 where he worked for Tozzetti and what was Big Fresh (now Countdown by the Library) but he had always wanted to be self employed.

"I came home one day and said I didn't want to be getting up at all hours of the morning to bake bread so we decided to have one go at setting up our own business and if it didn't work I would go and drive a truck, but it has worked and we have loved the journey so far."

Leanne has extensive food retail experience and "really is the glue that holds everything together here", Phil says.

She worked as the Foodstuffs South Island seafood manager, responsible for the seafood sections at each New World and Pak 'n' Save supermarket in the South Island. That role involved staff training, arranging supply agreements, promotions, and helping design the supermarket seafood counters. 

As well as the hard work of running a business, the pair have had to overcome setbacks. In June, 2009 on an off-road motorcycle trip Phil crashed into a tree. It required eight-and-a-half hours of surgery on his shattered right arm, put him out of action for six months, and required intensive physiotherapy for a year.

"I had an office at home and gradually was able to do more but while I was at home I had time to think and plan, working on the business rather than in it.

"I sorted recipes, dealt with orders, kept the business ticking over paying accounts and all that."

With support from their bank and ACC – "what a great system New Zealand has to have this service for citizens" – they got through.

Some of the time Phil spent recovering was also used to fire up a second business, Succulent Spit Roasters. 

"I realised we were sitting in here doing wedding cake consultations just selling people a wedding cake and saw an opportunity to do catering as well. We had a kitchen not being used in the weekends so had the facilities to run the catering business from. We started in a  low key way initially but it is a fantastic business now."

Succulent Spit Roasters caters for large scale parties including one last year for 800 people. 

The Chocolate Velvet side of the company also has a catering component specialising in business lunches, morning teas, board lunches and similar small functions.

When he isn't baking or planning his next venture Phil enjoys car rallying in his Mazda 323 4wd as a member of the Nelson Car Club.

With his injured arm having limited movement, the car has been modified. "My arm has a rotation problem so one hand holds the steering wheel, the left hand does all the driving, the windscreen wipers and other stuff is controlled by my co-driver. The accident hasn't stopped me doing anything, I just adapt."

Chocolate Velvet now employs nine fantastic staff who create, bake, decorate, develop new products, help customers, answer queries and are passionate about what they do.

Using their own winning recipe, Phil and Leanne have plans for yet another company, this time helping others learn how to succeed in business.

 - Stuff

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