Happy Easter from N2 Sweet Lab

Chloe Bell
By Chloë Bell, Content Journalist

Bionic spoke to Ned, who a few months ago proudly opened premises for his Kent-based business - N2 Sweet Lab in Maidstone. We found out how he’s been finding his business start-up journey so far and what he aims to achieve in the future.

“My name is Nedelcho Vichev, but everyone in Maidstone knows me as Ned, or the chocolate guy,” Ned laughs when we ask him to introduce himself to our sweet-toothed readers.

“I started the business with my girlfriend around the time of Covid It started as just making desserts at home, cakes and chocolates, that kind of thing, but slowly, people started asking for more,” he explains, recalling the start of N2.

Although the business has been successfully reeling in locals for a few years now, Ned says that they’ve only just secured premises after demand grew. Ned decided they needed a shop to show off their mouth-watering products and start building real connections with customers.

“During the first couple of months, we weren’t even open to the public. We were selling on local markets and focusing on making our chocolates and products. But in September 2023, we decided to open to the public and seven months later, here we are!”

Even though N2 Sweet Lab is still a relatively new business, there have been lots of impressive achievements for Ned and his family already. But if he had to pick his proudest moment what would it be?

“To see people coming back, you know, and asking for more,” he tells us. “I think that's my main achievement. That's my main focus. I really appreciate the support from our locals,” he smiles.

But Ned also cites being able to express himself creatively as a massive help towards his success. He even sculpted some treats to support Maidstone United Football Club, this got N2 some media attention and spread the word about them.

“We made some chocolates for Maidstone United Football Club,” Ned tells us, “that attracted journalists from the BBC and ITV, so they came to take photos of us. But my main achievement is to see people coming back, asking for more and giving me good feedback."

So, what specific products keep customers coming back? Are there any fan favourites? Ned thinks catering to different dietary requirements is a selling point, but his artisan chocolate is the most popular product, he loves coming up with new colours and flavours to try.

“Each colour is a different flavour,” He explains, showing us a packet of carefully sculpted artisan chocolates (which look delicious by the way).

“We started off small, just offering a few different flavours, but then people started asking for more options. We started adding to the menu because we appreciate everyone's specific tastes and dietary needs.” He explains.

Ned says listening to your customers is vital as you can discover what products are popular and what ones need tweaking. For example, Ned says he makes more birthday cakes now, simply because customers are always requesting them.

“We do birthday cakes as well as some workshops. We keep adding more products and services just to make sure we survive,” he says thoughtfully, “it's a tough time for businesses with the cost of living crisis and the price of chocolate increasing as well. We try to be flexible as possible just to make sure we survive in the market.”

Speaking of the turbulent market, what has been Ned’s biggest struggle so far?

My girlfriend and I have over 15 years’ experience working the food industry, in hospitality, restaurants, catering and hotels,” Ned says, continuing, “but the biggest struggle for me as a business owner, especially in the beginning, has been getting used to running my own business.  I used to run busy kitchens, but this is completely different. I struggled, especially the first couple of months.”

He adds, “I just have to keep myself motivated. Even if no one comes into the shop, I need to keep going and work out what might attract new customers.”

Ned says running the business has been a huge learning curve, but planning is everything and he uses quiet times on the shop floor to plan strategies or new product launches. “I’m always thinking of my next move, how we can improve and what we can add or change,” he tells us, “It’s been six or seven months already since we opened to the public, and if we have quiet time in the shop, I just use it to sit and make strategies. We’re always developing ourselves and learning new techniques as well.”

Caramel oozes out of a pile of freshly crafted chocolates.

Never compromising quality 

Speaking of change, the cost-of-living crisis has hit many small businesses hard and many have been forced to consider what they’re offering customers. Has Ned had to alter the way he runs N2? Has he changed suppliers or thought carefully about the products he’s selling?

So far, no,” he answers, “to be honest we try not to compromise on the high-quality ingredients we use for our chocolates because that’s what makes a difference to our products. That's what we want to serve our customers. So far we haven’t made any changes to the products. We are more careful with electricity though. Because we make everything pretty much everything by hand, we’ve got a small commercial oven which is Class A, so it uses less electricity.” He says, adding, “We try to push our chocolate products too because making those products uses less energy, it’s more skill-based.”

“We try to save energy by lowering our bills. Last month, the price of chocolate prices jumped a lot, but we still try to stay quite positive about it. You know, the price of pretty much everything is going up. I don’t want to sacrifice my quality for profits.” Ned explains.

Even though N2 has only been open publicly for less than a year, has Ned noticed a specific month that has been busiest so far? Did he enjoy an influx of customers on Valentine’s or Mother’s Day, for example?

“Each month we’re getting busier and busier,” he smiles, “I’ll give an example with our chocolates. The whole of December we sold around three or four thousand chocolates. That was our maximum since the start of the business, but now I’d say that's the number we sell every month.”

He goes on, “Easter is coming soon as well, I expect big sales around then and next December I hope will be even busier than the last. It's difficult to say because we’re a new business, but so far each month I see the sales jump which is good for us.”

So how does Ned cope with stress during these busy times? How does he keep level-headed and cool under pressure?

“Again, I’ve got a lot of experience in the hospitality sector, which is really valuable to me. I’ve learnt how to manage myself, my staff and my team. The most important thing is just to stay calm because I can make better decisions like that.”

“With my experience, I've made many mistakes as well,” He recalls, “but I learnt many practical life lessons. It gave me that confidence and knowledge to be able to manage my own business and treat my staff properly while managing our workload.”

Ned says when he was working in the hospitality sector, he always assumed long hours meant better results. Now, he knows that planning is more valuable and that hard work doesn’t always look like double shifts.

“There's no long working hours at N2 Sweet Lab. There aren’t any people running around, stressed and that's what make me happy. Even if I need to sacrifice some profit, I prefer to my team always to be happy and doing what they love.”

“I always give them an opportunity to express themselves, to do whatever they want to because everyone has got specific talents. If you work within a big brand, you can’t always show your talents,” he tells us.

Small blue and purple coated chocolates with golden flecks surround a huge chocolate ball.

A positively perfect way of working 

Being creative is clearly very important to Ned, he says he believes that’s why small businesses are special. They have more free reign to let their own personality shine through in the work they do. He loves the freedom he has to make changes when needed too.

“That’s why I prefer small businesses now, you don't need to contact head office, you don’t need to prove this or improve that before you can change something. It's more pleasurable to work like that, to be honest, it makes me happy.”

Ned says letting his staff experiment with their own personal passions helps them all work together as a well-oiled machine. He loves to encourage them to love their work as much as he does.

“It’s much more personal. One of my friends who works with me started writing a book, she has a YouTube channel and people began asking for more recipes. So, I’m helping her write it, this is something she wants to achieve and I'm happy to help.”

Ned says currently his team is very family-orientated and this ensures they appreciate and keep the small business feel of the shop.

“At the moment, our team is literally friends and family. They love to make cakes and desserts, and even help with the classes and workshops.” He says, adding “But then they have their own space too. They’ve got space to work on their own passions and opportunities. If they want to do something, they can always come and ask me and I'm always happy to help them.”

If Ned could pick his favourite part of being a small business owner, what would it be?
“I have so many favourite parts,” Ned laughs “But if I need to pick one, I would say the freedom and creativity. I get a chance to express myself and that's the thing I missed most in my previous jobs.”

And what does the future look like for Ned and N2? Does he want to expand and grow? Take on more staff? Experiment with different products?

“There's a lot of plans to be honest. But the thing is with plans is that they can always change.” Ned says thoughtfully, adding “We're planning to expand of course, but I want to make sure I’m ready. I don't want to do it because we have the chance to get funds and just open five or six more stores. That's not the idea, I want our business to be local. If I open somewhere else, I want to make sure that I have the right person running it. Someone with passion who understands my idea.”

“We’ve got a lot of plans, we’re trying not to go crazy as it all depends on the market and the locals. I try to stay as flexible as possible. We just follow the needs of the customer and that's it.” He tells us.

Ned smiles as he arranges macaroons in his workshop.

Making the most out of marketing

And what about marketing? Does Ned think word of mouth plays a big role in attracting new customers or is social media invaluable to his overall business plan?

“Word of mouth is our biggest way to market. That’s how we started, friends, families, everyone talks for us. Of course, social media is a really big thing in our eyes, we cannot avoid that.” Ned says “We don’t really advertising on social media. We try to keep our customers and our followers engaged with what we're doing but we don’t really use ads.”

He says that YouTube has been useful though, "I mentioned earlier that my colleague has a YouTube channel, so that's a huge help. He has quite a lot of followers and they all really engage with him.”

He goes on, reminiscing, “That helped, especially in the first months. I won’t forget the day we opened in September; it was 34 degrees. I was thinking who is going to come to a chocolate shop in that heat? I thought it was going to be a disaster. But at the end of the day, we sold out everything within a couple of hours which was amazing. To see all our friends and his followers there was great.” Ned smiles.

But he thinks that word of mouth will always be his main form of advertising because that’s how N2 started.

“We started on the local markets and that's how we met local people. Even if you don't make crazy sales there, I think it's very important just to be to meet your potential customers” Ned explains, “I prefer to go and just talk with people, talk about what I do about our products and I think that has helped a lot as well.”

A chocolate cake topped with fresh raspberries.

If Ned could time travel and go back to the start of his business journey, would he change anything or is he happy with how things panned out?

“I would try to be a bit more confident and believe in my business,” Ned says after a thoughtful pause “In the beginning I wasn't sure it would work. We were always running a business for other people before, so I was a bit scared to do it myself. But I think I took the right steps and I don't think I'd change anything else.”

When asked what advice he would give to other business owners just starting out he said he’d tell them to believe in themselves too, and keep following their goals.

“Whatever happens, don’t give up because there was a moment, as I say, where I was really down and I thought the business wasn’t going to work” Ned says “but you just need time, be patient. Keep trying, keep showing up. That is the most valuable lesson I learned.”

He went on, “But also, make sure you have a business plan and spend time on it. In the beginning, I didn’t think it was something I needed. But when I worked on my first business plan, I started to see my weaknesses and strengths. So now I have a good picture of where I'm going and how to achieve my goals.”

You can check out N2 Sweet Lab and get started on your Easter haul by heading to their website. Or browse their delicious treats on Facebook and Instagram.

To hear the full interview, check out the video below or head to the Bionic YouTube channel.