New York and Paris to Peckham

Chloe Bell
By Chloë Bell, Content Journalist

Bionic fancied getting into the Easter spirit early, so we interviewed some independent chocolatiers to find out what inspires them when crafting their mouth-watering creations.

First up was Isabelle Alaya, who runs Melange Chocolate Shop in Peckham and also previously set up a successful Chocolate Museum. We found out about her proudest achievements, toughest struggles and what’s next for her business.

Some colourful chocolate products showcased at Melange

“I’m Isabelle. I'm French and I arrived in the UK almost 20 years ago with food experience from New York and Paris.” Isabelle grins, introducing herself.

So, what spurred her on down her chocolate-centric path? Isabelle explained that she wanted to find a passion that could double as a career route. It all came quite naturally. “I wanted a new beginning; I'd explored quite a few things and used to jump from one job to another. I tried event management and artist management” She tells us, “But I was looking to apply something I loved to my professional life. I eventually came round to chocolate!”

So, was chocolate always an interest of Isabelle's? She says eating it certainly was, but it wasn’t until she discovered how enjoyable the delicate crafting techniques were that chocolate-making became a real passion for her.

“I remember all through my childhood, chocolate had an important role in consumption, obviously! But I started exploring the craft and the making side of it.” She explains, continuing “I took a class and never stopped. Then I set up Melange and began artisan crafting and creating products. A few years after that, I opened the Chocolate Museum to tell the history of chocolate.”

The Chocolate Museum, which used to be situated in Brixton, was a unique part of Isabelle’s business. Sadly she had to close it when rent increased drastically, but she still hosts workshops in schools and other premises, and the museum itself is still accessible online.

“It used to be a real museum with real exhibitions,” says Isabelle, recalling “It’s still viewable on the website. I've kind of immortalised it with the 360 video.”

Isabelle hopes to reopen the physical museum one day as it was a fantastic addition to Melange and she loved the educational aspect of it. The history of chocolate is something she is really excited about sharing with others.

“It was very hard for me to leave the museum,” she explains, “but I had to, my lease tripled, and I couldn't afford it anymore.”

Weathering the cost of living storm

Unfortunately, rent and bill increases similar to Isabelle’s are quite common for small businesses, especially over the last year. Many owners are still concerned about the future, so has Isabelle noticed a change in the everyday runnings of her business due to the cost of living and energy crisis?

“Yes, definitely, the cost of energy has tripled for me.” She says “It was very difficult last year. Bills increasing for a small business is very hard because you're talking about profits, and this is money you don't necessarily generate. It was really worrying for me last year, the cost of ingredients increased as well.”

Vanilla and white pepper chocolate

And has she noticed a change in customer spending habits? She says customers are being more careful with how they’re parting with their pounds.

Instead of buying the most expensive gift, I’m seeing customers go for the most affordable option or something simpler. So, my sales have increased in terms of volume, but not in terms of money.” She explains.

But despite the various hardships thrown at Isabelle, she still stands strong. Melange itself is a bustling chocolate shop in Peckham and is very much alive and thriving. Isabelle loves greeting customers and trying out new products to see what becomes popular. Bionic quizzed her on her biggest achievement so far. 

She ponders for a moment, considering “I’d say to have made something out of an experimentation, out of passion, I think chocolate was pretty much a vice to start with, but I believed in it enough to make it a profession that has carried me for 20 years.” She continues “It was really difficult for me to stick to any job; I was jumping from one to another and exploring many things. So, sticking to it has been a big achievement!”

And what about struggles? Has Isabelle encountered any obstacles during her time as a small business owner? “My biggest struggle was initially teamwork” She laughs “At the start, it was very difficult for me to understand that people may not have the same expectation as me or may not want to work as much as me.”

She goes on “I didn't realise I was working too hard because it seemed normal to me. I still wonder now how I did all those hours. It took me years to understand that I had to be more tolerant and more patient when teaching people. I needed to be more accepting of mistakes. So, I think my biggest struggle was that.”

But speaking of working hard, what is the busiest time of year for Isabelle? When is she most run off her feet?

“Christmas and Easter are usually the busiest,” She tells us “With Easter, you pretty much have no choice but to get chocolate. With Christmas people complete their gifts with chocolate or offer something small to all their friends and colleagues. The next busiest is Valentine’s followed by Mother's Day.”

And how does Isabelle cope with slower weeks or months if she has them? Does she use the time to work on her marketing campaigns and revise stock? Or does she find it difficult to switch off, out of manic mode?

“I’m usually happy,” She smiles “I can take a little break when it's slow, I find I work a bit too much during busy months, often to the point of exhaustion. I'm not getting younger, so physically I really feel it now”.

“When it slows down, it's less demanding. Financially it's the busy months which absorb the expenses of the slow months.” She adds.

Winter Warmers 

Although Easter, Valentine’s and Mother’s Day are pivotal points on Isabelle’s calendar, she says in general, winter is when she sees an influx of customers. They trudge out of the cold for Melange’s piping hot chocolate, delicious gifts for family and friends and the warming service Isabelle provides.

Two servings of hot chocolate in china cups

“Winter means customers crave chocolate in the forms of hot drinks or as comfort food” She explains “In the summer, we tend to favour ice cream or smoothies which you can get anywhere. When customers want hot chocolate or one of my specific products, they’ll come to Melange because it's special enough to attract them.”

And what does Isabelle enjoy most about being a small business owner? Is it seeing her carefully crafted products sell? Is it meeting new people or flexing her creative muscles? She says that the freedom to structure her own day is the best part for her.

“My independence is the most important thing” Isabelle grins “The lack of which is probably what caused me to leave my other jobs. Self-motivation is essential when running a small business. If you have it, it gives you wings, and work can be just perfect.”

Speaking of motivation, how does Isabelle spur her staff on if they’re having an off day? She says respecting and not micromanaging produces the best results.

“I feed them chocolate.” She laughs, but continues, joking aside “I give them freedom and I value them a lot, so they feel confident. They don't have me on their back all the time, they’re free to get on with their work. Considering freedom is my most important value, I make sure to give them that.”

So, what’s next? Does Isabelle have plans to expand Melange and what does she hope will happen to the virtual chocolate museum?

“At the moment I'm in a routine. I can't really be as creative as I used to be when the business was growing, and I had time for expansion. I think expansion is in the pipeline, but maybe in a different way. I’m hoping to find a partner for the museum or to sell it.” She says, thoughtfully before continuing.

“I believe the museum needs to grow but it needs the right partner or buyer to help it become what it needs to or could be. I really think it's a big fixture and a big feature to keep. The history of chocolate is magical here. It's really brilliant, so it should really continue with or without me.”

The sky’s the limit with social media marketing

And what about marketing? How does Isabelle spread the word about Melange and her impressive array of products?

“The majority of our custom still comes from word of mouth, I’ve neglected marketing in terms of social media for many years, I think it’s a bit of a generation issue.” She tells us, before adding “For me, I find it really difficult to put myself or the brand in people's space like that.”

Six chocolate eggs in assorted flavours ready for Easter

Isabelle has recently changed her mind about social media though, as she’s seen firsthand the power it can have when working to increase brand awareness.

“I had paid someone else to do our social media a few times and didn’t see any good results, so I was never convinced until recently. But a social media influencer did a little video in the shop and straight away I had lots of new people coming and visiting from all around London.”

Now that Isabelle realises the importance of using social media to get your brand out there, she had some top advice for other business owners.

“I’d definitely say ask everyone coming in your shop to follow you on Facebook or Instagram, I'm ashamed of asking, so I never do it, but that's what needs to be done in this day and age. People respond to options. So, if people don't see you as an option, then sadly they will move on to somewhere else.”

So, if she could time travel back to the start, would Isabelle change anything about her set up journey? Or is she happy with all the learning curves that she’s grappled with?

“No, I think I'm quite content.” She smiles “The only thing I would have hoped to do differently was to join Melange with the museum. I never had a chance to associate them clearly.”

Isabelle has learnt a lot from her time running Melange, but she still thinks small businesses crave support. She believes customers get a special kind of service when they choose to shop small and it’s what makes SMEs unique.

“We work hard to keep things authentic but it’s about offering more choices and opening people’s minds to try different things. My shop is decorated in a very unique way and customers find it beautiful because they don't see that anywhere else.”

You can view Isabelle’s impressive chocolate creations on Instagram or the Melange website. Be sure to check out the online museum too. Alternatively, pop into Melange if you’re around Peckham, Isabelle always loves a new face.

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