The Dragons’ Den effect – ‘We were a chocolate business with no chocolate to sell at Easter’

If ever there were any doubt about the power of positive publicity, then Russell & Atwell, the Birmingham-based maker of fresh chocolate, might just be the perfect case in point to dispel that myth at a glance.

When the company’s eponymous co-founders Steve Russell and Giles Atwell appeared on hit BBC show Dragons’ Den in mid-March, little did they know they would still be feeling the very real effects almost three months later.

The pair had prepared for a likely uplift in sales when the successful pitch they made for investment last summer finally hit TV screens but, as Mr Atwell tells BusinessLive, the effect was “insane”.

After the program aired on March 10 showing them securing investment from Steven Bartlett and Peter Jones, they took the equivalent of two years worth of orders in just two hours.

It has had such an impact on the business that the pair have only just finished fulfilling those orders and managed to return to normal service this month.

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“The uplift in sales was slightly insane from Dragons’ Den,” Mr Atwell said.

“The orders started coming in while we were still on the show. It was broadcast on Thursday March 10 and by the following Monday we realized we had way more orders than we could deal with.

“We thought they might die down but they didn’t and instead just kept going and going. What started out as real delight turned into real concern for us so it was kind of bittersweet – we had to step selling on the Monday and have been fulfilling orders ever since.

“We had what we thought was ample stock for Dragons’ Den but it clearly wasn’t. We were a chocolate business with no chocolate to sell at Easter – you just couldn’t make it up, it was terrific.

“We make an artisanal product which takes three days whereas a normal chocolate bar can be manufactured in an hour.

“We take great care to make it right. People were unhappy but we won’t compromise on quality. We had a problem but it was a problem we wanted nonetheless.”

The co-founders are experienced veterans of the food and drink industry with Mr Russell leading on developing the recipes while Mr Atwell focuses on sales and marketing.

Mr Atwell’s own family has a proud history in the chocolate industry dating back a century and the pair have worked for well-known brands such as Green & Black’s, Mars and Cadbury in Birmingham before they met at Belgian firm Godiva.

They used their own savings to develop the business and launched on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in autumn 2020 and now have the backing of two very high profile businessmen after agreeing to a £90,000 deal in exchange for a ten per cent stake each for the two Dragons.

“When we both left Godiva, we knew we wanted to launch a business in chocolate but we didn’t know what it was going to be so we bounced around a number of ideas but one about fresh chocolate kept bubbling to the surface,” Mt Atwell reflects.

“It was one of those things which was blindingly obvious to us. We knew we didn’t want to launch yet another bar because there are millions of those – we wanted to be in a different format so the question was how could we create something super simple.

“When you work in a big business, you develop a product using fresh ingredients and then take it to a factory where it would effectively be industrialized.

“That end product never tasted as good in our experience as the one mid-way through development which we would all get very excited about.

“So we knew how good fresh chocolate tasted from fresh ingredients and also that no-one else was really doing it.”

The pair moved from the Jewelery Quarter to a brand new home in Stirchley in November from where they develop recipes and also pack and distribute orders while the chocolates themselves are made by a third party manufacturer near London.

Despite their recent growth, the company’s two founders are its only full-time members of staff, with the duo making use of a network of freelancers as the business demands.

Mr Atwell said that, after much paperwork and many rounds of due diligence, the company completed the investment from Messrs Bartlett and Jones in November and were now looking ahead to a future backed by the Dragons.

They currently make five flavours, including creamy milk, hazelnut and salted caramel, but are already looking at adding to the roster.

“The plan for the rest of the year is to figure out how to scale up because what we’ve realized is we need to be able to make it in larger quantities,” he concluded.

“There are any number of ways we can do that but the key for us is to keep the magic and uniqueness of the chocolate we have today but make it on a bigger scale – we don’t want to compromise.

“We could make it ourselves but we’re not keen to have what is a very complex thing to run when you have your own manufacturing operation as it adds a huge cost to the business.

“We will have new flavors and will very likely bring back our Seville Orange limited edition we did last Christmas but because our supply situation is so precarious at the moment we’re going to put on hold new flavors until next year.

“We were stocked in about 40 independent shops but we had to reduce that. I don’t think we would ever have a permanent shop because, from my experience with Godiva, it is a very expensive exercise.

“We may well do a pop up store now and then – we did one on Oxford Street in London in December and it was very successful and great fun.

“We would love to have a pop up store in Birmingham but at the right time of year.”


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