Ruth Hinks secured a top-5 finish for the UK ahead of national Chocolate Masters from France, Belgium and Switzerland – the highest result by a UK pastry chef in international competition.
Having reached the pinnacle of her profession, Ruth launched the Cocoa Black Chocolate & Pastry School in Peebles, near Edinburgh. Since its opening in 2009, the school has welcomed over 4000 students many of whom have travelled overseas to attend her courses. Past students include HRH Prince Edward who spent a morning making chocolate truffles with Ruth.
What inspired you to start a business?
My Dad is very entrepreneurial and set up a number of dental practices in South Africa. From an early age, he was keen to teach me the value of money, and so when I asked him aged 14 if he would buy me a double tape-deck radio he suggested that I grow and sell vegetables. I thought that would take too long and so I started making and selling chocolate Easter eggs. Within a couple of years I was supplying the local Mercedes dealership and was doing after school deliveries on a little 50cc scooter. Over time, these early business experiences grew to become a way of life.
What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in being your own boss?
The biggest challenge for me has undoubtedly been the transition from the kitchen to the boardroom. In launching Cocoa Black and The Chocolate & Pastry School in 2008, we knew that we had a challenging journey ahead. As any chef who has started a business will tell you, the skills required to successfully grow a business are very different from the day to day workings of a kitchen. The challenges are significant and require a great deal of time, patience and effort to overcome. We recognised very early the value of creating the right team and developing strong business relationships with proactive, ambitious third party brands. After seven years, we are now in the fortunate position of having trusted relationships with a number of global brands with which we are doing some exciting work. The greatest reward of the effort is undoubtedly the journey that now lies ahead. If someone had told me seven years ago that I’d be making chocolate showpieces for Her Majesty the Queen or that Pete Waterman OBE would be tweeting about my chocolate work, I’d have thought they were crazy!
What motivational tips can you give to our members about goal setting and managing both successes and failures?
For me, goal setting is not the best way to approach business, at least in the start-up phase when you really have no idea about financial forecasting. The reason I say this is because by setting goals (particularly financial goals) you’re creating an environment where the focus is on the outcome and not on the business journey. In the early years, it’s the journey and the lessons it provides that count. A start-up business is a constantly evolving environment when anything can happen. Opportunities can appear out of nowhere and take the business in a different direction from what was planned. If everyone is focussed on a goal, these opportunities are likely to be missed. The only goal, I would set myself is ensuring that all of my team understand this and act on it whenever appropriate. A recent example would be last year, when we were commissioned to create a golden ticket chocolate bar campaign to celebrate the launch of the new Borders Railway. We were given three weeks to design and manufacture 25,000 chocolate bars. That wasn’t a goal at the start of the year, but it was a successful campaign and has led to numerous new opportunities.
How have you benefited from mentoring or coaching?
A good mentor is someone who has experience in what you are trying to achieve and who can help you become a better decision-maker. When we first started the business, I would often seek advice from my Dad. He was wise enough to recognise the importance of me taking responsibility for my own decisions and would only ever discuss the pros and cons of a situation. He then left the decision to me. Whilst frustrating at the time, I look back now and realise that he was teaching me an important business skill.
What advice can you give about the benefits of networking?
Being surrounded by inspiring, talented and engaging people is important to business (and more importantly life) success. It’s real people that make the world go around – not your boss. I’ve always enjoyed the company of other people, whatever their background or profession, and in launching and growing a business I naturally spend a lot of time meeting new people. The best advice I can give, is simply to give your full attention to the person you’re speaking with for as long as they want it, irrespective of who they are or the position they hold. You’ll be surprised at what can happen next.
What are your tips for scaling a business and how do you plan for and manage growth?
Firstly, it’s important to understand whether a business should be scaled. Sometimes small fires burn the brightest. For most entrepreneurs, the natural inclination is to seek out opportunities for business growth. I’ve found that the key to scaling a business is to understand where the constraints lie and to be able to prioritise the order in which the constraints are removed.
What does the future hold for you?
Our focus this year is on developing The Chocolate & Pastry School, near Edinburgh. Success in the World Chocolate Masters was a game changer for us, not least due to the enormous amount of PR and industry recognition which followed, but also our ability to attract proactive partners. We’ve now reached the point where the school is regularly attracting the top UK pastry talent and is increasingly serving an international market. Next month, we plan to open our doors to our new purpose fitted school which will be the realisation of a dream which began back in 2008. After that, I’m planning to take a long summer holiday!
How do you balance being a mother and a business woman?
By not setting business goals! One of the secrets to a balanced life is understanding what can realistically be achieved within a given time period. It’s very easy to take on too many opportunities without thinking through the impact on the family and business. I’ve also learnt the importance of trusting and empowering others rather than trying to do everything myself.
You’ve reached the top of your industry, what advice would you give to other aspiring chocolatiers or patisseriers?
My first piece of advice is to determine your level of passion for this type of work. It is not the easiest of professions (although few are these days) and the hours can be long, particularly in the early years. If you’re unsure whether this is the career for you, or you have not had any experience upon which to base your decision, then I’d recommend that you book yourself onto a short course at a good chocolate school or seek experience in a professional pastry kitchen.
If you find yourself with an insatiable desire to work in the industry, then my recommendation would be to gain experience either at a culinary college or at a good hotel or restaurant, preferable one which employs a competent pastry chef. As your career progresses and you become more confident, you should aim to work with and learn from the very best and be prepared to travel in order to do so. If you work hard at your skills and developing your professional contacts you will begin to gain recognition in the industry. With a few years of good experience, you may decide to join a large hotel or restaurant group.
Whilst not for everyone, I’ve always found chef competitions to be great fun. They provide an opportunity to test yourself against your peers and to meet the leading talent in the industry. Should you decide to give competition a try, I’d recommend you approach one of the leading industry associations who should be able to point you in the right direction.