Handmade chocolate gifts are special. At Rumsey’s they believe that handmade chocolate is something special and want to help people experience it, not just eat it. All their chocolates are made by hand in small batches from their chocolateries in the Chilterns.
And, in an unusual twist for a family business, Rumseys is now run by the daughter-in-law of the founders, Kate Rumsey, who Paul Andrews met to find out more.
The idea for the business started to evolve in 2001 in the family kitchen if Mary and Nigel Rumsey in their family home in Aylesbury. Nigel had pursued a career in catering as a pastry chef for 20 years and whilst working in the kitchens at New College Oxford was asked to make a batch of chocolates for a colleague to take home to his family. Nigel then made a subsequent batch for his own family and the idea began to become a reality.
Things snowballed and as demand grew Nigel took the decision to reduce his hours in the college kitchen and focus on making chocolates. “There were customers travelling 30 and 40 miles to knock on the front door asking for our chocolates,” explains Kate. “The reaction was incredible and we then started to enter them into competitions where the chocolates began winning awards and it was at this time that Nigel realised this could be the full-time business he’d always dreamed of,” she adds.
With its cornflower blue walls and antique fixtures and fittings, Rumsey’s has a definite scent of Gallic charm. In fact, any film fans could be forgiven for feeling a hint of déjà vu, because the transformation of Rumsey’s from a cottage industry to bustling shop was inspired by Vianne’s shop in the film adaptation of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat.
As the business grew, Nigel trained other chocolate chefs himself after perfecting his own techniques in Switzerland and France where he was taught by top chocolatiers. He, in turn, is passionate about passing on his knowledge to the next generation of chocolate chefs.
Rumsey’s now provides about 40 varieties of chocolates, many of which are seasonal with provenance over ingredients is taken as seriously as their chocolate. “We always strive to use fresh, local produce and support local businesses where possible,” explains Kate. “We use a local dairy farm for the milk and our eggs and meat are sourced locally, too.”
For Kate, this is a business that she loves, with pride and passion evident when speaking to her about it. “Our family business is all about cake and chocolate so what’s not to like,” Kate explains semi-jokingly, but there is a real enthusiasm and underlying entrepreneurial spirit that is the driving force for the future of the business.
Like so many next generation family members Kate had pursued her own professional career within Unilever prior to meeting her now husband and having a son. Life changed and decisions had to be made. “I was commuting to work and quite a lot of time each week was spent travelling to and from the office and I started to question the hours, the role and the commute and started asking myself the ‘why’ question and what was my future going to hold,” explains Kate.
“I had been around the business for a number of years at this point and it was growing. Our name is above the door and it was in the heart of the community where I lived. Conversations were ongoing with Mary and Nigel and the question was asked as to whether I was interested in working in the business and clearly decided to get involved and to be honest have never looked back. The values of the business are how I like to work, I love the people and the products and have been empowered to lead the business, make decisions and try new things,” she continues.
The past couple of years have not been easy but the team have done what they needed to do, made quick decisions and reacted swiftly to the changing regulations and restrictions that were placed upon the business during the pandemic. As Kate adds, “For is it is really a tale of two halves in respect of the café/shop itself and the chocolates. For the café and shop it was a difficult period as one minute it was open and then it was closed and at the time of the first lockdown, just before Easter, we had a massive stock of products ready to go. Clearly we were concerned but the local community were brilliant and supported us and we actually sold out. Having been an integral part of the community for many years it was great to see how well we were respected as a family firm and to get such support from them,” continues Kate.
As for the chocolates, the business continues to grow. “Our focus had to change as prior to the pandemic we were very much a local business with a shop on the Thame High Street but things had to change. Our online shop evolved and sales increased. We benefitted from the community in this respect too as many of our local customers were sending our chocolates to friends and family that they could not visit and they loved them and then took to buying them for others too. Online sales have grown and now have a dedicated team working on the online business,” adds Kate.
Rumseys have also created a culture where people enjoy working for them. “We have a core team who are brilliant, continues Kate. “Many of them have worked for us for many years now and have become part of our fabric. Season and part-time staff complement the core team and it really does work well. They understand our values and we work to help them develop too.”
As family businesses grow they tend to add more structures and processes are developed to accommodate the needs of a growing business. Kate joined Rumseys with plenty of experience from her life in the ‘corporate world’ and has made her mark. “It is great to have the autonomy to make changes and the authority to implement them,” explains Kate. “As a family, we continue to strive to be the best we can be, and life for me could not be better. I live in a community that I love, our kids are at school here and our family is fully entrenched in life in and around where we live. I love my role in the family business and our ethos is values and community based.”
Kate stepped in at a time when the business was ready for the next generation. Mary and Nigel have two sons, one married to Kate, but despite being passionate supporters and advocates of the business have invested in their own journeys outside of the family firm. “Clearly they are still involved, love the business and support in many ways,” explains Kate, “but they have not wanted to get too involved, well not yet, but who knows what the future holds.”
There are plenty of memories that they all treasure, from the support of the community during the pandemic to their conversations with their regulars. As Kate concludes, “One of the memories that sums up our business that Nigel often shares is that it’s little things which make all the hard work and hours we put in worth it. One of his favourite days was when there was an unexpected snowstorm: all the businesses closed and everyone piled into the shop for hot chocolate after a day’s tobogganing. The snow was falling, the place was jam-packed with people chatting and laughing and he remembers standing in the corner and thinking, ‘this is what it’s all about’ and that is as true today as it was back then.”
Kate is well placed to continue to develop this fabulous family business and is full of ideas and plans for the future. We look forward to following their journey which will undoubtedly see them at the heart of the community and producing delicious, sweet treats for generations to come. And it has to be said, that they make the most fantastic chocolates too!
Find out more by visiting their website here