Ombar started in a small kitchen, born out of the desire to bring the health benefits of cacao to people by redefining and redesigning chocolate as a healthy food. The same desire exists today and informs everything we do.
Richard Turner, our Co-Founder and Managing Director (i.e. fearless leader), tells us how Ombar came to be…
Around 2005 I was introduced to a raw food diet by my good friend, Nick. Nick was on a health mission after he had a personal experience of healing himself from cancer with raw foods, and I was joining him in undertaking a variety of unique cleanses, including a month-long fast with one entire week of consuming only clay and water! (I can safely say I wouldn’t recommend that one.) We were also experimenting with lots of superfoods that were starting to become popular in alternative health circles.
One day Nick brought me a bag of raw cacao nibs he’d picked up while traveling in South America. He explained that the unroasted pieces of the raw cocoa bean were what all chocolate is made from and that it’s a superfood. We tried a few pieces and, to be honest, were disappointed by the taste. It didn’t much taste like chocolate! Nothing much more transpired with the cacao until I felt an urge to buy some more nibs and start experimenting with them.
I sold a few kilos here and there and considered starting a wholesale business, but my greater fascination was the very tangible effect I felt after eating raw cacao. I felt an energetic sensation around my heart as if it was ‘opening up’ this area. There were times it even felt like a mildly altered state. I would make porridge with quinoa, ground seeds and ground raw cacao nibs – a combination like rocket fuel that had me charging to work on foot every day across Cambridge.
It wasn’t long before I started to wonder how to make chocolate using cacao nibs. There wasn’t any information on the internet about this at the time so I read a couple of books and, with pots, pans and a blender taught myself how to make something resembling chocolate.
Nick, myself and my two housemates (Loukas and Mike) decided to run a smoothie stand at the Buddhafield Festival in Southwest England. Being very talented with timber, Loukas made a (very heavy) smoothie bar on wheels with the blender powered by a car battery. I also took a batch of about 40 heart-shaped raw chocolate bars from the kitchen, which I sold all of within a few hours and received some great feedback.
For our stand I wanted to also sell a superfood trail mix. I had everything I needed – cacao nibs, coconut chips, goldenberries and cashews – apart from goji berries. That’s when I first met Jim, co-founder of Ombar. Jim was at the festival selling hand-made soaps and happened to have some bags of goji berries. We made acquaintance, I duly bought the berries for a handsome sum (I later found out that Jim’s experience lie in sales) and sold the trail mixes.
Some time went by and I continued to make the chocolate bars, but with no particular aim. Until a fateful reunion in early 2007, when my partner, Amanda, and I were at a gig in Norwich, on the opposite side of the country from the Buddhafield Festival. Due to delays owing to technical problems at the concert, we decided to have a stroll around town. It was then that someone from behind me shouted “Hey, chocolate man!”. It was Jim. I hadn’t spoken to him since the goji exchange! He told me he was looking to invest in a raw chocolate company, and as I was keen to start a company for the chocolate bars, we decided to meet up to discuss the venture.
In July 2007, Jim, Mike and I started Mood Foods Ltd in Cambridge. With the money Jim put into the business I bought a few machines to enable better production. Truth be told I didn’t really know what the machines did or how they worked. Really I was just ‘winging it’.
With Jim’s contacts in the health food shops (due to his natural soap business, Simply Soaps), our chocolate bars found their way into some local stores and then a couple of wholesalers that were willing to take a punt on our strange new product. Jim remained principally involved with Simply Soaps and Mike decided to move to Hawaii (we don’t really blame him).
At this point I was making the chocolate, moulding it into bars, then wrapping each one by hand, all in our house. And then of course cleaning up the inevitable mess. We hired someone to help wrap the bars after a time, then a few more people as the sales grew. For a while we had a team of people wrapping the chocolate bars by hand in our lounge.
Amanda (who was still in full time work) and I exhibited at our first trade show, Natural Products, in London in 2009, on the back of which we gained our first distributor, based in Finland. Jim had also been working on the sales and we were steadily getting new shops to take on our still unbranded chocolate bar. By 2010 the business had taken over much of the house and we were desperate to move it out.
With the grinding machine rumbling along all day and night, having a house full of staff every day, and still the inevitable long clean up at around midnight every night, having the business at home was taking its toll. I had a personal mantra when I was making all the chocolate and cleaning at midnight: 'Slog on, 'til you're done'. It made sense to me and it certainly helped.
Thankfully, we met a farmer who was building some units just outside Cambridge and said we could have one of those. He said the building would “fly up in six months”… Two years later we finally moved into the new factory in Fulbourn.
By that time, we had three other companies making chocolate for us as well as our own production to keep up with orders. When we moved into the new factory we purchased some new machinery that massively improved our efficiency and enabled us to bring all our production back in-house, consequently jumping up our sales in turn.
Jim became a lot more involved in the business around this time and Amanda gave up her perfectly good job to join Mood Foods (for which I’ll forever be grateful). We also finally found a name for the bar: Ombar, coined by my brother, Joe.
Sales continued to grow despite persistent production and logistical challenges. We lost £50,000 of uninsured stock in a fire at a third-party warehouse we were using. And we had two weeks of zero production just as we were trying to fulfil the most important order we’d ever received, due to the coconut sugar causing huge problems in refining (every time the batch failed, we had to spend a day cleaning the machine out with hammer drills). Needless to say, it was a time of great ‘learning the hard way’.
Since then we’ve improved our production processes, bought insurance, put fire-proof stock plans in place, grown our staff to a team of 15 and again outgrown our factory. Now in its 10th year, Mood Foods has recently taken on investment to enable the next stage of growth, and work is currently underway constructing a new chocolate factory in nearby Sawston.
We’ve come a long way since making and hand-wrapping chocolate bars in the kitchen, and we have all of you to thank for that. We’re incredibly grateful for your support and we’re looking forward to bringing you some exciting developments as we progress.