Lake District chocolate maker plans for growth after £850,000 investment

Richard Webster, Director, and Nicola Woodier, Head Chocolatier, at Friars

A chocolate maker is set for a ‘game-changing’ productivity increase after automating its manufacturing process.

Friars, based in Cumbria, started making its own brand of premium chocolates by hand last year, after nearly 100 years of retailing confectionary products.

Now to meet increasing demand and to accelerate growth, the third-generation family business will automate the labour intensive element of its production line while retaining key handcrafted elements.

It has invested £100,000 to enable Friars to increase its output from 30kg per day to 250kg – an increase of 733 per cent – with significant scope to scale up production.

Automation will make it almost three times cheaper to produce the same amount and maintain a consistent quality.

The business also plans to invest £750,000 in a new factory and distribution centre near to the motorway in Penrith.

Friars has been supported by the Made Smarter North West Adoption programme which for the last two years has worked with 1,200 makers across the region providing advice, expertise and financial support to help them grow their business, increase competitiveness and reduce inefficiencies through digital tools and technology.

Managing director Michael Webster, who runs the business with his brother Richard, said: “Our ambition is to become one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of quality chocolates, but in order to do this we need to look to technology to enable us to scale up our operation while producing the highest quality possible.

“Made Smarter’s support and advice has accelerated and de-risked our investment in process automation technology which will take the brakes off our growth plans and transform our business.”

Donna Edwards, North West Adoption Programme Director at Made Smarter, said: “By combining automation technology with its handcrafted techniques, Friars is forecasting significant growth, and productivity and efficiency gains.”

Friars started life as a cafe and catering business in 1927 before fully moving into retail in the 1970s with two shops in Keswick and Ambleside selling confectionery and giftware.

Over the last 30 years it has built a reputation as a chocolatier, sourcing a huge variety of premium products from the UK and Europe and selling through its website and shops.

In 2020 after struggling to find a reliable source of vegan chocolates, Friars began making their own, and now produce up to 6,000kg of chocolates annually, using an entirely manual process.

But due to the handmade nature of the product, Friars has been unable to scale up using the same methods and techniques but that is set to change with automation.

Michael said: “The human element is at the start and the end of the process, making up the recipe and then hand finishing the product. The digital machinery will replace the manual, repetitive, time-consuming and sometimes painful process in between.”