UnLtd Award winner Tara Mullan, founder of Refuge Hot Chocolate reflects on her journey from volunteering to leading a social business to national success.
Refuge Hot Chocolate is an UnLtd supported social enterprise, tackling human trafficking through thick liquid hot chocolate. The idea was made into reality in February 2017, and available to buy from August 2017.
Founder Tara Mullan had previously run a social enterprise – Doodlebugs Creative Workshop: arts and crafts sessions for people of all ages and abilities in Northern Ireland to enhance their personal development.
Tara volunteers for Flourish NI, a movement that supports survivors who have been impacted by human trafficking, along with increasing employabilitys for survivors. She told us that it was through volunteering that she “saw there was a need for sustainability.”
She uses the profits from selling her hot chocolate to help sustain the organisation she works with. She also campaigns for No more Traffik, a charity that is committed to ending modern slavery and human trafficking.
“I set [Refuge Hot Chocolate] up to basically support the charity. So, I put money back into the charity to give them the clients, opportunities for rehabilitation for refugees.”
With the tremendous help of volunteers, Refuge Hot Chocolate is now in very high-demand, and Tara is delighted to see the growth in her team as well as her social business. They help with all aspects of the business, social media, marketing, selling, but most importantly with, "raising awareness of human trafficking:"
“It’s been amazing to see their knowledge on human trafficking, for them to have any at all and for that to grow, and for them to be able to tell others, tell hundreds and thousands of people.”
“Customers are trying stuff and testing it in markets, and people are just coming over to sample chocolate. The way they’re able to communicate that to them is amazing.”
Using ethical ingredients, the chocolate can be served hot, cold, sprayed or drizzled in three variations of chocolate; original, vegan and most recently she picked up on new trends, now doing peanut-butter protein spread.
Taking advantage of trends in consumer behaviour like this has earned Tara and Refuge Hot Chocolate an array of mainstream coverage, including a successful campaign in Lidl’s latest Kick Start development programme, and working with the University of Ulster.
“Last February we filled in an application for Lidl for their Kickstarter campaign to get Irish business into Lidl.”
“It was just a really easy application. I thought what was important was that if I was to get knocked back this time, I’ll get feedback on what I need to do the next time I’m going in. But they accepted it and I was taken back and blown away by that.”
“Me trekking around the markets especially the north and Northern Ireland getting word out and pushing it on social media probably paid off because people were aware. People told people and people trying to encourage customers to buy it and shop attendants trying to get them to buy it too.”
“All the stories just came out of it was amazing.”
This was shortly followed by a spectacular success at the 2018 Blas na hEireann Irish Food Awards, taking home four awards – Best Hot Beverage, Best New Product in Ireland, Best Artisan Product in Ireland & Best in Antrim.
“I’m blown away by the people’s love for it and support so that’s a tick box with investors, bloggers, chefs and things too because it’s not just you – it’s the standard customer who I’ve got the nod of approval from.”
We talked about some of the challenges she’s faced at the same time as these incredible successes, when trying to scale-up and compete with other big brands. There is the challenge of offering the chocolate at ambient temperature for shelves, which makes it more appealing for big supermarkets. She mentioned that other chocolates like Nutella “wouldn’t necessarily go to the fridge.”
"I might have to maybe bypass all the smaller places and do Tesco, Asda that sort of thing. That would be a massive upscaling from where I am at the minute.”
For other entrepreneurs looking to scale-up to get their products in a supermarket, Tara offered some very sound advice:
“Cashflow is key. You need cash behind you. It all looks good until you ordered all your ingredients and stocks and packaging.”
She added: “You think it’s all good then you make the product but then you literally don’t know how long you’re going to wait.”
Despite the high volume in demand, cash inflow can be slow. With an indefinite schedule of payments, time is spent “chasing them down to get paid.” This is particularly challenging for smaller businesses who want to make that leap up in scale.
In terms of where she goes next, Tara is hoping to have a facility that provides care and support for those affected by human trafficking, “where they can flourish, and they can come in with case workers, so we can provide that place of support.”
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