#57 The Beginning of Cadbury

Written by Food Non-Fiction September 1, 2016

This is the story of the early days of Cadbury. We are going right to the very beginning of the story - to a time before the Cadbury brand even existed. With the evolution of Cadbury, we’ll also see the evolution of chocolate - from a bitter drink to a sweet solid bar.

It all began with Richard Tapper Cadbury, who was born in 1768. Like many of the other Quakers of his time, he chose to be a business owner. He ran a successful draper’s shop (ie. a shop that sold cloth) and he supported his sons in business as well. He passed the draper’s shop onto his son Benjamin, and he advised his son John to look into a not-so-well understood commodity...which was cocoa beans.

John saw potential in the cocoa beans. In 1824 John went back to Birmingham and opened a shop on Bull Street, next to the draper’s shop his brother Benjamin had inherited. He sold things like tea, coffee, and drinking chocolate.

You should note two things here: One is that the drinking chocolate from that time was not like the chocolate milk or hot chocolate we have today - it was meant to be a healthy drink - and it would take some more years and some more advanced technology before people knew how to refine chocolate enough to make a smooth drink. Two is that it made a lot of sense that John opened a shop selling drinks like tea and drinking chocolate. Because many people of the Quaker community saw alcohol as the cause of many problems in society, they saw drinks like tea as a healthy alternative.

John’s shop was very unique. Inside the shop there were vases, figurines, and tea chests - the decor had a strong Asian influence. In fact, there was even a Chinese worker in the shop dressed in traditional Asian clothing. The shop was such a curiosity that people came just to look at it. John’s shop became well known for quality products and was visited by the wealthy. He experimented with many different cocoa powder drinks, and decided to start manufacturing his nutritious cocoa drinks. In 1831, he rented a nearby space to increase his cocoa production. Then, in 1847, John’s brother, Benjamin, joined the business, and the company was named “Cadbury Brothers”. The business was so well respected that the Cadbury brothers had a Royal Warrant as cocoa manufacturers to Queen Victoria. But the good times did not last. After John’s wife died in 1855, his health deteriorated and he suffered from painful arthritis. Things began to fall apart after that and his sons had to step in to help save their father’s business.

So in 1861, brothers Richard and George Cadbury took over the cocoa business. Richard was 25 - he was a happy, good-natured person. George was only 21 - he was very ambitious. The brothers knew they needed to:
a. Come up with a new and popular product.
b. Find new customers.

Cadbury factory
Cadbury factory [credit: Paul Townsend CC]

So for their new product, they worked on something called “Iceland Moss”. This was something that their father had thought of. It was a bar of cocoa with lichen blended into it - this was used to make what was considered a healthy drink. And to find new customers, they needed to hire more salespeople. Their father only had one salesperson. So George promised to put every cent he earned back into the business, so they could afford to hire more people.

Here’s what the young Cadbury brothers were facing at the time - they had a failing business, their product wasn’t great at the time, and they had strong competitors, including the Terry family (yes, we mean the ones that eventually made Terry’s Chocolate Orange). But they also had 4,000 pounds each, which they had inherited from their mother. They decided to put it all into saving the business. Following Quaker capitalism, they would close the factory before the money ran out, because like a Lannister, a Quaker always pays his debts.

There was a lot of pressure to succeed, not only because they wanted to save the family business, but also because they wanted to be able to continue providing good jobs for people. The Cadbury family, with their strong Quaker values, cared about people and society. Richard and George had a father who fought against pollution, alcohol abuse, unnecessary medical operations on the poor, and the use of small children as chimney sweeps. As an aside, John Cadbury pushed for the use of a mechanical chimney sweep, because the lives of the chimney sweep apprentices really was awful. These young apprentices had to crawl up very thin chimneys, filled with soot. They could get stuck, suffocated, and even burned to death. Often chimneys weren’t straight, but instead had angles, and the chimney sweeps developed problems in their spines. To get them to climb faster, the master sweep sometimes lit a fire underneath or got another apprentice to climb up after the first one to poke the first child with a needle. The point is that Richard and George Cadbury grew up in a family with a strong sense of duty to their fellow people. And they treated their staff really well. They took their employees on outings, they increased women’s salaries, they provided a sewing class once a week, and they introduced half days on Saturdays and bank holidays.

To keep their business going, the brothers sacrificed all comforts to make sure money wouldn’t run out. They even gave up the little things, like drinking tea and reading the morning paper. They started work at 6AM and worked late into the evening, eating a simple supper of bread and butter. After 4 years, the brothers were almost all out of money. If they had to shut down the business, George would head for the Himalayas to be a tea planter and Richard would become a surveyor. It was time for an all-or-nothing gamble. Richard’s inheritance was used up because on top of the business, he had a family to support. But George had 1500 pounds left. And this is when they made the best gamble of their lives. A main problem with the Cadbury products was the lack of refinement. Cocoa products of this time had the problem of unpleasant oiliness from natural cocoa oils, so starches like potato starch were added to absorb the oils. This gave drinking chocolate the consistency of gruel. But fortunately, there was one manufacturer that had unlocked the secret to mechanically reduce the cocoa bean’s fat content. George knew he needed to get his hands on this machine. And he also knew who made the machine. The only people that had they key to truly pure cocoa products were the Van Houtens in Holland. So George went to Holland, with no idea how to speak Dutch! But somehow, through gesturing with his hands, he managed to convince the Van Houtens to sell him one of their defatting machines for around 1000 pounds. George only had 500 pounds left to spend on the business. This gamble had to pay off.

Cadbury ad
Cadbury ad [credit: The British Library]

In 1866, they launched the super high quality and super expensive cocoa drink called Cadbury Cocoa Essence. At first there were very few customers. Finally in 1867, the Cadbury brothers decided to advertise. This was a big deal, because Quakers don’t believe in advertising - your product should speak for itself. The first thing they did was they got their sales team to visit doctors with samples of Cocoa Essence and this got them attention from the British Medical Journal, which wrote that the pure cocoa drink was nutritious and restorative. With the newfound support of the medical press, they then created the slogan “Absolutely Pure. Therefore Best.” The timing worked out because in the 1860s, there was increasing attention to issues with manufactured food. Consumer guides pointed out the scams that existed at the time and how to test the quality of cocoa. For example, if there was animal fat in the cocoa, it might be slimy or taste cheesy and if there was starch added, the cocoa would thicken in hot water or milk. They put full-page ads into newspapers, they put up posters, and they even had their ads on horse-drawn buses in London. In 1868, people began to know the Cadbury name, they hired more staff, and everyone was excited. They also experimented with chocolate for eating - remember that this was a pretty new concept at the time and the milk chocolate bars we are so used to today did not exist yet. They had a lot of cocoa butter as a by-product of making their Cocoa Essence cocoa drink. The cocoa butter wasn’t wanted in the drinks because oil doesn’t sit well in water, but it’s delicious in solid chocolate form.

They created what they called the Fancy Box. It represented everything Quakers did not - over-the-top indulgence. It was a box of decadent chocolates with different flavors, such as almond marzipan and strawberry, and each chocolate was given an exotic-sounding French name. Some Fancy Boxes were lined with silk and had a mirror inside. As they became more successful, the Cadbury brothers didn’t slow down. George recognized that they could benefit even more from the public concern about food adulteration, so he lobbied the government. He suggested that cocoa products with additives should not be labelled as cocoa. As the other cocoa manufacturers battled against the new regulations, Cadbury got great free publicity. And Cadbury got a big win when the Adulteration of Food Acts were introduced in the 1870s, which demanded that cocoa products needed to list all ingredients. If impure cocoa products did not have proper labelling, any grocer stocking the product could be prosecuted. And so the ultra pure Cocoa Essence sold tremendously well in the early 1870s.

At the same time in Switzerland, Rodolphe Lindt and Daniel Peter were busy making big advances in the world of chocolate. We continue this story in episode #58, titled "All Your Favorite Chocolates".