In 2019, before you-know-what took over our lives, our thoughts and our sleeping patterns, Galway’s Gráinne Mullins was on the way up-and-up following her skilled dessert-making stints at the likes of Ashford Castle and Cliff House Hotel. Winning the Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year 2019 Award simply placed the icing on the cake (so to speak). “Winning that,” she admits, “is certainly my biggest career highlight, so far. After putting in months of hard work, to come out as the winner was such a rewarding moment.”
Following the Euro-Toques award, Gráinne had ideas to outline, schedules to stick to and plans to roll out (including pre-arranged work trips to Bali and Vietnam). When 2020 arrived, however, everything – including Gráinne’s hands – went up in the air. What to do with her culinary talents and where to go with them? Someone with as much energy as Gráinne couldn’t just slink away and hope for the best in the midst of a pandemic, so she did what any ambitious, ideas-driven person would do: she set up her own business.
She got the idea of producing a chocolate product from the response to her first batch of lockdown Easter eggs, which were simultaneously salivated over and offered money for. The fact that people were willing to pay her for them encouraged her to embark on a business course. A few months later, in July 2020, Gráinne Chocolates was launched out of the “love of creativity that you can display by using chocolate as the medium. The flavour combinations are endless and I truly enjoy coming up with new products and ranges.” She continues her elevator pitch: “I wanted to create a box of chocolates that were made with care and attention. I use my expert pastry knowledge to create delicious chocolates that are accessible to all chocolate-lovers.”
Of course, starting a business during the onslaught of Covid-19 (let alone anything else like a life or a career) wasn’t the easiest thing to make sense of. Being in business for less than a full year has, inevitably, been equal parts thrilling and mind-boggling. Or, as Gráinne more aptly notes, “full of highs and lows. It has been a huge challenge but adapting to all of the new aspects of business and everyday learning has been so satisfying.”
Her very early ambitions were little more than a result of sudden lockdown: just having something to keep her busy and “to give some structure to my week.” As those weeks passed, Gráinne noticed that demand for her exceptionally pretty and flavoursome chocolates increased very quickly. “Each week we have seen Grá Chocolates grow,” she says. “We are going with the flow while working hard.”
Of course, anyone can work hard but if the product doesn’t appeal then the shutters might come down sooner rather than later. Gráinne’s USP has as much to do with her rigid ethos of only using the best ingredients as it has with the sheer artistry of the product. Her chocolates have a range of fillings and aromatic, sometimes spicy characteristics (sourced locally and ethically, they include honey, mint, hazelnuts, star anise, coriander and cinnamon) and are inspired, she reveals, by her travel experiences and “everyday flavours and my surroundings. I get inspiration from things I may taste or even flavours I dream up. There is so much flexibility within the boundaries of chocolates.”
Another distinct aspect of her work is how the chocolates look and feel – each individual covering is polished and then hand-painted. The look is akin to precious gems – something you would easily wear as a bracelet or necklace if you were so inclined. “I do think the shine and hand-painted designs are certainly eye-catching and beautiful to look at.”
Somewhat unusually for an Irish company, there is a defined ‘Irish-ness’ to Gráinne’s business. Her website, for example, is something of a rarity in that it is bilingual. Why is the use of her native language important to her? “Even though I am far from fluent, I have always loved the Irish language, and so I thought it would be a nice way to include some of our heritage. I got some amazing help from Gaillimh le Gaeilge and Forás na Gaeilge. The Irish used throughout the website consists of small phrases to ensure it doesn’t feel intimidating to the reader. I love using little seanfhocails and trying to incorporate words into everyday life.”
If 2020 was something of a rollercoaster for Gráinne (“I can’t deny that launching Grá Chocolates was a surreal moment, especially when the first batch sold out in under eight minutes. It gave me a huge boost and pushed me to grow my business idea”), then this year looks set to be an equally exciting experience. Irrespective of what happens with Covid-19, for the foreseeable future there will be no work trips to foreign zones. Her vision for her business remains as intact as it did when she first started. “I wanted to create something that was beautiful to look at but also whets the appetite. I wanted to create a mouthful of excitement and do this by using the best Irish ingredients. Although it is chocolate, I wanted it to be presented beautifully, so every detail has been thought about to ensure the customer receives the best possible experience.”
What next for this unwitting entrepreneur who, this time last year, was catapulted into rethinking her life and career prospects? For now, and for the next few months, Grá Chocolates will continue to operate out of her parents garden shed, working on new ideas and different flavours for ‘event’ dates such as Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. That’s the ‘right here/right now’ approach, but where does Gráinne see her business in a few years? What ambitions does she have for it?
“I would love to one day have a Grá Chocolate shop,” she reveals, “but currently we are just taking it one day at a time. I have big dreams, but I try not to get too distracted by them – I just try to focus on our next move, which will hopefully be moving to a larger space.”
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA
Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland