How Brexit ruined Easter for Britain's chocolate makers

LONDON (NYTIMES)- For the second year in a row, Easter will be a largely online affair, with socially distanced egg hunts and virtual church services. But there will be one notable difference here in the Britain. Domestic chocolate makers, who should be celebrating one of their busiest times of year, are fuming instead, and all of them cite the same cause: Brexit.

“We’ve lost our entire European trade,” said Aneesh Popat, the owner of The Chocolatier, which sells dark chocolate salted caramel water ganache Easter eggs and other treats out of Bedfordshire, about 50 miles north of London. “Worse than that, we’ve lost our reputation, because when we send palettes of chocolate to, say, Germany and it disappears or we can’t track it, our customers don’t blame the courier. They blame us.”

The trade deal struck late last year with the European Union spared Britain from a variety of tariffs that would have inflated the prices of goods that travelled to the mainland. It has not saved British companies from a maddening, unpredictable array of time-consuming, morale-sapping procedures and from stacks of paperwork that have turned exporting to the EU into a sort of black-box mystery.

Goods go in and there is no telling when they will come out. Or how much customs duties will cost the recipient. Or even where the goods will ultimately land.

“We sent a palette of drinking chocolate to a customer in Paris on Jan 4, and it came back to our company yesterday,” Popat said on April 1. “It’s just embarrassing.

“So we decided that instead of trying to explain that we have no idea where our shipments to Europe have gone, we should just stop shipping there,” he added.

Complaints about long and bewildering forms and wayward merchandise have been heard from industries across the country, from automakers to shellfish producers.

In November the government predicted that the country would suffer the worst recession in three centuries because of the pandemic and forecast that the economy would shrink by 11.3 per cent.

At the same time, the Boris Johnson administration has minimised the ongoing migraine of post-Brexit trading with Europe, describing the matter as “teething problems.”

To chocolate makers, the issues feel more like bites that are going to leave a mark. Chocolate is the UK’s second-largest food and drink export, after whiskey, according to the Food and Drink Federation. Chocolate exports to all countries hit US$1.1 billion last year, and Europe accounts for about 70 per cent of those sales. In January, exports of British chocolate to Europe fell 68 per cent compared with the same period the year before.

The industry is dominated by a handful of players, including Cadbury, one of the largest candy makers in the world. But following a boom of artisanal “bean-to-bar” makers in the states, dozens of family-run companies cropped up around Britain, emphasising ethically sourced ingredients and bespoke batches. They became big sellers in Europe but have been nearly impossible to find there since January.

“We have customers complain to us all the time, ‘Why can’t I buy my favourite British chocolate?'” said Hishem Ferjani, the founder of Choco Dealer in Bonn, Germany, which supplies grocery stores and sells through its own website. “We have store owners with empty shelves.”

“We have to explain, it’s not our fault, it’s not the fault of the producer. It’s Brexit,” he said.

Ferjani has a list of 100 customers who have asked for alerts once British chocolate starts arriving again. One of them is Simone Schlief, a fan of The Chocolate Tree, an Edinburgh maker of what the company describes as “visually stunning works of edible art crafted in small batches.” She’s especially fond of the whiskey-flavoured nibs the company makes.

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“So is my mother,” she said. “I would definitely would have bought some for Easter, but I would have been buying them every month.” Alastair Gower, the owner of The Chocolate Tree, is just as annoyed. He has managed to successfully send exactly one batch of product to Europe since Brexit. And there were plenty of snafus along the way.

The shipment of about US$8,000 worth of chocolate sat in limbo for weeks on its way to Holland. Once it finally arrived, his customer was asked to pay the equivalent of about US$5,000 in duties because Gower had not filled out the import statement correctly.

“We’d been told the product would arrive in France, so we put Calais as the point of entry. It went to Rotterdam, where it sat for six weeks,” he said. “Chocolate. Sitting in a warehouse. For six weeks.” Through a shipping agent, he managed to get the import duty dropped. He learned a lesson about filling out forms, but that expertise won’t help him much.

“It’s impossible to find shippers that will deliver to Europe,” he said, “because there’s a backlog of goods in the pipeline.”

At Coco Caravan, a chocolate maker in the Cotswolds, the stasis has meant that Europe has gone from 15 per cent of the company’s revenue to zero. That has caused Jacques Cop, the owner, to disappoint old customers and put off new ones. In recent months, prospective buyers in the Netherlands, France and Germany have expressed interest.

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“They say, ‘We found you online and love everything you do in terms of being ethically sourced and vegan, but how are you going to combat the import-export problem we will have with the European Union?'” said Cop. “We can’t give them a clear answer, other than, ‘Yes, there will be additional costs involved.'”

Cop is also confronting a challenge common among small chocolate makers in Britain: importing raw ingredients from Europe. He stockpiled cacao in 2020 from his source of choice in Amsterdam. Now that it is time to buy more, obstacles have emerged. Transportation costs have doubled, which is bad enough. But Cop says his shipper refuses to take new orders because of worries that a shipment will somehow get blocked between Amsterdam and Britain.

“It’s to the point where I’m thinking of borrowing a Renault van and just driving to the Netherlands myself,” Cop said. “It’s a 10-hour drive each way. But I’m not sure I have another choice.”

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