There was a time when chocoholic best friends Kate Shepherd and Anne White thought heaven was a family-sized bar of Galaxy.
That was in the days when they were Sheffield Hallam students so sweetly naïve, they also thought it would be huge fun to own their own chocolate shop.
Some six years on, they are much wiser. At the age of 27 they prefer to get their hits of the dark stuff via tiny morsels of single estate, gourmet bars.
And the chocolate shop everyone told them would be a total flop? It’s going strong, has five employees and its own cafe and is famed for its after-hours chocolate lock-in sessions.
Success has been sweet, say the pair as their choc-fest boudoir Cocoa Wonderland celebrates National Chocolate Week with a host of free tastings and special offers.
The shop, at 462 Ecclesall Road, is a chocoholic’s dream; it’s wall to wall confectionery. They sell a wide variety of chocolate from around the world, although their best-sellers come from their own doorstep – hand-made truffles from the Peak District.
And customers feel themselves slipping into a vanilla and cocoa-scented trip down memory lane
“People tell us the memories that come to mind when they enter the shop and we love how happy it makes people,” says Anne.
“Cocoa Wonderland is Willy Wonka meets Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. People are constantly saying we must be living out our fantasy, but in reality our job can be damn hard.”
The girls had part-time jobs at the shop during their studies. And when it went up for sale but failed to find a buyer, the girls seized their chance.
Says Anne: “We had no money and we were at the end of our degrees A lot of our friends laughed at us. The more they didn’t believe we could do it, the more we wanted to succeed.
“We borrowed the money from my gran, other family members and banks and within days of graduating we were chocolate shop owners.” says Anne.
“We learnt so much by making so many mistakes but we have never regretted taking that decision. We would probably never have the guts to do it now. We were so young and naïve, but we had nothing to lose and no responsibilities.”
What helped was making Cocoa more than just a shop – a cafe with an all-chocolate menu, plus an evening social hub.
At night they stage tasting sessions, introducing the distinctive flavours of chocolate grown in different parts of the world, plus chocolate lock-ins, a knitting club and book club.
It’s all you can eat and drink at the £10 a head lock-ins, though usually the girls advocate moderation.
“We believe a little bit of something nice occasionally is good for you – and we encourage people to buy dark chocolate because it’s healthier than fatty milk chocolate bars,” says Kate.
She and Anne are becoming hugely knowledgeable. Two years ago, they went to Grenada to live on an ethically-run, free trade rainforest cocoa plantation for a month. They joined in the cocoa harvesting and got to see chocolate being made for their shop at the island’s factory.
Six years on, the pair admit they can no longer smell chocolate any more, but they still love it. “Our passion hasn’t dimmed,” they say. “And neither has our friendship; everyone said we would argue and it would ruin the business.
“We are really proud of how well we have supported each other through the good and the bad.”