Sweetdreams Not

Sweetdreams, the producers of family favourite Choc Nibbles, is about to launch a new range of vegan chocolate bars with the help of investment from the North of Tyne Growth Fund, funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and supported by the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA).

The Cramlington company has shown huge flexibility in growing its turnover over the last 12 months, a reflection of the determination from owners Matthew and Cath Stephenson, to continue with their growth plans, despite the pandemic.

Matthew said: “We’re about innovation and making quality products – and that’s helped us get to the point where I know we will double, if not treble, our output over the next three years.

"But it hasn’t happened without a lot of hard work and a lot of thinking about what it was that we really wanted to produce, which we’ve been able to make happen because of the resilience, brilliance and dedication of the management team and staff.”

After years of traveling the globe working in food packaging, Matthew bought Sweetdreams – partly because of the strength of Choc Nibbles as a brand, but also to do less travelling and spend more time with his growing family.

In 2017, Matthew led the company into a high growth strategy that required diversification: “We had already launched Choc Nibbles into the retail sector but I was aware that we were relying heavily on this one manufacturing strand – so four years ago we decided to expand into panning and coating items such as fruit, nuts, functional inclusions etc. We moved into a much larger premises, bought quality equipment and grew staff numbers fourfold.”

The expansion was funded entirely by the company, but it paid off, as it trebled its turnover by selling across the retail spectrum, from Fortnum & Masons to B&M.

Then along came Covid and Matthew, like every other business owner in the UK, wondered how it was going to affect him and the Sweetdreams team.

Matthew already knew he wanted to expand again – this time, into producing quality chocolate bars, including a vegan range: “Throughout any of the shutdowns, as a food factory we have been allowed to stay open and operational – and demand for our products meant we were only closed for two weeks in April 2020, which was already planned anyway – but the new normal of working during this pandemic gave me time to think long and hard about the next steps.

“We started manufacturing again at the end of April, and set up an online shop. We proved we had the speed required to adapt, particularly as customers started showing a curiosity to try new things. 

“I decided it was time to do what we really wanted to do, to create a new brand of chocolate products, starting with a range of panned products and really good quality vegan chocolate bars that were not a mass market product but also weren’t positioned as premium and therefore out of the price range of our client base.  So in addition to our recently installed panning line, I now needed a depositing line to manufacture the bars” 

To underpin the company’s focus on quality and sustainability Matthew joined forces with Columbian family run business, Luker Chocolate: “Luker offers cocoa which is in the top 8% of the world’s Cacao Fino de Aroma, and with a robust sustainable and ethical approach. Add to that their Chocolate Dream initiative and it gives us a credible foundation to our plans.”

This time round Matthew realised he needed to look for investment support and an introduction by Lisa Harwood at Advance Northumberland led him to the North of Tyne Growth Fund.

“I am proud to be from Northumberland, and proud of the fact that we’re a good employer for local people. To be honest, I mistakenly thought there was a real dearth of business funding and support, unless all you wanted was a new website.

“Lisa Gowler at UMi changed my thinking on this and showed the depth of support out there.

“As a company we’re not the most disciplined or corporate, but Lisa and the Growth Fund team were great. They didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep and they didn’t cut corners, but they did make sure the momentum was maintained throughout.

“As a result, we’re launching our new brand this summer, and we can’t wait!”

Sweetdreams was awarded capital investment of £92,100 from the Growth Fund, with the whole project costing just over £500,000.

Matthew encouraged other business owners to pick up the phone and chat with the Growth Fund: “It doesn’t commit you to anything but it’s hugely worthwhile. They are nice and engaging people, who aren’t there to trip you up – but if they see an opportunity, they will hold your hand and see you through it.

 “They want to hear your plans for growth and job creation. They want to hear from people just like you and me. They really want to help and if they can’t, there’s a reason for it.

“Something that surprised me about the process was that they made me believe in my own creativity. Of course, you have to show you can fund these big ideas yourself - and we could have done, but it would have been tough.

“it’s too easy to get a bit battle weary in business – but now I’m really excited about the new line and newly energised about innovation. It’s going to be amazing!”

Key takeaways:

  • The North of Tyne Growth Fund is a £4.6m investment programme funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) which supports SME growth across Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle local authorities. The Fund is supported by the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) and fosters innovative processes to drive productivity, resulting in increased profitability, wage growth and employment growth in SMEs: https://www.northoftynegrowthfund.co.uk/ 
  • Sweetdreams has taken investment from the North of Tyne Growth Fund to fuel the continuing diversification of its product line: https://sweetdreamsconfectionery.com/ 
  • For more inspirational business content, head over to UMi platform: https://www.weareumi.co.uk/webapp/
Richard Dawson
Article by Richard Dawson
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