Joe Vaughan set up 1683 Chocolate Place when still a teenager (Image: Joe Vaughan)

Britain's youngest chocolatier on why lockdown in Solihull has been sweet - but also a rocky road

Knowle business owner has backed the new 'Support Local' initiative


Britain's youngest chocolatier has backed a campaign to help Solihull centres and high streets during the coronavirus crisis.

Joe Vaughan opened 1683 Chocolate Place, in Knowle, just weeks after his 16th birthday and makes almost every one of the sweet treats on sale himself.

The 21-year-old, who is a director of local business group Visit Knowle, is among the traders to voice their support for the borough's newly-launched Support Local campaign.

The council-led publicity drive reminds residents that shops are open for business, and also promotes Covid-19 guidelines.

The business-owner, who also lives in the village, said there had been "fantastic" support for smaller firms since lockdown and hoped this would continue.

"They really like to be able to come into my shop and see me make things," said the former Solihull School pupil.

There has been suggestions from the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA) that many smaller outlets have benefited from a shift in shopping habits since lockdown - in part driven by more people working from home.

"People haven't really wanted to go into the big towns and cities, they think the risk is much higher," said Mr Vaughan.
Joe Vaughan, who also lives in Knowle, is understood to still be the UK's youngest professional chocolatier. (Image: Joe Vaughan)

"They don't think it's worth the risk. They are coming into the smaller places and finding everything they need."

Mr Vaughan took the unusual step of deciding to set-up straight from school and described the shift to working up to 12 hours a day as "a bit of a shock."

Although having to adapt to such a steep learning curve proved valuable experience, with all businesses having to make huge adjustments when the pandemic hit earlier this year.

For 1683 Chocolate Place it meant a complete switch to the online side of things, which had initially been launched last autumn.

The business was able to reopen its High Street shop once lockdown restrictions were eased.

Mr Vaughan has been pleased by the support from customers, who are once again able to buy best-sellers like millionaire shortbread and salted caramel over the counter.

But he said it was still "incredibly difficult to plan" in the current climate.

He was speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) the day before local lockdown measures were announced in Solihull, with uncertainty about what the restrictions would look like.

"We're trying to plan for Christmas, which is our biggest time without a shadow of a doubt," he said.

The crisis is likely to impact on events the shop would usually hold over the festive period and it's still proving difficult to source some supplies, given that factories themselves suffered a lengthy shutdown.
Cllr Karen Grinsell, deputy leader of the council, promotes the Support Local campaign. It also has the backing of Solihull BID, Shirley marketing group, Visit Knowle and Chelmsley Wood shopping centre. (Image: Solihull Council)

Although Mr Vaughan said, like all businesses, he was trying to make the best preparations he could.

And the recent spike in infections in the borough is a reminder why the campaign also pushes the importance of "shopping safely" as Solihull struggles to balance reopening its economy with fighting the virus.

Posters remind customers of the rules on wearing face masks and sticking to social distancing, amid warnings some members of the public have relaxed too much.

Aside from its Support Local initiative, the council has also approved a £200,000 support package to help get centres back on their feet.

Cllr Karen Grinsell, deputy leader of the council, said there was a lot of work going on with businesses and community groups.

"The places that feel safe now - in the Covid world - are doing really well.

"So the way we can improve our town centres ... for them to feel safe obviously works."

She welcomed the fact that Solihull's initiatives had been singled out for praise in a report by the Local Government Association (LGA).

Although Cllr Ade Adeyemo, leader of the Lib Dem group, was frustrated that a report which went to cabinet last week seemed to mention only the larger shopping areas.

"What are we going to do about Hobs Moat? What are we going to do about Rowood Drive?

"What are we going to do about those areas where we know that there's deprivation but every time the time comes to do something - and I've said this several times before - we just spend the money in the same places."

Officers insisted that funding wasn't "exclusive" to the likes of Solihull town centre and Shirley and would be open to smaller parades too.