Preston chocolatier Beech’s Fine Chocolates is celebrating one hundred years in the business

One hundred years ago this month the Collinson family, owners of a Preston tea and coffee business, began making chocolate.

Wednesday, 26th February 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 26th February 2020, 5:44 pm

Now Beech’s Fine Chocolates, which still operates from the same factory that it did in 1920 in Fletcher Road, is celebrating its centenary.

The traditional British confectionery is still entirely family-owned and reporter MEGAN TITLEY spoke to chairman Andrew Whiting to find out a little about the firm’s 100-year journey.

“Beech’s was founded in 1920 by a family named Collinson,” says Andrew, who took over the business in 2017. “They were importers of tea and coffee in the early part of the century and added chocolate to their portfolio of products on sale.

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Chairman Andrew Whiting

“Preston was a busy port in 1920 and this was the perfect location for importing raw materials.

“The factory has been on the same site in Preston for 100 years and in that time we have gone through many different periods and trends.

“Throughout the early days, Beech’s staff would skilfully pipe the chocolate decoration onto the chocolates by hand and then pack them into silk lined boxes for the consumption of only those who could afford these expensive luxuries.”

During the sixties and seventies the business went through decades of public limited company ownership, but returned to family ownership when Andrew and his son Peter Whiting, took over respectively as chairman and managing director in 2017.

Chairman Andrew Whiting on the factory floor

Since then, Michael Whiting has also joined the business in sales to increase the family involvement in day to day operations.

Andrew says that the success of Beech’s Chocolates has always been quality ingredients and quality products, which the firm is now exporting worldwide.

“Some of our recipes have remained unchanged for decades such as our classic Fondant Creams, made with sumptuous fondant centre enrobed in our smooth dark chocolate,” he says.

“We are now exporting which is something that only started in the last few years.

Eddie Heaton

“Overseas buyers and consumers love the quality of fine British chocolate and Beech’s is proud to be shipping our range to the USA and Canada, Japan, the Middle East and Australia, among many other far off locations in some of the remotest parts of the world.”

Andrew says that it is in the last five years that the pace of change has really picked up. Making moves to replace plastic with combustible packaging is just one of the ways Beech’s has been keeping up with market trends.

Beech’s Fine Chocolates are also gluten and palm oil free, with the dark chocolate sporting the vegan logo.

Andrew says: “The objectives of the modern business are quite different to the priorities of yesteryear.

Martin Ashley

“One century on and we are now transforming Beech’s packaging and environmental policies and practices.

“The business has recently invested in new packaging machinery capable of handling plastic free, compostable wrappers and packaging and we are completing the task by including all film material such as shrink wrap, bubble wrap and even the tamper seals on the sides of the packs.

“In addition, all our packaging is recyclable and as we discontinue plastic packaging, all the bagged lines will also be packed in compostable material.

“The new Beech’s is also a supporter of Fairtrade Cocoa Programme which is a programme that enables more small farmers to sell their cocoa beans in the Fairtrade market. All the new packs are marked with the Fairtrade Cocoa logo.

“We keep ourselves up to date with new product trends and markets. Not many people realise that all our chocolates are made using gluten free ingredients and in keeping with our strong environmental policies, our entire range is palm oil free and uses no genetically modified foods.

“Another major change we have made over the 100 years of history is to move to all plant-based ingredients. This means that vegans can enjoy our products too and most of our dark chocolate packs are marked with the vegan logo.”

Gill Collum

This year, Beech’s is marking its centenary with the launch of a range of new chocolates as well as a limited edition tin with some classic favourites.

Andrew says: “We are designing a beautifully decorated limited edition tin which will include a number of old classic favourites such as Turkish Delight, Brazil nuts in smooth chocolate, Ginger, Truffles and of course, our delicious Fondant Creams.

“The entire 50 strong workforce at Beech’s is looking forward to another 100 years of making quality British chocolates from the same factory in Preston and we thank all our customers and suppliers for their loyalty over the last century.”

'There are generations of people who have worked here'

Chief engineer at Beech’s Fine Chocolates Steve Sargeant is 61 and has worked at the company for 44 years.

He’s seen generations go by and huge change in the way chocolate is produced.

“I started as an apprentice in 1975 in the engineering department,” he says. “As an apprentice we all got the same training at college but on the job there was always quite a lot of bespoke machinery so it was about learning about that.

“There are generations of people who have worked here. I can remember working with grandmothers, their daughters and now their granddaughters. I think I’m old enough to be their granddad.”

Joking about crediting chocolate for his longevity Steve says: “They say chocolate has got some healing properties, the elixir of life.”

He also says that having staff from Poland and Latvia working at the factory makes the role interesting.

“It’s cosmopolitan,” he says, noting the change from when he started out.

Steve’s job means he oversees a team of four who maintain all the machinery, keep the fabric of the building in good condition and take care of all the services, so the gas, water, electricity and drainage.

“We also oversee the machine changeovers with different pack sizes and different products,” he says. “We’ve been commissioning and installing new machinery recently.

“At the moment we’re producing champagne truffles.

“We are looking at doing away with all the non-recyclable packaging. The new machines will be capable of handling compostable materials.

“There’s a different challenge everyday.

“We don’t actually manufacture chocolate here anymore. We used to get the cocoa beans from Ghana and we used to roast the beans, get the raw sugar and refine it and then produce our own chocolate.

“That changed about 25 or 30 years ago and we now source our chocolate from another company. It’s a case of doing what we do the best.”

But for those who dream of working in a chocolate factory, be warned, Steve has worked at Beech’s Fine Chocolates so long that he can’t enjoy the smell chocolate anymore.

“You get used to the smell of the chocolate and I can’t small it now when I come into the factory,” he says.

Beech's Fine Chocolates turns 100 this year
Display shelves with Beech's Fine Chocolates
Beech's Fine Chocolates turns 100 this year
Beech's Fine Chocolates at the 1952 Guild