Walking into the one and only Prestat Chocolates store is to find yourself luxuriously cocooned in a jewelled casket, all gold swirls, hearts, coronets and beribboned boxes in sumptuous delectable colours that warm the heart on a wintry day.
The shop, a magical pink and turquoise grotto on Princes Arcade just off London’s Piccadilly, is tiny but packs a hefty punch. It has two Royal Warrants and recently The Economist voted Prestat as the third best chocolate shop in the world. Prestat is currently launching in America, about to supply chocolates to numerous well-known establishments from Bloomingdales to Dean & Deluca.
Nick Crean, in his late fifties, owns and runs the shop with his half brother, Bill Keeling. They bought the shop 16 years ago when it was run-down and practically bankrupt. Back then the business was turning over £70,000 a year. Today it has a retail value of £7 million.
Eight years ago the brothers acquired Marisu, one of the UK’s leading artisan manufacturers, with a factory in Park Royal, west of London. Marisu’s turnover has more than trebled since Nick and Bill took it over, from £1.3 million to £4.6m.
From ad man to entrepreneur
Before he entered the world of chocolate, Nick was in advertising for 20 years. He worked for Saatchi and Saatchi in the late seventies, running Maurice and Charles Saatchi’s private office.
“It was in the heyday of advertising,” remembers Nick. “Saatchi and Saatchi had just won the Tory Party and BP accounts and the place was a hive of creativity.
“It was a fabulous opportunity to learn about business and brands. I’m not sure how I learnt but it was through osmosis really.”
After a spell in Australia, Nick returned to London and began making brand-support films and party political broadcasts. “One day Charles came back from lunch and said Hector Laing needed a brand-support film and in the great tradition of Saatchi you didn’t turn round and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but were just expected to get on with it and deliver,” says Nick.
Ultimately Nick became “hacked off” with churning out films, finding that there was always someone younger, prepared to do it more cheaply. He wanted a business that could make him money while he slept.
When Prestat came up for sale, he didn’t hesitate. “I’d known the shop since I was very young indeed and had happy memories on the whole,” he says. “It was about to go bust but here was a brand with a great story and that was the opportunity I saw.”
Experimentation: the key to business success
Today the brand is instantly recognisable, with packaging worthy of a Fairy Tale Princess. And chocolates are flying off the shelves as Nick sleeps, with increasing numbers drawn to their taste and packaging.
Nick believes innovation is central to Prestat’s success and he is constantly experimenting with new flavours, from Earl Grey tea (“Very Downton Abbey!”) to his latest Velvety Milk Chocolate Orange & Cardamom Chai Thins, created to celebrate Diwali and Halloween, in a splendid orange box.
Prestat’s exuberant, jewel-bright boxes might have been created by Willie Wonka himself but they are the work of artist and Royal Florist, Kitty Arden, a childhood friend of Nick’s.
Nick pulls down a box of best-selling Caramel & Sea Salt Thins to show me. The packaging is hot pink and on it is the Queen’s gold state coach being towed along by the lion and unicorn of Britain and chased by corgis, while ‘a very naughty courtier’, Sir Pink Tights, sits astride the unicorn. “Straight out of Roald Dahl!” exclaims Nick delightedly.
Camp would be a severe understatement and it’s all part of the fun for which Prestat is renowned. And now that Christmas is soon to be upon us, Kitty has created a plethora of festive designs, transforming the classic Jewel Box chocolate selection box into a Christmas delight that boasts a log fire, snowman, tree, stockings, candelabra – the lot.
The one thing he’d have done differently
If Nick has made one mistake, it’s that he wished he’d started earlier. He sees only advantages to running a business over 50. “Everything is more or less possible, you just have to find the right route to do it,” he says. “When you’re older, you have a fabulous network of people. If I look at clients in previous life – leading captains of industry, people in politics or in Qatar and Dubai – you simply don’t have that network till you’re older nor the maturity to know how to utilise it.”
Nick credits his half brother with being his biggest mentor: “What Bill brought to the business was an exact understanding of the financial needs of business. I am more out there as the front person who sells – I want to spend and Bill tries to save.
“He’d worked as a journalist for the Financial Times in West Africa and knew quite a lot about cocoa and, being my half brother, he came from a brilliant financial family.
“I also still rely on the broad Saatchi family – Maurice, Charles, Martin Sorrell, Tim Bell,” continues Nick. “We used to all sit in a room together. It sounds very grand but we worked very closely and I still feel confident enough to send them emails and bounce ideas off them.”
Prestat’s growth and success aside, Nick’s sheer delight in his chocolates is infectious. As he shows me round the factory, he has to restrain himself from tasting every exquisite concoction we pass. Some, like the coconut ganache or red velvet truffles, prove just too tempting.
Yet even though he’s clearly thrilled to own Prestat, he is mulling over new ideas. “What’s changed about society is that very few people now have a job for life so more and more people do one thing and then do another,” he says. “This is certainly not the last thing I’m going to do. But for now, we’ve taken Prestat’s team on an incredibly exciting and incredible journey and there’s still quite a long way to go yet.”