Monday, January 24, 2011

Chocolate Wars

This time last year I read the news that Kraft had taken over Cadbury. How could this be? How could such a thing be allowed to happen? I don't know quite why I found this news so appalling but I guess it had something to do with the end of an era, with the notion that I had grown up with that Cadburys was something fine and British which stood for more than merely chocolate. No doubt my English heritage and a certain jingoistic streak in my parents contributed to this somewhat exaggerated notion of the righteousness of the Cadbury  family company, still I had a profound sense that something was being lost now that the business was being subsumed into Kraft.
       Many moons ago I was paid to spend long hours with chocolate coated almonds and sultanas - watching them tumble backwards and forwards in the large copper kettles, checking the temperature and humidity in the room and experimenting with different glazes to give the finished product a healthy sheen ( in those days we used a gum solution). I most remember going home at the end of the day smelling like warm chocolate (which was better than smelling of peppermint, but that was in the chewing gum factory which is another story). Reading Deborah Cadbury's Chocolate Wars. From Cadbury to Kraft: 200 Years of Sweet Success and Bitter Rivalry (and yes, Deborah is one of those Cadburys) reminded me of those days and other confectionery memories. My father used to bring me home Rowntrees fruit pastilles and fruit gums which I adored. Once I started on the pack I couldn't stop - always leaving the black ones until last. Whatever happened to the fruit gums which were actually shaped like fruit - little orange and lemon segments, and little limes and strawberries? And wasn't there a wonderful Fry's dark chocolate bar full of peppermint cream? Sadly the sweets and the companies which manufactured them are no more.
      In Chocolate Wars Deborah Cadbury tells the story of the Frys and the Rowntrees and the Cadburys, all Quaker families, who started their enterprises in the early years of the nineteenth century and prospered
thanks to a mixture of sensible business decisions and a bit of good luck. When John Cadbury began selling a fatty, unappetising beverage at his tea and coffee house in Birmingham in 1824 no one had any notion of the true potential of the cocoa bean or any thought of mass produced confectionery. Deborah Cadbury traces the fortunes of her own family and along the way introduces lots of other chocolaty characters such as Randolphe Lindt, Coenraad and Casparus van Houten, Jean Tobler, Milton Hershey, Domenico Ghiradelli, Forrest Mars, Henri NestlĂ©, describing the technical achievements and personal rivalries which resulted in their respective chocolate empires.
     Consumerism really got going in the late nineteenth century - an urban population  largely cut off from the means of producing necessities for themselves, an increasingly affluent middle class seeking novelty, changing eating habits (earlier breakfasts and later diners) and advances in the mechanisation of all aspects of  manufacturing, developments in packaging, distribution, retailing (think motorised transport, advertising, the grocer's shop) all came together to make fortunes for the likes of the Cadburys. Many of the names we still regard as mainstays of food manufacturing ('industrial food' as Jack Goody calls it) began around this time -
William Arnott opened his bakery in Hunter Street, Newcastle in 1865
Joseph A. Campbell began his preserving company in 1869
Henry Heinz began bottling in 1869
Dr. John Kellogg produced his first 'granola' in the 1860s
Thomas Lipton began his grocery shop in Glasgow in 1872
and even the demon Kraft, James L. to be precise, began a wholesale cheese business in Chicago in 1903
The Australian version of the Cadbury story is that of Macpherson Robertson who began his own confectionery business, Macrobertsons, in Fitzroy, Melbourne, in 1880 (which was eventually taken over by Cadbury Schweppes).
    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Cadbury story is the approach the family took to business. As Quakers they were not solely interested in personal gain, wealth-creation was not an end in itself , any bounty was for the benefit of the workers, the local community and society at large. They believed that everyone was equal and that they had responsibilities and obligations to all those who worked for them. According to Deborah Cadbury the factory was a world in miniature and 'an opportunity to improve society'. George Cadbury's vision of a perfect little world came to fruition at Bournville and their legacy continues in the trusts they established . Philanthropy however was not confined to Quakers - of the chocolate manufacturers both Milton Hershey and our own Macpherson Robertson made significant and long lasting contributions to the community.
      George Cadbury and his brother Richard had spent time on the factory floor themselves, they knew their employees personally and they understood what they made and how they made it. Now, one hundred and thirty odd years since the brothers established Bournville, Cadburys is just another division of a huge industrial food manufacturer, making money for nameless and faceless shareholders who know little or nothing about what the company makes and give little thought to who makes it.
It could perhaps be argued that Deborah Cadbury presents a rather too rosy picture of the Cadburys and their motives and ideals.  Whilst she is very good on the who, what, where and when, she is a little sketchy on how the brothers reconciled their Quaker beliefs with, for example, advertising their products and although she does suggest that they were criticised at the time for paternalism she doesn't expand on this.  Bournville sounds like a workers paradise but  we don't get to hear much from the workers themselves. But this is rather churlish criticism of a thoroughly interesting and entertaining book; the story moves along at a good pace, there's enough but not too much technical detail and Deborah Cadbury manages to make her main characters come to life.

 Her final paragraph sums up exactly what I was thinking this time last year -
Will Kraft act for the betterment of the world - not just the top management? Will it be a tangible force for good in our global village? It is difficult not to feel sceptical. And that is why, despite all the benefits of globalisation and the excitement of giant takeovers, it is hard not to believe that something irreplaceable and immeasurable in the neat columns of a balance sheet have been discarded as effortlessly as a sweet wrapper.
And any scepticism is well justified -  Kraft have ceased production at the Somerdale plant (originally established by the Fry family one hundred years ago) which will close completely in March and do not intend to officially mark the closure with any sort of celebration of the contribution the factory and the workers have made to the success of Cadburys or in recognition of the significance of the factory to the workers and to the surrounding community.

To read more about the Kraft takeover see here.
For Jack Goody ' Industrial Food, Towards the Development of a World Cuisine', see C. Counihan and P. van Esterik, Food and Culture. A Reader, Routledge, New York, 1997.
To learn more about Sir Macpherson Robertson see here.
To find out about Bournville today see here.                             

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