Southern Forests Chocolate beats the odds

Southern Forests Chocolate beats the odds

Life & Style
The Southern Forests Chocolate Company building was an old distillery before it was renovated.

The Southern Forests Chocolate Company building was an old distillery before it was renovated.

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In a freak accident about six weeks before opening Southern Forests Chocolate, Kate Frost fractured her neck after slipping on cat vomit.

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THE past few years have been an unpredictable adventure for most, with COVID-19 shaking people all over the world out of their everyday routines and teaching us that nothing is certain.

Experienced travel agent Kate Frost, who was working from home training travel agents via Zoom when the pandemic first hit Australian shores March last year, can attest to this fact.

As the industry she had spent her life working in came to a dramatic halt, Ms Frost was forced to assess her future career options.

Based in Perth with her partner Chris, the couple would regularly travel to Pemberton for his work as a winemaker and to visit his parents (Ken and Marilyn) who were previously the proud owners of one of the regions local watering holes, Knights Distillery.

On their visits to the region, Ms Frost would spend the evenings making chocolate truffles with Marilyn.

"When COVID hit and I lost my job, Chris said you love making chocolate with mum, why don't we open up a chocolate shop in Pemberton?" Ms Frost said.

That conversation got the wheels turning for their future business and, not long after, the couple began transforming the family's former distillery, which had been sitting vacant amongst their vineyard, into a chocolaterie, Southern Forests Chocolate Company.

"It almost felt like there was a secret garden here because all of the Wisteria had taken over everywhere, so cleaning up the outside took us about five weeks," Ms Frost said.

"But it was a pretty easy process changing the building from a distillery to a chocolaterie.

"We got in contact with the Manjimup health department before we started anything and said, 'tell us what we need to do'.

"They gave us a list, which we went through one by one, cleaned the place up and then the department came back six weeks later and gave us the tick of approval."

Southern Forests Chocolate owners Kate Frost also plans to open up a winery on the property next year.

Southern Forests Chocolate owners Kate Frost also plans to open up a winery on the property next year.

As part of the renovations the couple installed a glass panel so that visitors can watch the chocolate being made and were in the process of installing extra lighting at the time of writing to add some vibrancy to the chocolaterie.

While COVID-19 and the State's border restrictions has created anguish for WA's business owners, Ms Frost said she had witnessed first-hand a boom in intrastate travel, with their new business reaping the benefits of Western Australians taking the opportunity to 'wander out yonder' and discover their own backyards.

She said the irony of COVID-19 initially causing her to lose her job in the travel industry but then indirectly benefiting their business by stimulating regional tourism in WA was not lost on her.

"It was an interesting start because COVID giveth and COVID taketh away," Ms Frost said.

"But I can tell you pants down that COVID has been one of the greatest things for tourism in this State - I can't speak for the north, but I can certainly speak for the South West.

"The amount of people who I've been in contact with who have said in a normal year I would have been to Bali three to four times but I am now enjoying our own backyard is phenomenal.

"It's so easy to be taken by the bright lights of international travel, and there is always going to be a place for that, but I'm so pleased that people have actually started to travel their own State and see how special it is."

In a freak accident about six weeks before opening Southern Forests Chocolate, Ms Frost fractured her neck after slipping on cat vomit.

With the injury preventing her from being able to complete important tasks before opening their business and Chris also busy doing a vintage at Houghtons, it was a stroke of luck the couple were able to secure a backpacker worker who decided to stay in the region due to the pandemic.

Through his work at Houghton's Winery Mr Knight met backpacker, Lucia Contatore, who was a cellar hand there and recruited her after discovering she had been the owner of a chocolate company in Uruguay, South America for 15 years.

"Lucia lives in Cow Town (Cowaramup) and comes and stays with us two times a week," Ms Frost said.

"She is a staunch vegan activist and environmentalist so we recycle everything and she is a part of our family now."

Ms Contatore introduced the couple to the various flavours and styles of South American chocolate, which Ms Frost acknowledged could be hit and miss with their Australian customers.

Lucia has assisted them, along with their other backpacker worker Alia Hitchenor, in creating unique flavours to add to their chocolate range, adding various ingredients to their 'inspiration box' which they regularly use to help develop flavours for their chocolates.

"South American tastes can be a little different," Ms Frost said.

"In South America they have things like con leche (a coffee beverage consisting of strong coffee mixed with scalded milk in approximately equal amounts) which they froth over, but that doesn't seem to be as popular among our customers."

"We've added things like hibiscus flowers and dragon fruit to our inspiration box and Lucia and Chris, with his wine palate, have developed flavours like Brazil nut and citrus."

Southern Forests Chocolate Company uses local ingredients wherever they can to make their chocolates.

Southern Forests Chocolate Company uses local ingredients wherever they can to make their chocolates.

Southern Forests Chocolate uses fruits grown from their own fruit trees on the property and local produce wherever they can, keeping their customers informed of what ingredients they are eating when they bite into one of their chocolates.

"For our coconut cream chocolate, which is a vegan option, we use oranges from our orange tree, our honey and honeycomb come from the Pemberton honey farm next door, our macadamias come from One Oak in Manjimup and we source our hazelnuts locally from our friend Anne," Ms Frost said.

"A friend of ours makes delicious jams and sells them at the local markets so we said give them to us and we will sell them in the shop as well."

With two new chocolate machines in place and the business about five months old now, the couple plan to ramp up their productivity and are at the beginning stages of marketing their chocolate to sell in additional locations.

"From the second we opened our doors, all of the local shops came in contact with us and said they wanted our stock, but we've chosen to do that process slowly," Ms Frost said.

"Now that we feel we are working like a well-oiled machine, we are a lot more confident to go out and expand our operations a bit."

Based on a 55 acre vineyard that has Barberra, Berola, Shiraz and Pinot grapes, the couple plans to add a winery to their chocolaterie next year.

"We have a fruit salad of grapes but Chris is concentrating on traditional varieties for the next vintage," Ms Frost said.

"So we will keep expanding our range of chocolates, as people just love them and there is definitely a market for it down here and then open up our winery in the not too distant future."

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