Satisfying a taste for tradition

It was actor Gene Wilder, who died this week, that opened up a world of pure imagination when he brought Roald Dahl's enigmatic confectioner Willy Wonka to the big screen.

Saturday, 3rd September 2016, 6:01 am
Simon Bleach, who owns the Sweets and Treats confectionery shop in North End, Portsmouth

Wilder’s iconic performance in 1971 as the owner of a chocolate factory sparked an international craze for candy.

Now people who recall the sweet treats of their youth are flocking to Portsmouth’s traditional sweet shops as confectionery enjoys a retro revival.

Sweets and Treats in North End is just one of Portsmouth’s suppliers of sugary snacks.

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Co-founded by Simon Bleach and his mum, Linda Barnes, Sweets and Treats harks back to the tuck shops that have sold sweets across the city since the early 20th century.

Director Simon, who previously worked in insurance, says: ‘My mum had thought it would be a good idea to open a sweet shop for a while.

‘I was bored of the job I was doing, so I just left and opened the sweet shop.’

The 25-year-old’s first memories of sweets were those bought from Woolworths’ pick ‘n’ mix counter.

But for many of the older generation that frequent Sweets and Treats, it’s the traditional feel of the Kingston Road shop that makes them so nostalgic.

Simon explains: ‘Lots of people say that it brings back memories of when they were young, buying sweets out of jars and that sort of thing.

‘Our most popular product has to be the traditional jars and the most popular sweet out of those is the ‘chewing nuts’.

‘This is effectively toffee-covered chocolate – I’m not sure where the ‘‘nut’’ part of the name comes from!’

The roots of this family business were planted in cyberspace just before Christmas last year.

Simon started operating a website and selling wholesale tubs of penny chews and Haribo favourites out of his dining room.

Simon says: ‘It was all done initially to trial it and see what it was going to be like, and to make sure that I could afford to give up my job.

‘We tried it online for a couple of months and then our dining room became full of sweets and we ran out of space.

‘It was doing enough online to pay for a shop, so we thought we’d just jump in and hope for the best!’

Early success meant Simon and Linda’s homegrown business moved to a shop in just a few months, opening officially over the Easter weekend.

Simon recalls: ‘We bought some Easter eggs just to see what they were like. We weren’t really expecting to sell that many of them as we’d literally just opened, but they sold really quickly.

‘I then ended up going and buying a pallet full of them and my mother said that we’d never sell them, but we sold them all.

‘That was the moment when we went ‘‘yes, this is the right choice’’!’

Before long, Simon and Linda found themselves catering for some of the best days of their customers’ lives.

Simon says: ‘When we opened online, we were just selling tubs of sweets because it was so easy to do and you didn’t have to weigh anything out to post them – mainly because we didn’t have the space to do it.

‘We introduced them into the shop and they just seem to sell really well. People are saying that they use them for parties and weddings!’

It’s not all sunshine and rainbow belts for Portsmouth’s traditional sweet industry though, with big name brands and an influx of supermarkets putting pressure on independent traders.

Earlier this year, family-run sweet shop Hilborne’s closed its doors for the final time on Albert Road, blaming the recent opening of a large Tesco branch at Fratton for drastically-reduced custom.

The business has since opened a new branch at Fareham Shopping Centre.

But it was a warning that life is not all sugar-coated for sweet-sellers.

A golden example of a family business making a name for itself is artisan chocolatier Montezuma’s, founded in 2000 by Simon and Helen Pattinson.

With six stores stretching from Winchester to Woking, including Chichester, and even breaking central London, the company, based at Birdham near Chichester, recognises the growing passion of independent retailers to ensure that their service is unparalleled.

Brand manager Sarah Gainsborough says: ‘Retail has always been hard; it’s not a new thing, and particularly for independent shops. Rents are always high and confectionery is a low value product.

‘You have to sell a lot to make the money, so presentation of the shop, merchandising and thinking outside the norm become more important to enable them to stand out from their competition.’

‘Smaller businesses will never be able to compete solely on promotions and pricing, plus their stores are usually considerably smaller than those of the chain stores. So they deliver service. Good service – far beyond what you’d expect!’

‘It’s so important for people to support their local independent businesses and the more they do, the more they will enjoy excellent service!’

Simon acknowledges the constantly looming threat of being outgunned by corporations.

He says: ‘A lot of our trade is people that walk past and the trouble that you’re going to have is if something opens up locally. That attracts people because then they don’t need to go into town any more.

‘If they opened up a big supermarket just up the road from us, that would be what would really affect us.’

Simon remains open-minded and optimistic while reflecting on the first five months of Sweets and Treats’ time on the high street.

He is looking to grow his business across Portsmouth and maybe even beyond.

He says: ‘Hopefully we’ll open another shop next year. I’m half-looking at somewhere on a retail park.

‘They pop up all over the place and then people don’t really need to go into town because they can get everything there, so we’ll see what happens.’