Martin Black is yet to fully grasp how his initial idea to find a complementary product to the Margaret River wines could grow into one of the most recognised businesses in WA. The Margaret River Chocolate Company has come a long way since Mr Black and lifelong best friend and business partner Patrick Coward opened the first factory in a tin shed in the tourist region nearly 25 years ago. “Thinking of doing a business that offered to complement the emerging wine tourism model . . . turned out to be right place, right time,” Mr Black said. “Back then, there was only 50 cellar doors in the (Margaret River) region and there was a couple of restaurants, but really it hadn’t taken off like it has done in the last 20 years or so. “We were just thinking about this great wine region and what it needs that’s going to complement wine, restaurants and lifestyle. Chocolate is just one of those commodities that pretty much 99.9 per cent of people like.” Mr Black recalled the first factory being an “immediate success”, so much so the pair opened its second location in the Swan Valley wine region just over 18 months later. “We realised very quickly that we were on a bit of a winner and that the same model would work in Western Australia’s only other wine region,” he said. As well as the two factories, the Margaret River Chocolate Company has expanded into an online and retail store on Murray Street, which closed in December last year and the space leased out to luxury watchmaker Omega. Mr Black says it plans to re-open a pop-up shop in the basement of the same building in just over a week. The chocolate company now employs more than 100 staff across all of its operations. Mr Black struggles to pick one key highlight from the past 25 years, although he said it was special getting over one million visitors walking through the doors of the three locations every year before COVID-19 hit. “I think apart from Rottnest Island, it made us the single most visited tourist attraction in Western Australia,” he said. “What’s been really rewarding around that is that over 25 years, kids who used to come in on mum and dad’s knee or in their stroller, are now coming in with their own kids. “We’re at that stage now where we’re a generational business.” Other memorable moments include then-Prime Minister John Howard officially opening the Swan Valley factory in 2001 and being the only privately-owned business included in a WA-themed Monopoly board game. Despite the crowded market filled with international and national brands, Mr Black says its the business’ generosity that sets it apart. “We still have big free tasting bowls . . . there’s still a sense of generosity and abundance around coming into one of our buildings because you can go up to the chocolate and take as much as you want,’ he said. “That’s been our singular most successful marketing tool . . . we literally go through tonnes and tonnes of chocolate each year handing it out for free.” “When people talk about ‘the’ chocolate factory, it has become synonymous with us.” While the business had experienced SARS and bird flu in its history, Mr Martin said it had not seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. He recalled only having three people walk through the doors on Easter 2020, compared to nearly 3000 customers the previous year. “Even though WA didn’t really have to go into lockdown too much, (COVID) still had a huge impact on our businesses,” Mr Martin said. “We were only just starting to get back to pre-COVID trading about 12 months ago and then interest rates started jacking and people started getting concerned about cost-of-living crisis.” The headache now is the rising input and output costs. “Everything has gone up, wages continually go up . . . the cost of employing people are really, really high,” he said. “It’s a tough market, we’ve had a little bit of price movement in some of our products but we’re trying to be conscious of the cost-of-living pressures (for customers). “We’re obviously doing things smarter in terms of minimising any waste, buying in larger quantities to try get better purchasing power.” Mr Black admitted there were interests in the early days about potential acquisitions. “Maybe one day . . . it might be a consideration but at the moment, our answer to people is, ‘Yes we would sell the business but it would be at such an outrageous price that nobody would be interested’,” he said. Mr Black says there are no plans to open any more locations and instead will focus on expanding its brands, which have grown to include winery Providore.