Sweet times ahead for Mildura chocolate maker

Read how a social enterprise in regional Victoria is thriving, thanks to a rock-solid partnership with the Victorian Government … and some very tasty products!

One business in the Sunraysia region creating such heavenly treats is the Mildura Chocolate Company, a not-for-profit branch of the Christie Centre which gives people with disabilities the opportunity to train in an occupation.

The chocolatier opened its doors in 2009 to help increase community awareness and understanding of its employees’ abilities, rather than focusing on their disabilities. Nine years on, it’s still going strong, primarily thanks to its major partnership with Yarra Valley gourmet chocolate company Kennedy & Wilson.

Highlights in the past year include opening a shop in Mildura built by community partner Murray River Salt, which took out gold at the Australian Fine Food Awards for its moreish dark chocolate bar sprinkled with Murray River Salt.

Staff are your greatest asset

Melissa Tucker standing in a street smiling towards the cameraSupervisor and start-up social enterprise incubator Melissa Tucker started working with the company in 2011, helping out during the hectic Christmas production period. She has been there ever since and says her hands-down favourite part of the job is still working on the production floor “knowing you’re the person that can make someone’s day”.

Melissa is a firm believer in the importance of training opportunities for social enterprises, as they’re the building blocks for long-term sustainability. “Quite often, social enterprises are initiated with amazing intentions and energy but not a solid business or marketing background. The turning point for our company occurred after making the decision to allocate time and finances to training in order to understand the why, who and how of our business. At the end of the day, with no profit there’s no business and therefore no capacity to support the real value proposition – your people. It always has to come back to your people.”

That said, training in a social enterprise is quite different, she points out, and their standard operating procedures are a starting point that they use to approach a task on an individual level. “Each of our staff has different abilities and needs so we tend to think outside of the square; how can we alter a process or the working environment to enable this person to achieve their goals. Staff are your greatest asset and valued employees are committed to achieving excellence if they honestly feel appreciated, supported and involved, just like with any industry.”

Partnerships 101

What exactly does a rock-solid community partnership look like? “Shared basic values are the most important aspect of any partnership, the glue that sees them continue over time,” explains Melissa. “Kennedy & Wilson were our first community partner and continue to provide us with their delectable chocolate at a hugely reduced rate; Australian Premium Dried Fruits have donated Sun Muscat raisins for many years, Olam Australia donate almonds used in our chocolate almonds – a bestseller. And Murray River Salt owners, Duncan and Jan Thompson, have provided us with so many opportunities – the products we co-make with them have given us exposure in places we could have only dreamed of and we now work on their site in a production room that they built especially for us – they continue to astound us with their daily support.”

Successful recipe

The reason for their success is clear-cut, says Melissa. “We always go back to the why: why are we REALLY here? We’re here for our employees and the business is the structure we use to achieve this. Championing our people and their abilities is what makes us stand out from the crowd. Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that our chocolates are delicious and of the highest quality! Our company motto sums it up: “Your day is only as good as the chocolate you eat.”

Melissa Tucker’s tips on external partnership collaboration

  • Tip 1: Be prepared for rejection. “If they say no, big deal! It’s a learning experience and you will do better next time.”
  • Tip 2: Do your research. “If you know what you need but you’re not sure of the best party to approach, quietly ask contacts in the field or someone like Social Traders, who can help you start a networking conversation. Also, ask yourself: what common ground do we share? Check the potential collaborator’s website and all media to see where your value propositions can align.”
  • Tip 3: Make it mutually beneficial. “Have something you can offer potential partners, be it recognition through media or including their details in your annual general meeting report.”
  • Tip 4: Be specific. “Respect and value their time. Each proposition is different so ensure you tailor your request to suit the person or company.”

If you’re part of a social enterprise, you could qualify for support from the Victorian Government to build your skills and business capacity.

Visit the department’s website for more information about Victorian Government’s Social Enterprise Strategy.