Owning a chocolate factory is many people’s idea of heaven, but behind the popular image of everlasting gobstoppers and chocolate rivers lies a hardworking small business entrepreneur, like Amber Isles of Rock Coast.
As Vancouver Island is called “the rock” and Isles lives on the coast, Amber named her company as an affectionate nod to her Saanichton home. Her rocky logo is inspired by the stacks of Almond Roca, her first product, which she used to pile up after they had cooled.
Isles started her business out of her kitchen six years ago, as a part-time hobby, and only turned full-time two years ago.
Along the way, she used the kitchen of a friend’s breakfast bar, after hours, while juggling two other jobs – working in a restaurant and as a vet technician.
Last October, she was able to move to her current location, a 44-square-foot commercial kitchen.
After going full-time, Isles was involved in a car crash in Indonesia and broke her leg in five places.
“I was in a hospital and they wouldn’t let me fly home. So I had the leg pinned, and they put me back together. I was lying in my hospital bed sending people emails about orders,” Isles said.
When she returned home, she adapted her crutches by creating pockets on them for her papers, phone and thermos. Between baking batches, when she felt overwhelmed, she would taste her chocolate and find renewed motivation in making products she believed in.
“I would reach for the chocolate or ice cream and I understood what my customers told me about how it made them feel. Chocolate for that moment makes you happy.”
Once back on her feet, she suffered another blow, when she said her distributor declared bankruptcy without giving her any warning. Isles said she used a local distributor, as bigger distributors only take on small orders if they significantly increase their margins. She also takes pride in working with local companies.
“We were so trusting. I gave them product without being paid and they owed me thousands of dollars. The way it works is they keep the product and then ship it out when the orders come in. And then they pay you as that happens. I only found out afterwards that they had a backlog of orders and weren’t shipping it out as they wanted to do deliveries with their other customers’ products at the same time.”
Rock Coast managed to recover some of the money, but still lost more than $3,000. Many other small businesses lost much more, with Isles estimating she lost the least in comparison.
“It’s a lesson learned, but we lost a lot of stores because of that as they couldn’t rely on our distribution. It took a year to get the customers back.”
Since then, Isles has added a sales representative to her four-person team and moved all distribution in-house. This is in addition to labelling, compliance, marketing, administration and production, all of which she and her team attend to.
Isles said the quality of the product is her greatest priority, and local stores have been supportive, ordering directly from her. She has also branched out into new products, including protein bars and a hot chocolate syrup.
Isles’ dream is to grow her business to a size where she can spend more time volunteering with animals in the community. She has organized fundraisers through Rock Coast and is working on plans to link her passion for animal advocacy into an upcoming product.
“We’re so happy to be growing. You get out what you put in, but I’m a workaholic, so it’s sometimes difficult to find a balance!”