Watch: Meet the chocolate brand 'fit for the modern day'
Born in Nigeria and raised in Hong Kong, Sameer Vaswani says Southeast Asian food was “kind of in my blood”. This included chocolate, not that the self-billed serial entrepreneur saw it as a standalone business when he opened a small restaurant on London’s Portobello Road in the 1990s.
“Chocolate fondant dessert was all the rage,” recalls Vaswani, who was Rain’s head chef while wife Neena ran front of house. “But we were one of the few restaurants that had a white chocolate version on the menu.”
Today, the Vaswanis have put chocolate front of house after launching UK-based Prodigy Snacks. Using plant-based ingredients and a low percentage of natural sugar, the founders say they are also reinventing classic products as we know them, as well as becoming the UK’s first plastic negative chocolate bar.
Having started out in 2018, navigating 20 product trials and manufacturing rejections aplenty, Prodigy Snacks launched just before the pandemic. About 2.5 million units have since been sold.
“Being a start-up is tough,” says Vaswani. “You've got to dig deep to even get the project off the ground. It's about resilience, not taking every rejection to heart and recognising that it is definitely part of the game.”
What Prodigy has in abundance is production and manufacturing experience. Following their restaurant venture, the Vaswanis moved to Lagos to start a family manufacturing business, which diversified into confectionery and became the only chocolate manufacturer in the West African region. “It became quite a household name in Nigeria and it was an amazing experience,” adds Vaswani.
After scaling the business to about $150m in revenues and over 2,000 employees, the family sold to United Biscuits, with Vaswani owning a small piece of the business and exiting in 2016.
“The whole experience in Nigeria really opened our eyes to what goes into packaged foods. Obviously we dealt with sugar snacks, biscuits and confectionery, but the general principle applies across most convenience packaged foods.
“I visited sugar refineries, flour millers and packaging factories. I understood that plastic packaging is basically derived from fossil fuels and the oil industry and learned about the environmental impact.
“The industry seems to have gravitated towards artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols as the solution to stamp out sugar. That's not the solution.
“We wanted to enable people to get back to enjoying this food of the gods but without guilt being an ingredient.”
It wasn’t until a family trip to Italy and a garage stop to appease their hungry children that the couple decided to seek industry change.
“There wasn’t a single offering or product that my wife and I were sort of happy to let our kids put into their bodies,” recalls Vaswani. “It was filled with sugar, which on a road trip with two young kids is an absolute nightmare.”
“We got rejected numerous times," says Vaswani. "Manufacturers were like, ‘We can't just change our entire supply chain of ingredients just to meet your brief.’”
Vaswani finally found a dairy-free production facility — after 20 different product trials over a 12-month period — willing to take on the brief of low sugar content and sustainable packaging. This was helped by a product developer Vaswani labelled as a “chocolate wizard”.
Prodigy Snacks launched by sticking to their production methods and processes towards the environment and nutrition. It is now seeking investment in 2024.
Vaswani adds: “I think consumer behaviour is definitely changing and more importantly they're even willing to pay that little bit more for that better choice. We are the chocolate brand fit for the modern day.”
Behind the Brand: Prodigy Snacks on...
Being a husband-and-wife team
“As CEO I look after supply chain, product development, finance, logistics and operations. Neena is our brand guardian and looking after marketing. I'm amazed we don't have a lot more tension or conflict. We stick to our areas and try not to encroach upon each other's responsibilities. Many people thought we were absolutely bonkers with it being such a competitive category and so many different brands. But we're pretty ambitious.”
Being a modern chocolate brand
“We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're reinventing all the classic concepts that we all grew up with. We've already got versions of all the different classics, whether it's your Snickers or your classic dark and sea salt. We've reinvented the Rolo. We've reinvented the two classic British favourites in chocolate biscuits. The team have to hold me back."
"What does being UK's first plastic negative chocolate brand mean? For every unit of product or chocolate bar that we sell, we fund the clean-up of the equivalent of 10 single-use plastic wrappers from our environment. It is a big issue for us."
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