A business model that uses nostalgia to drive sales through iconic Australian brands is proving a winning formula for South Australian chocolate confectionery company Robern Menz.
The maker of local favourites FruChocs and Crown Mints has become a national player in recent years since buying the Violet Crumble brand, recipe and production line from Nestle in 2017.
It is now gearing up to produce Violet Crumble’s younger sister Polly Waffle after an 11-year absence.
The Adelaide-based manufacturer experienced a double-digit sales bump in March and April across its business as people hunkered down on couches with their favourite chocolate brands to escape the pandemic.
While that was a welcome sugar-hit for the business, its steady growth in recent years from 70 to 110 staff has been fuelled by the addition of the Violet Crumble chocolate honeycomb bar and led to the move to 24/7 production in recent months.
The purchase of Violet Crumble was a logical step for the family-owned business as it was already a major honeycomb producer for private labels and its own brand, which was renamed Bumbles in 2019.
Robern Menz CEO Phil Sims said the investment in Violet Crumble had already been recouped and had cemented the company’s position as the biggest honeycomb producer in Australia.
He said expanding Violet Crumble’s distribution into petrol stations and convenience stores and introducing new formats were the keys to its success.
“The original bar that we bought is up at least 50 percent on the volume that we inherited from Nestle and we’ve come out in other variants now such as cubes and nuggets as well,” Sims said.
“Violet Crumble is a national brand and very much a part of our Australian culture and it’s had a really strong place during COVID because people trust brands and the comfort brought about by the memories of things they’ve grown up with and trusted.
“There’s no question that those nostalgia brands we’ve grown up with have done well during COVID and we’ve seen that — you think about that period when we were all stuck at home and there was a lot of chocolate bars and comfort food being eaten on couches.
“At the start of COVID we moved to 24/7 production for the first time and we’re still 24/7.”
Exporting the Aussie favourite
The success of Violet Crumble has not come at the expense of the company’s own honeycomb brand, which it ironically launched when Nestle stopped producing Violet Crumble cubes in a share bag format in the 2000s.
Bumbles Choc Honeycomb uses a different recipe to Violet Crumble and continues to be sold in major supermarket and variety stores nationally. It is also exported to a number of countries including the United States and Japan.
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Sims said Robern Menz was able to use its contacts to begin exporting Violet Crumble to the United States and had been working with AusTrade for the past nine months on developing other export markets, which it expects to announce soon.
He said there were also opportunities in several other countries where Violet Crumble was sold through the “grey market” by distributors who sourced the product from Australian wholesalers but the US was the main target.
“It’s a market that loves its candy, it is a fairly unique proposition over there, it’s competitive from a price point of view, it’s US compliant and has a long shelf life.
“The opportunity is there — you’ve only got to jag a Walmart or a Target in the United States and it just takes it to a completely different level.”
Robern Menz is also now shipping its Violet Crumble bars directly to the Philippines.
“We heard it was the former Philippines president’s favourite chocolate bar,” Sims said.
“So we headed up there and met with the major importers and retailers and we realised that Violet Crumble was a thing, people knew about it, people wanted it and they’d been buying it even though we had no idea how it got there.”
The Violet Crumble was invented in Melbourne in 1913 by jam-maker turned chocolatier Abel Hoadley.
Hoadley’s Chocolates, which was bought by Rowntree in 1972 and then Nestle in 1988, also introduced the Polly Waffle bar in 1947. The Polly Waffle was a combination of chocolate, wafer and marshmallow and like the Violet Crumble developed somewhat of a cult following in Australia.
Robern Menz bought the rights to the Polly Waffle in January 2019, a decade after Nestle stopped making the bars.
“When we bought Violet Crumble, brought in the equipment and starting manufacturing, right through that first 12 months we got a lot of commentary saying ‘it’s great that you bought Violet Crumble and brought it back into Australian hands but what about the Polly Waffle?’,” Sims said.
“The two brands seemed to be intrinsically linked — it was quite bizarre — but it became such a thing so we started a conversation with Nestle about buying the brand.”
The company is working to bring it back and received a $1 million Australian government grant in April from the Modernising Manufacturing Fund to help fund the $5.2 million project.
But unlike the Violet Crumble sale when the production line was shipped from Nestle’s Melbourne Kit-Kat factory to Adelaide and immediately installed to keep orders filled, the ageing Polly Waffle line was junked long ago.
Sims said most of the parts for the new Polly Waffle line would be sourced from Australia but some specialised components would need to be designed and made overseas, slowing the process because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
He said the Polly Waffle would now not be back on shelves until late 2021 or early 2022.
“We bought the brand, got the recipe and got the process know-how as part of the purchase but there was no production line so we’ve gone about designing our own production line, which will be highly automated and fairly bespoke with respect to producing the Polly Waffle.
“We have spent 18 months designing this production line that is about 120-metres long with 60 to 70 pieces of equipment that all have to work together.
“Our goal is to replicate the product exactly because there is an army of very passionate people out there who want to see it back and there’s an expectation that it will match what it used to be.
“That’s a challenge in itself because it’s been over 10 years since anyone has even eaten one.”