Dominic Lowe, Green & Black's new MD, is lying on a bed, surrounded by chocolate and being gawped at by members of the public - not because he fancies himself in the starring role of the brand's next round of commercials, but because we've agreed to meet at Whole Foods Market on Kensington High Street. And I'm late.
The bed is part of the store's Green & Black's window display - and the snapper has wasted no time in getting Lowe to pose in situ.
Thankfully, he is happy to be photographed with the display, which is partly to show off the brand's smarter packaging and partly to support the upmarket store, the likes of which have helped propel Green & Black's from a small organic chocolate player into one of the UK's hottest fmcg brands.
Green & Black's may have started life as a tiny chocolate company on Portobello Road back in 1991 but its purchase by Cadbury Schweppes in 2005 elevated it to the big league. It is now the UK's 97th most valuable food and drink brand, according to figures published last week in The Grocer, and continues to buck the decline in sales across the chocolate category.
Succeeding in the UK is one thing. Becoming a major international brand is quite another, and Cadbury now wants to see a bigger return on its investment and take the brand global. Enter Lowe, who joined as MD on 1 May.
"I've been brought in to keep the UK business motoring but also to accelerate what we are doing around the world," he says. "A big part of my brief was to get the international side of the business going. Historically, Green & Black's did international on a Friday afternoon, but I am getting people to understand it is part of something bigger."
Lowe may be new to the Green & Black's family, but he is no stranger to its parent company Cadbury Schweppes. He joined in 1992 running Schweppes GB until it was sold to Coca-Cola in 1999. He moved with the business to Coke but returned in 2002 when he was involved with Cadbury's purchase of Adams chewing gum. He has also run its supply chain in Europe and Africa and been marketing director for Europe.
His supply chain experience will help with the company's plans to conquer the US as well as Japan and eastern Europe. The brand has been in the States for almost six years through a small distributor, with annual sales of about $30m, but Lowe now intends to use Cadbury's vast distribution resources to become fully established.
Even if he hits his target of growing sales to $100m in the US within the next three years, Green & Black's will still trail behind major rival Lindt, which has sales of five times this. But Lowe is undeterred. "It is early days in the US but the opportunity is huge if we get it right," he says.
So serious is the company taking the US that for the first time it is looking for another manufacturer to produce its chocolate. All Green & Black's products are currently made by a small Italian family in North Italy, but as the company grows it will need a US base.
"To ship the beans to Europe, make them into chocolate and then ship them to the US does not make sense from a food miles or cost perspective," says Lowe. "But we will pick our producer very carefully. Americans are very sophisticated when it comes to high-end food so our recipes will remain the same."
Over time, the company will look at bespoke flavours for the US. "The team would love a peanut butter one but it would require the best ingredients. A dumbed-down version would be a disaster."
The company also faces challenges this side of the pond, not least the hike in commodity prices. The price of regular cocoa has risen by some 20% over the past year but the cost of organic cocoa, which Green & Black's uses, has almost doubled. This month it has had to push through a price increase of about 13% - its first in three years - and another could be on the cards if this year's winter crop of cocoa is poor.
Supply is another concern. Green & Black's uses organic Trinitario cocoa beans, which need to be specially fermented and dried and are in short supply in the Dominican Republic where they are grown. It recently invested $500,000 on new fermenting equipment to increase supply and is also working to expand production to West Africa. "At the moment supply is OK," says Lowe, "but it is getting tight."
Rising costs and supply issues are being compounded by increased competition from players undercutting the company on price. "It is getting harder to recruit new consumers because there has been so much activity in the category. Côte d'Or has been heavily promoted and lots of new own label products have come in at good prices. If a shopper wants to trade up they can try many other cheaper brands than ours."
Being part of Cadbury does allow some leeway with price, but Lowe insists that Green & Black's operates as a separate entity from its parent company in order to remain true to its original values. "We run to our own standards," he says. "If we need help we have this huge machine behind us but Cadbury lets us get on with things."
But does he have to toe the Cadbury line? "Ultimately Cadbury owns us, but if it said I needed to reduce quality I could and would say no," he insists. "My job is to protect the brand and Cadbury has put in place structures for that."
As well as protect the brand, Lowe has to grow it, which he is trying to do through brand extensions. This month it is launching a biscuit range in partnership with Burton's Foods - its second crack at the whip - but Lowe is cautious not to spread the brand too thinly.
"People say we should do cakes or brownies but do they play back into the equity of the brand or take from it? Ice cream is a good way of getting people to the brand, hot chocolate is a no-brainer, but we are getting to the point in the UK where we need to stop."
In the past, growth has come from new distribution, but with the brand now available in the multiples it will start to slow. UK sales will be about £70m this year and growth is still expected to be in double digits, but the company will need to work harder in supplying the "less organised" trade, such as independent c-stores, to maintain this figure.
Lowe knows he has a huge task ahead. "Green & Black's has got an incredible back story and my job is to write the next chapter. I need to keep the brand cool yet invite more people in. We've got to get it right." n
What's it like moving from a large business to a small one?
It has been tougher than I thought. When I was running the supply chain I had 15,000 people round the region, but Green & Black's employs only 44 staff. With this number of people you have to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. The benefit of being small is that things happen extremely quickly and you are personally very accountable for what happens in the business.
What do you do in your spare time?
I'm a keen garden, I read a lot of detective fiction and I love music. I go out to the opera and theatre quite a bit as well. I also spend a lot of time with my two children. My 15 year-old son is very soon going to beat me at tennis so one of the challenges I am facing at the moment is how long I can hold him off for.
What would you give you NPD out of 10 this year?
An 8.5. We've launched 85% cocoa chocolate, which has surprised us by how successful it has been, and we have also developed the best Christmas gifting range ever as well as tidied up all the packaging. All the evidence is that it's working brilliantly. This is one of the best NPD years we've had.
What are the next small brands in the UK to look out for?
l am really intrigued by the pie market at the moment. Companies such as Higgidy Pies and Square Pie are doing really well at the moment and I think there's a big future for them. I also think the time has come for a big brand to come through in the bread market. Both these categories are going to be very interesting in the future.