CHOCOLATIER SARAH ADAMS IS CONTINUING THE LEGACY OF HER GRANDFATHER ERNEST ADAMS BY ADDING A SWEET NOTE TO CHRISTMAS
Ernest Adams’ granddaughter Sarah Adams
When you’re part of a food dynasty that’s synonymous with Christmas, the festive season is a very special time of year.
And for Sarah Adams, a descendant of Kiwi baking legend Ernest Adams, it’s a particularly busy time.
While the eponymous operation founded by her grandfather is no longer run by the family, Sarah has made it her life’s mission to resurrect the company’s iconic subsidiary, the Queen Anne chocolate business, which closed in 1976.
It’s been a labour of love, involving travelling around the country seeking out former staff members and historic recipes, securing manufacturers and weathering earthquakes.
But today the Christchurch-based business is reliving its glory days, delighting families up and down the country with its nostalgic, delicious and very Kiwi brand of chocolates.
“I’ve always been interested in chocolate, but for me it was more about resurrecting the history of Queen Anne,” explains 57-year-old Sarah. “There were people out there who after 50 years could still remember tastes, textures and shapes of individual chocolates – that’s what’s always inspired me.”
Taking the cake
As a child Sarah, had a close relationship with her grandfather Ernest, who by then had retired from the business that made him a household name. However, he was still a regular visitor at his original Tuam Street factory in Christchurch.
“He would go every week, and he knew everyone personally – so it was quite a mission to get round because he kept stopping to talk,” recalls Sarah, whose great-grandfather launched Herbert Adams bakers in Australia, a brand still popular today. “But I kind of ate my way around the factory – if we were in the icing department, I’d get flipped a few icing flowers, or if we were in the sponge department there was probably a crust from a freshly baked sponge out of the oven.” Soon after leaving school Sarah decided she wanted to work for the family business, and having first tried her hand in the traditionally female arena of cake decorating, persuaded her uncle, Hugh Adams – who took over the business from Ernest – to give her an apprenticeship.
In doing so, she became one of only two female baking apprentices to have worked for the company, something which sent her co-workers into a spin.
“Baking is creative, but it’s a lot of physical work,” she reveals. “There were quite a few older bakers there, and they’d struggle to see me lift things – they’d race over and try to help.”
Sarah soon rose up the ranks, working in product development before holding roles as a marketing manager and export manager. But by 1997, when Ernest Adams Ltd was bought out, she was ready for a change.
Newly married to husband Avon Zwarts, while also mourning the recent death of her mother, she felt it was “maybe time to jump into the unknown”.
Her first project was writing a profile of her late grandfather for the Dictionary
of New Zealand Biography. And it was as she researched Ernest’s career and discovered more about Queen Anne that the seeds of a plan were planted.
A sweet idea
Until then, Sarah had little awareness of the chocolate side of the family business: “We never really had chocolates at my grandparents’ place; it was always cake.” The way Ernest structured his company
meant Queen Anne was for many years run by the North Island operation, under the leadership of Ernest’s business partner Hugh Bruce, under the Adams Bruce brand.
But the more Sarah researched, the more excited she became.
“I guess at that stage I was thinking about it simplistically,” says the Cantabrian, who describes her family as a “very practical” group, none of whom batted an eyelid at her plan to resurrect a dead brand after 20 years.
“I thought it was a seasonal product like cake – I love cake, I love chocolate; this should be reasonably easy – and I started a list of what I needed to do.”
However, it was easier said than done. “Tracking down the original recipes was one of the biggest challenges – I certainly hit quite a few brick walls on that,” she says, recalling a time she met with the son of a previous manager, who admitted he’d just sent boxes of recipes to the dump.
But through painstakingly contacting former Queen Anne staff members, Sarah gradually built up a collection, which was given a boost when she unearthed a carton of original Queen Anne recipes from the 1920s. “They were all handwritten, had old-fashioned plastic covers and they were kind of greasy – like they still had chocolate on them,” she says with a smile.
The royal treatment
By Christmas 1998, Sarah had her first batch of chocolates ready for sale, using a contract manufacturer.
“At that stage I was working from my home office, but we actually had waiting lists at the specialty shops for the first Queen Anne boxes.”
While she had originally envisaged they would just be in boutique stores, within five years Queen Anne was available in supermarkets nationwide, with Christmas boxed chocolates and Easter eggs being particularly popular.
It’s been a labour of love; travelling around seeking out former staff members and recipes
In 2011 Sarah was finally ready to open her own chocolate factory – plans which she refused to let the earthquakes derail.
“My main concern with the shaking was whether all our Easter eggs were going to crack!” she says. “I’d just get the chocolate tempered and things would start shaking and I’d think, ‘Am I going to stay with my machine or run for the door?’”
Today, she annually produces more than 1.6 million chocolates, delighting in the fact Queen Anne is big enough to produce on a large scale, but boutique enough to do small batches and be flexible with ingredients. Although, while always keen to experiment with new flavours, Sarah remains mindful of the company’s roots.
“I’ve always felt I’m just the custodian of the brand and the product, and what people remember is our history and our heritage,” explains the chocolatier, whose grandfather flew expert confectioners over from Canada in the 1920s to train the Queen Anne team, with emphasis on the art of nougat. “But we’re relevant. For example, our salted caramel is an original [caramel] recipe from the 1920s that we’ve jazzed up with a pinch of Marlborough sea salt flakes. So something new, trendy and topical is really just an old classic with a twist.”
Right now, Sarah’s full focus is on Christmas, Queen Anne’s busiest time of the year, when they make about 40 per cent of their annual sales.
She expects to be working through the festive season – as once all the festive stock has been produced she’ll be ramping up for Easter.
But she will still be making time for a big family Christmas, which will include her husband, two step-children and seven grandchildren.
‘We never er ally had chocolates at my grandparents’ place; it was always cake!’
“Because we are a large blended family there is lots of tripping around visiting people,” she says.
And given Sarah is an expert in the arts of both baking and chocolate, she is in hot demand.
“I am always expected to take chocolates – ‘chief in charge of chocolate’ – I never travel without them,” she admits with a laugh. Given her husband is gluten-intolerant, Sarah has also evolved some of her cake recipes.
“I have developed a really nice gluten-free Christmas cake – because I love cake and it’s something different from chocolate,” she explains.
All Queen Anne chocolates are gluten-free, and Sarah admits the way to her husband’s heart is definitely with her primary industry. “My husband is a chocoholic,” she confides. “But we got married before I set up my chocolate factory, so I know he loved me for myself and not my chocolate!”
Sarah’s grandfather Ernest Adams.