James Bridger, 46, opened his shop Coastal Cocoa in the arcade in Hastings town centre last October, and has already started running chocolate-making courses there.
Two businesses - Arcade Fisheries and Arcade Butchers - recently announced they are leaving the arcade, but despite their departure, James believes the arcade will go from strength to strength in the future. “With the butcher and the fishmonger going, there will be four empty units, but there are still four of us in here, and I know there are people looking at the empty units. We really want to make it clear to everyone that it is still going to be open, and the new owner is starting to invest some money into it. It’s been neglected for a few years if I’m honest...but the arcade is going to stay, and the new owner is absolutely committed to keeping it as a shopping arcade, and we really want to get some new shops in here and make the arcade thrive again.”
James used to work in IT in London, and started making chocolates as a hobby 15 years ago after going on a Prue Leith cookery course. He moved down to Hastings 10 years ago, and commuted to London for seven years, before deciding to set up his chocolate business. “I’d been in my previous role for 20 years, and it was just a feeling that I fancied a change, and if I didn’t start doing something at that point I would probably have stayed doing software development for the next 20 years. So I thought, ‘if I don’t get it done now I probably never will’. And I’ve always wanted to have a go at running my own business, being responsible for everything that goes on, rather than working for someone else.”
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He started selling his hand-made chocolates online, and at markets and craft fairs, then decided to open his shop in Queens Arcade. “I needed more space to make stuff in because I’d reached the limits of how much I could produce at home. I thought, ‘well if I’m paying for kitchen space, I might as well have a shop attached to it as well’. And I also wanted to have the space to be able to run courses, which I’ve already started doing here now, and to also have the option to employ people as well, which wouldn’t have been practical from home. The size of the shop was what I was looking for. It’s a lovely arcade - it’s a lovely little place. The size and how nice the location was were big factors there.”
He has always experimented with different tastes and textures in his chocolates. One of his most popular is honey and almond, and he is busy creating a ‘seaside rock’ chocolate. “It’s peppermint flavoured like sticks of rock. It’s got some little crunchy bits to give you a bit of the seaside rock crunch, and it’s decorated with a nice stripey pattern to make it look like a bit of rock as well.” He does one new flavour a month to keep his online subscribers interested. He added: “It’s early days yet but things are heading in the right direction. I wouldn’t say it’s at the point where I’m making a good living yet, but I believe that we’ll get there.”