July 2012 marks 150 years since the Rowntree family started their cocoa business in York. The Rowntrees were a Quaker family with strong Quaker beliefs. They built a chocolate empire from a small drinking cocoa business and changed the way Britons view, buy and eat chocolate, making it a regular purchase.
Rowntree’s created such favourites as Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles and Fruit Gums, Smarties, Black Magic, Aero, Dairy Box, Kit Kat, POLO, After Eight, Jellytots, Matchmakers, Breakaway, Lion, Yorkie, and Drifter.
The Rowntrees built a model, garden village (New Earswick) on the outskirts of York to help city dwellers escape the York slums.
Seebohm Rowntree embarked on the first large-scale, scientific investigation into the causes of poverty in York. His findings influenced social policy at the time and Winston Churchill said of it “fairly made my hair stand on end”.
The Rowntrees created charitable trusts to run New Earswick village, effect social reform, and undertake social and political work. The charities are still in existence as the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The Rowntrees created a garden factory for their workers and improved working conditions by shortening the working week, improving sanitation, providing pensions, paid holiday, sick pay, a doctor, a dentist, education for young workers, a swimming pool, library, gymnasium, sports facilities, theatre and regular dinner dances.
Rowntree’s is believed to have started making confectionery in the 1870s. The early chocolates would have been bitter, dark chocolate, high in cocoa content and with a thick fondant centre, known as “creams”.
Left-over chocolate would have been used to make chocolate dragée (what we now know as Smarties).
York remains the head office for Nestlé Confectionery, producing over a billion Kit Kats per year. In addition it is also the home for Aero, Aero Bubbles, Polo, Yorkie and Milkybar. Over £50 million pounds investment has been made in the last five years and it remains an important hub for the business with half the employees involved in Corporate functions rather than confectionery. This includes the distribution centre, Nespresso’s Customer Relationship Centre and Nestlé Facilities.
York is also the location for Nestlé’s global centre for confectionery research in the form of the Product Technology Centre. It is currently undergoing a multimillion pound expansion which will double its size – set for completion in September 2012.