Charlie Chaplin and the Chocolate Factory

We’re wrestling with a mystery here in the archive this week and it involves Charlie Chaplin and one of our chocolate factories. Ninety-eight years ago the Peter, Cailler, Kohler chocolate company (which later merged with Nestlé) bought themselves a cocoa factory down in London with an unusual back story. The history of the factory is interesting, but the story of the factory’s founder is one of my favourite in our company’s history; it starts with the grand circuses of old Prussia, and one of the strongest men in the world.

The factory was the Sandow ‘s Cocoa Works, of Hayes, Middlesex – home of Sandow The Great. Now you could be forgiven for not recognising his name, because although Sandow was a very famous Victorian, he isn’t so well known now.

Hayes factory now makes Nescafé coffee for the UK market and export

Legend has it that Sandow appeared in some of Chaplin’s films as the herculean strong man. The old story goes that Sandow retired from Hollywood with his earnings from Chaplin’s films and invested them in his first cocoa factory. It is possible; Sandow did have a lot of famous friends (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories with whom he is meant to have judged one of the world’s first body-building contests); but to this day, we still don’t know whether Sandow really worked with Chaplin, extensive research has gleaned no evidence, but we do know that he was a star in his own right.

Eugene Sandow was an international body-building phenomenon, in fact he is known as the father of modern body-building. Sandow was born in Prussia (now Russia) in 1867 and travelled round Europe as a circus performer.

Sandow launched his UK career by gate-crashing a performance of strongmen in London in 1889 and became an over-night sensation because of his astonishing display of strength.  Thanks to this early film from 1894 (kindly made available online by the United States Library of Congress's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division via Wikimedia) we can see the great man himself, way back in the early days of film.

Sandow wasn’t just a showman, he was an astute businessman. Sandow realised that entering body-building contests wasn’t enough to build a strong career on, he needed to have a product to sell. In a surprisingly modern move he decided that his product needed to be his own persona. Sandow built up a brand around his name, over thirty years before similar modern marketing methods were adopted in the UK.

First Sandow promoted himself as a pioneer of new ideas. He created all kinds of health and fitness regimes including everything from exercises, to patent fitness equipment, to diets. His next step was to establish a geographical location as a focus for his brand, he opened his own public gymnasium where he could promote the “Sandow Method” for fitness and have some personal contact with his target audience.

After that he had his method endorsed by doctors, and got coverage in the popular press so that his target audience could see that he had credibility. Finally Sandow established himself as a thought leader in his field by publishing books, a regular magazine and being the subject of biographies and early films.

Sandow’s strategy was successful up to a point, he was operating in a market where his competitors were of a similar size to his business. Trouble came when Sandow tried to branch out into a business that required experience of food science and manufacture.

Sandow claimed that drinking cocoa gave him the edge as a body-builder, and in 1911 he invested in his own cocoa factory in central London. For reasons unknown Sandow moved to a new factory in Hayes in 1913 and built up the brand of Sandow’s Cocoa.

Unfortunately Sandow just wasn’t cut out for cocoa manufacturing and in 1916, after compulsory liquidation of Sandow Ltd., his factory was bought up by the Swiss chocolate giant, PCK (Peter, Cailler, Kohler). It seems a shame that after all that hard work building up his brand, Sandow fell at the final hurdle, but the change in ownership meant a huge investment for the factory.

PCK began investing heavily in the old factory, branching out into eating chocolate production for Nestlé under licence. The factory even became the Nestlé UK head office for a while after the firm merged with PCK, and was the first factory outside Switzerland to produce Nescafé coffee and Milkybar. Thanks to its exquisite Art Deco façade the factory has itself appeared in period films (although no one can remember which ones), and is something of a local landmark.

However, that nagging mystery still remains: what was Sandow’s connection with Charlie Chaplin? How did the legend come into existence?