Gina Riley has been supplying the city’s fudge needs for 5 years from her shop Roly’s Fudge situated on Watergate street. The success of the Chester branch has led Gina to open another store in Keswick in the Lake District , which will be opening soon.
Tell us about the birth of the Fudge Empire ?
It was just before I was born, about thirty years ago. My mum was at home making fudge in the kitchen (in Devon) My parents had just moved into a barnhouse and were short on money. They were trying to be self sufficient but didn’t really have the money to do it. So my dad said to my mum “could you make this on a bigger scale?” They rented their first shop in Torquay. The opening was very stressful for my mum, she thought that nobody was going to come. They sold out of fudge on the first day and there was a queue down the road ! They just went from there. My parents had 2 shops and they realised that they needed to franchise it if they wanted to expand the business. The first one was in Ilfracombe and there are about 28 shops now.
“Halfway through my degree, my dad told me that he wanted to retire. He asked if me or my brother were interested in taking over the franchise company, and we both said no, we’re not interested in fudge, sell it.” Gina graduated and was unsure of her next steps so in 2011, decided to open a fudge outlet herself via the new owner of her dad’s business. “I don’t regret taking over the franchise company.. its a weird thing. Theres a lot of food legislation, advertising and packaging. I prefer the more hands on stuff.
“I had never been to Chester before. I looked all over the country for a place to do it. I was really into Triathlon so there needed to be a Tri club, there needed to be a river and it had to be a nice place. I could have gone anywhere… There was a shop to rent in Watergate st and it ticked all the boxes. I moved here two weeks later and I didn’t know anyone! I got myself a little flat, and I immersed myself in meeting people and working. I think Chester is the perfect size, its small enough to get to know everyone, but not too small to feel that its really claustrophobic. I got really involved in the Tri club.
Is it difficult working in the fudge world when you live such a healthy lifestyle ?
“I do eat the fudge, if I eat one piece I’ll eat it all day. People say you could go off it, but you never do. Sometimes you have to try it, at 4 o clock in the afternoon, if we’re doing a new flavour.
“It starts with butter, sugar and milk. We use big copper pans and it has to get to a certain temperature. We add the ingredients that make up the flavours and then we tip it out onto a marble slab. This is the main selling point of the shop, it wouldn’t work if there wasn’t this kind of theatre to it. People stop and they look through the window, and the smell as well gets people. I think people really like to see where food is coming from, most things are made in a factory. People really like that.”
How have the last 5 years been ?
“Its gone from strength to strength. We’ve doubled the turnover since year one .. Its just been a really steady increase. January is a low point because every where’s quiet and everyone’s on a diet. Other than that, October to December are really busy, people getting ready for Christmas and loads of increased footfall on the street. Generally any time in Chester is busy. Races is bad… its always down on a race day. On race days we watch them all come back and they look terrible. When we finish work at half five, they are completely hammered, it looks awful. I talk to a lot of people who are new to the city and they think its quite a spectacle, they dont see it later on when it turns nasty.
Has Watergate street turned to Dark Side with Sainsburys and Costa?
“Anything that creates more people on the street is good so I have never opposed Sainsburys being there. The more people that walk down the street the better, Costa has helped. The Dungeon was just amusing ! That drove people away because kids were terrified of it! I think there’s a good mix of shops on Watergate st, but I think its really sad that there are so many empty shops. They need to lower the rent, its absolutely imperative. Some of the small shops on the rows, the rent is 14 thousand pounds, you have to take so much money to make a profit, pay that rent and the rates that go with it. Its impossible to ask a small business to do that which hasn’t got any previous trading. Businesses come and go. If they want them not to be empty, they have to lower the rent, just to encourage small businesses to give it a go.
What changes have you seen over 5 years and how do you regard the future of Chester ?
I think theres been a mixture of good and bad things. Theres obviously a lot of investment coming into the city. At the same time theres not being done at grass roots level to get people to come to Chester as a shopping location. If there aren’t lots of interesting shops, like in York for people to come and look at , no one will come ,to see the theatre for instance. I think its important to start at the basics instead of forging away with these grand plans when there are already hundreds of empty shops. Its moving away all the focus away to a different part of town and leaving the rest not thought about
Will you be affected by the closure of Linenhall car park ?
“Difficult to say at the moment but it will definitely have an impact. We get trade from customers coming back from their shopping in town. We wont have that trade, but you have to keep it in perspective. How many people from that car park would have bought fudge ?
“I think people complain about the parking but its not actually that bad. I did go to Ellesmere port last week, and no wonder the parking is 70p, its all relative. They all need to be around five pounds a day to encourage people to come into Chester. They need to be really accessible. There are plenty of car parks, but people cant find them. I think free after 3 is a great incentive, I use it all the time. I dont think people know enough about it… it has not been circulated enough.
“It takes a while for things to come through, but its also a negative time of year to be thinking about it. On the whole we have done better and better each year, and I feel confident that the city is offering more and more and people are coming to visit.”