On the backroads of Co Galway you wouldn’t expect to find a luxury chocolate factory – or to be greeted by a pastry chef wearing a hot pink power suit. But this is Gráinne Mullins and this is her business: Grá Chocolates.
Her sense of style, the playful flair of her hand-painted chocolate line and the natural surroundings of her rural home all play into what her brand represents.
As we chat, it’s immediately clear that Gráinne doesn’t do anything at half speed. At 26, she is considered one of Ireland’s best pastry chefs and has, to date, accomplished some major achievements, including winning the prestigious Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year award in 2019 after spending two years working in the south of France.
Since lockdown she’s in her home place, which is a 15-minute drive from Loughrea. During the first lockdown she made some Easter chocolates for family and friends and the response to these made her think there could be a business opportunity afoot.
“People wanted to buy [those Easter treats] because I was posting them on social media,” Gráinne laughs. “I got on to my Local Enterprise Office (LEO) and they really helped me organise the business. Before I knew it, the business plan was complete and I said I’d just go for it. I officially opened on 24 July.”
While the COVID-19 lockdown saw many Irish businesses pivot to online sales, it also opened virtual doors for young professionals. In Gráinne’s case, the chocolates were an immediate success; she couldn’t make them quickly enough to keep up with demand.
Today, if you want to purchase Grá chocolates then you will be pre-ordering and waiting a while (think about Valentine’s Day). But – trust me – these chocolates are every bit worth the wait.
As we chat in her new production facility (“the cutest, tiniest chocolate factory in Ireland,” we joke), Gráinne turns on her custom-built chocolate tempering machines.
“I only use Valrhona chocolate,” she says. “It’s the best you can get.”
Having been the recipient of Valrhona-laden desserts in the past, I have to agree.
Gráinne’s chocolates are not just beautiful, they are made using the very best of everything. Her line includes crowd-pleasing flavours – Irish strawberry and white chocolate, wild mint and dark chocolate, a richly-flavoured chocolate hazelnut – but the way these chocolates are made is what sets them apart.
“I was picking the mint for the mint truffles during the summer,” she says. “The strawberry jam gets made in bulk when Irish strawberries are at their peak. The range was designed with things in season almost all year.”
As we chat, I’m admiring her new work area (“I hate to call it a factory,” she laughs). It’s designed from an old outdoor kiln.
“At first, when the idea was suggested, I thought, ‘No, it’s too small’”, she says. “But my dad’s a carpenter and an artist. He was able to get the structure properly in place. I was getting busier and it wasn’t practical working from the kitchen in the house. I was juggling times, with everyone in and out, and I’d be working at 10pm and not finishing ’til 2am.
“Luckily, one of our neighbours is a tiler, another is an electrician and another is a plumber. So between them, my dad and my brother, we got the ‘factory’ finished within a month.”
The new unit includes air conditioning as the temperature should be kept around 18°C at all times to keep her product in optimal condition. When you eat well-tempered chocolate, it’s shiny, has a nice crack when you bite into it and has a smooth finish. The outside environment is as important as the chocolate itself when it comes to the finished product.
The right support
To the untrained eye (and looking into her tight production space) Grá Chocolates appears to be a one-woman operation. If you ask Gráinne, she will say otherwise.
Sure enough, as she finishes this sentence, her father drops in with some coffee for a quick hello. While a larger sense of support is palpable, you can also tell Gráinne’s family have supported her so she could forge her own path. No coddling here – just a bit of grá.
Irish Country Living asks Gráinne why she chose to start her business in the countryside.
“It was mainly opportunistic,” she explains. “I had the support and a building which could be adapted to chocolate-making. I was trying to be smart about my next move. I was basically trying to produce the best-quality chocolate on a budget. Would I have done as well in the city? I don’t know. It made more sense to do everything online – especially this year.”
Earning her stripes
As a pastry chef, Gráinne has worked her way through some of Ireland’s top restaurants (including Kai, Ox Belfast, The Cliff House and Lignum). While excelling in her field, she was never formally trained in pastry – proving success is as much about drive and passion as it is education.
“I actually went to study science,” she smiles. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I loved understanding the chemistry behind things. I was also working in a small restaurant in Loughrea. In second year, I started thinking about becoming a chef because I was always looking forward to getting to the kitchen after school.
“The temperatures and control – understanding how chocolate tempers – is all very scientific,” she continues. “[This work] brings all of my loves together. I like things intricate, organised and in their place, but I also love the creative aspect.”
In 2018, Gráinne came home from France with the intent to go back to college, but instead started working her way through more professional kitchens. When she won the Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year award in 2019 she was, at the time, shocked and says she still is. It is uncommon for a pastry chef to win this competition – their skillsets are quite different from those of general chefs.
“For example, I never had to break down (butcher) a chicken until a few months before the competition,” she laughs. “The first time, it took me 26 minutes – in the competition, it took six minutes. In between, I broke down so many chickens.”
As expected, Gráinne is experiencing a busy holiday season. She recently signed on with high-end retailer Brown Thomas for a special Christmas product: chocolate baubles. Available as a set of three, the baubles come in festive flavours: Christmas Spirit (dark chocolate with Irish whiskey); Ginger Bell Rock (milk chocolate with gingerbread); and Berry Christmas (white chocolate with cranberry). Each bauble is hand painted and decorated with gold leaf.
They retail at €30 and are currently only available with Brown Thomas, though Gráinne will possibly release more stock this week.
“I never want anyone to be intimidated by my product line,” she says. “They are a high-end product, but they taste familiar. This is what Grá Chocolates is all about – bringing a bit of fun and pizazz. They need to be fun to eat and to look at.”
In consideration of how quickly all of this has happened, Irish Country Living asks: “Do you ever feel like it’s all too much?”
“Just last night!”
We both laugh.
“Honestly, it’s been a mad two years but it’s been so enjoyable. Being able to work with amazing chefs, learning so much and I’m still shocked I won Euro-Toques. It’s been an absolute whirlwind.”