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ChocoBalls' Brigadeiro: The Sweet Journey from Brazil to Britain

At 8pron, we take pride in discovering and sharing stories of unsung heroes like Adriana - the owner of a small food business who works hard from her own home to spread sweetness around the UK with her delicious Brigadeiros. This traditional sweet not only tantalises the taste buds but also carries a rich cultural history that many non-Brazilians are unfamiliar with.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to start your business?

I graduated and worked in the journalism industry back in Brazil. Then I studied economics for a year because I wanted to do economic journalism. I worked in journalism reports on world economics and politics and did a little work on TV as well. But I never really liked putting my face up on the screen, and you know, when you are young, you want to change the world? That's how I was, and then I quickly saw that it wasn't like that, so that didn't work so much for me.

I always wanted to speak and practise English. So I moved away from Brazil to New Zealand for a break and lived there for a year, learning English and having a casual job. When I returned to Brazil. I just didn't quite adapt. I couldn't. I worked. I stayed in for another couple of years, and I didn't adapt, so I went to live in Spain and that's where I met my husband. 

He was soon returning to England, so I came with him. We started a family, had children, and I wasn't working. I was quite lost and I felt the language limitation, even though I could speak English fairly well.

I always felt nervous because language was an important asset for any work. When I first came, it was harder. I've been here now for 15 years. It took some time to get used to the accent. I lacked the confidence to work with communication because of the language.

Today I feel happy with my English and often peopel can't guess where my accent is from - I love playing the guess game!

How did the idea of ChocoBalls start 

I tried different things and worked from home but I always liked making sweets. Since I was a child, I used to bake cakes and make deserts with my mom on Saturdays for weekend treats. We have Italian and German roots, and food is a very big thing for us. Getting the family together, sitting around the table at weekends and making bread, pasta, jams, pastries and sweets was a big part of my family. 

These sweets that I make are called Brigadeiro. It's the most traditional sweet in Brazil. I learnt to make it when I was little, maybe 6 or 7, I remember it was an aunt who taught me in my grandmother's house, and that is a very fond memory, of us spreading butter in our hands to roll the chocolate balls.

Most children in Brazil learn to make this sweet at a young age. Almost everyone and every home will make them, you will find it in most bakeries and every birthday party! So I always made them, and when I came to England, I made for my kid's birthdays or just for family and friends over at our home, and they just loved it! They always said I had to sell them because they were just that good!

What is Brigadeiro

So just going back a bit about the Brigadeiro. It was created in Brazil, and people often ask, Why is it Brazilian?

During 1945, there was a presidential election campaign with parties and fundraising events going on, as usual. A group of women supporters decided to create a new confectionery item to sell to raise money for one of the candidates, a military brigadier named Eduardo Gomes. He was known for his good looks too, the women adored him. They created a very simple and small bite chocolate sweet. Initially, they called it 'the sweet of the brigadier', with time it evolved to be simply known as Brigadeiro - or Brigadier. 

What does it taste like? 

The milk chocolate and the coconut ones are the most traditional ones.

It was originally made with condensed milk and butter, and chocolate powder. Nowadays, there are many different versions, and my version is gourmet. I make them with condensed milk and cream instead of butter, and I also use Belgian chocolate. So it's even nicer than the original recipe, the texture and flavours are better. Some people make them with chocolate powder, and that's too sweet in my opinion. It's not the same, I promise!  

How I started ChocoBalls

When the 2016 Olympics was in Rio, Brazil was very fashionable then, and people were talking and wanted to learn about Brazil. One day at the school summer fair, the PTA was trying to do a Brazil theme Fair, and they asked me if I wanted to do my sweets.

I had this little stall with my sweets, and I had some friends who were experienced with farmers' markets and selling other products and things, and they helped and encouraged me by sharing their knowledge and tips. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't know how to start. They taught me what I had to do for public liability, registering at the Council, and all these things that I thought would be a challenge and take longer being a foreigner. I started just for fun and to keep occupied, and It went from there. 

So, what inspired you to start your own business?

As a kid, I have always loved chocolate, and I still do. The inspiration was from people, how they liked it every time I made it for them. They said, "Wow, this is so nice! These should sell in the shops". So knowing that there weren't many Brigadeiro producers around at the time and the community inspired me to do it. 

And what are some of the challenges getting off the ground?

To work at home, because I had a young kid, school age, and my second child, and he was very young, he was like 3 years old. So it was something I could do from home and still be part of my kids days. You know, school runs, softplays and everything you get to do and work from home.

I had a physical challenge to start with. I wanted to do the way we do in Brazil, and then there's all the cooking and the rolling, and there was this special paper case for Brigadeiros presentation. For that first school event, I wanted to have all these colourful paper cases. I couldn't find them here, so I cut them all by hand, it was very tedious, and I got an injury on my elbow, until today. I can never bend my arm properly. 

I bought a machine that you create the design on the computer, then it cuts the paper for you; finally, one day, I found a local Brazilian that sells Brazilian supplies here! I never had to cut anymore. But on the first events, I probably cut about 2,000 of the little cases.

Financial was obviously another challenge. You can't just go and invest a lot of money in something that you don't know. It's not gonna work. Also, quantity guessing was a big one too. Because in Brazil we make so many of them, if you have a birthday party in Brazil, even for young kids, you are going to have a big table full of brigadeiros, and people are going to eat lots, and the kids are going to eat lots. Here people will have 2 or 3, maybe more. Some people find it too rich. They will have one now and save another for later. But I think that's normal. You know, when you start a business, you've got to learn. I think that I actually learned quite quickly.

Any memorable moment on your business journey? 

Well, whenever people ask me that, I think of two things, one positive and one negative moment. So the positive one is I was doing a Christmas fair in Richmond, and the salted caramel flavour brigadeiro had always been my best seller. There was this girl. She's probably in her twenties, and she bought one, and she tried it, and she was pulling this face; she was staring blanking at nothing for like a minute, savouring it, and really tasting it. Finally, she turned to me and said slowly, "This is the best thing I've ever eaten in my entire life". It was such an amazing little victory for me. I have heard that again from other people saying, "the best sweet I have ever had", and Brazilian people said to me as well, that mine are the best Brigadeiros they ever had; and the girl's face I just could never forget that one.

And then the negative one was also Christmas. It was another year, and I was so busy I was overwhelmed. I needed to be more organised, and it was Christmas Eve, and my house was a mess. My kitchen was a mess, and I had to go do a delivery late because I couldn't do it on time, and I was already upset because my husband was complaining, saying, it's Christmas Eve; we should have family time, we should be doing things with the children now, and you were working all this time. We couldn't even make it to the church at that time.

When I arrived at the client's house, she had the most beautiful Christmas setting. The front garden was lit up with a path of Christmas lights, and the house was decorated with festive ornaments. When I entered, I saw my client's family inside, happy and content. They were all gathered around the kitchen, waiting to enjoy some delicious food. The house was filled with the warm, cosy feeling of Christmas, and I couldn't help but start sobbing. That is what I should be doing with my family too, and here I am working. So, that was a bit of a wake-up call for me.

Can you walk us through your typical day of life as a small business owner? And what does the responsibility entail?

My weekdays are quite busy with taking care of my children's needs and doing the school runs. I always make sure to sort out the house first before starting work unless there's something urgent. Once the house is in a good state, I proceed to work on my emails, cooking, organising packaging, marketing, social media, searching and buying supplies, and more. It's a lot to handle, but I try to organise my day depending on what needs to be done. Production days involve cooking and rolling, while paperwork and advertising days require more desk work. I make sure to work around my children's schedule, spending time with them and also dedicating some me-time for yoga or other exercises to disconnect from work. It's a hectic routine, but it works for me. Most times!

How do I keep myself motivated?

I use social media to run my business with Instagram and Facebook, mainly to sell online and marketing. Which can be a toxic environment. I have made a point to unfollow negative accounts and instead follow those who provide motivation and business tips to grow small businesses like mine. I set up stalls at farmers' markets and at family events, and for people to order from me, they either have to know me or find me on social media. To stay motivated, I make it a habit to read a little bit each day that will inspire me.

What sets your business apart from others in your industry? And how do you stay Competitive?

While many Brazilian people do what I do in England, I strive to stand out by using English to communicate with all potential customers, not just the Brazilian community. I don't bother myself too much with the competition, because there is a space for everyone; at the end of the day, this is a handmade product. There's only so much that you can make by hand. So there are always people buying products from everybody. One thing that also differs from me and some other producers is that I focus on the presentation of my products and ensuring consistency.

I always try to ensure that every chocolate ball I make is the same size, they are all individually weighed. Making sure that they look neat and the presentation stands out in a good-quality box. I also always strive to create new flavours and new products; for example, this year, I'm bringing Pistachio flavour for Christmas, and it's already so popular I might keep it on the menu. I made some reindeer and snowman-shaped brigadeiro sticks too. For Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, I'll be using flowers. The gift boxes must look and taste delicious!

How has your business evolved over time?

The main thing that has done well is word of mouth. I am involved in the local community and participate in local events; people get to know me and talk about my sweets. Another change is that now it's not me who goes after people to join their events. It is now the other way around. People have started to love my products, and that is really nice. 

My packaging has more of a professional look now. It was a lot more like their homemade look when I started. Remember, I cut every piece of paper with my own hands. People always say, "Oh, you should sell this in Harrod's…, you should sell in this place and there because they are so beautiful". I think there is a lot of potential. 

The only issue is, how far can I individually go? I work from home. So I have a space problem. My limit is the problem I can't solve now. So I need to grow, and I need to hire people. I need to have my own kitchen. When my children finish school in the future and I don't need to be there for them all the time, then I could open a shop. 

So what do you consider your biggest success as a small business owner? How did you achieve it?

Turning a hobby into a profitable business is a success, And being recognised and people loving my work and product quality. I started in the summer of 2016, so it has been 7 years of this journey. During this time, I have met many people and I see a few of my customers from the start still shopping from me, and there are always new ones too who stick around. Some of them I even became friends with.

I had people that I met in the market, and then we've been out for a coffee, or they come to my house to collect an order, and then stay chatting, and I know things about their lives, and they know things about my life, and there's a level of friendship there that I appreciate, as it can be a very lonely business to be in the kitchen the whole day!

So how do you balance the demands of running a business and your personal life?

In the beginning, I wanted to have all the orders and say yes to everything. When people wanted something completely different and crazy, and even when I didn't know how to do that. But I would do it. 

Now I'm a bit more of saying, "Here, this is what I can do." Setting the limit as well as being better at organising. Taking orders within my capacity and hours. I want to maintain the consistency of the quality but not overwork. It's also very hard for me because I am a perfectionist. And I like everything looking really good. So I take time to make everything how I want it to be.

Finally, what advice would you offer any inspiring young entrepreneur or business starter like you?

First, don't procrastinate because then you don't do it. It doesn't need to start perfectly. You just start it. For my business, for example, I didn't have a particular spoon, the best cooking pan I could have had, or all the Brigadeiros' cases; I started with hand-cut paper cases. I have improved my recipes with time too. Start with what you have, and just go from there. 

It's all about progress. You need to learn as you go, but also you need to start making money move. You know, most of the problems are just inside your head. They are not actually happening. So if you think too much, that isn't going to solve any problem. It's the action that is going to solve the problem.

Another tip on that production side is to spend money on samples. Give away some boxes, give to friends or markets. Let people taste what you do. Don't think that you will waste money away by doing it. It is an investment that does come back. Finally, and most importantly of all, is talking to people and building relationships with the customers.

What do we think?

We first met Adriana two years ago at her stall in a food market. I remember having the first bite of Brigadairo, and it was a wow moment for me. This chocolate was unlike any typical chocolate I had ever tasted before. There were so many different flavours, and the unique designs and impressively handmade chocolates mesmerised me. It was a year or so after that I had the unforgettable sweet, and we reached out to Adriana again and again for more chocolates. As I write this story today, I bought a few boxes of brigadeiros and gave them to my friends as a Christmas gift. One of my buddies was the one who met Adriana with me, and he was surprised and excited when he received the gift. He remembered and told me how he loved them. These chocolates' unforgettable impression and taste last longer than just a memory.

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