Prestat Interviews: The Shop394
In a series of interviews, we will gain some insight into the inner workings of the Prestat company, learning along the way some of the decision-making processes, how the shop is managed, how the chocolate is made, how it is packaged, and how those all-important flavours are decided upon. This interview focuses on the famous Prestat shop in the Princes Arcade, Piccadilly.
Lavinia, the shop manager, has worked in the Prestat shop for almost five years. She is a cheerful and amiable woman, qualities which lend themselves particularly well to the Prestat store, which nestles in the luxurious surroundings of the Princes Arcade in Piccadilly. I enter the shop in an informal and almost incognito style, and am treated initially like a curious customer. Warm smiles and ‘good afternoon’ greetings follow, and I introduce myself as the interviewer. Before we delve into the questions, it is imperative I say something about the store itself.
It is a surprisingly small and intimate place, befitting the artisan nature of the goods. The air is thick with the smell of chocolate, which is happily intoxicating. No-one entering could realistically leave without sampling or buying the chocolates, which are arranged around the store in ornate and colourful boxes. Visually, Prestat is reminiscent of how one would imagine Roald Dahl’s famous Willy Wonka’s factory to be, which is a considerable achievement given the fictional nature of said factory. I imagine the conjuring of such a famous literary setting is deliberate, and it is quite magical. Stepping inside is to step out of the hustle and bustle and into the calm and charm of a traditional confectioner , where both sight and smell are engaged most positively.
With the walls of the store stocked with a dizzying array of different chocolates, one could be forgiven for being spoilt for choice, and thus flummoxed when deciding upon what to buy. The counter rectifies this, as both Lavinia and her assistant, Naoe, are on hand to give out samples to try (of which more shall be said later!)
I ask Lavinia what a typical day at work involves. “I usually get to the store at around nine. We do a little bit of tidying, make sure the shelves are stocked and things look neat, and I check orders.” Asking Lavinia a little about her previous working life, she informs me that she has been in the business of retail for a long time. She certainly knows how to keep a shop running like clockwork.
The main aspect of working in the store involves interaction with the customers. I ask if there are any difficulties here. “All of the customers are polite and friendly. We get a lot of regulars who have loved the chocolates for years.” Asking about the clientele, I am unsurprised to hear that Prestat gets “MP’s, sometimes Sirs and Ladies, and we have a lot of celebrities in here too.” Stephen Fry had been in recently. Recognising the luxury of the chocolates, Lavinia informs me that many of the customers come to look around, and sample the chocolates. Many tourists come in. “We get a lot of Japanese tourists in particular, who all love the chocolate.” Shop assistant Naoe is Japanese herself, which is handy for dealing with the Japanese tourists who regularly enter the shop. Rapport with customers is important, especially in a small but well-established company, and the international nature of the shop, its staff, and indeed the chocolates, which encompass flavours from around the world, is testament to the vision for the store as a leader in purveying the best chocolates. No-one would feel unwelcome in the shop, whether a regular, or a tourist with little English.
I ask Lavinia what attracted her to Prestat, and what she enjoys about her work. “Well, I love chocolate of course. But the shop is special; the surroundings make it a very attractive place to work. The customers are always very friendly, and I love it. Bill and Nick (owners of the shop) are great too, and I think it is important that we all get on very well. It makes working here very easy when you like and respect your co-workers. We all have a great relationship.”
In testament to her love of working at Prestat, Lavinia enthuses about how she will be returning to work after taking some maternity leave; the baby is due in mid-April. She is expecting a baby girl, and the excitement is plain to see. I ask about any cravings she has experienced, and she delves into a funny anecdote.
“I don’t drink very much, but I do have a glass of wine now and again. Obviously now I’m pregnant I don’t drink at all, but I still get to eat the champagne truffles, so this is ok! It makes up for it!” I ask Lavinia which chocolates she would recommend buying for a new mother. “Oh, definitely the champagne truffles, because having a baby is something to celebrate. Also, we have the Babes (fruity jellies enrobed in chocolates) which are good because they have that child theme, so that would be thoughtful too.”
We talk about what qualities Lavinia looks for when considering hiring. Retail experience of course, but also “body language and presentation are important, because customer interaction is important. Our customers are friendly and talkative, so somebody who is very friendly and talkative too. And a passion for chocolate of course!”
I ask about the difficult aspects of the job, imagining myself that the pressure of keeping up standards in a shop where high standards are expected must be taxing. Lavinia is surprising in her answer. “I don’t feel there are many hard aspects to my job actually. There is something just….pleasant about working here. I love the job, and coming in to work with chocolate and nice customers is really good fun. The customers are always happy to be in here, and that makes me happy too.”
Wrapping up the interview (pun perhaps intended), the talk turns to the chocolate itself. I ask Lavinia for her favourite, stipulating she must only pick one. A long pause follows. “Oh my God, it’s so hard to pick one….but I have to say the original Napoleon III truffles. They are our own original chocolates, they can’t be bought anywhere else, and they are so historic. And they taste wonderful.”
I am offered a selection of chocolates to try for myself, and all I can say is ‘Well done Lavinia!’ for having the strength of mind to choose a single chocolate. Listing things is rather dull, but in this particular case, it lends itself well to hinting at the sheer variety of exotic flavours on offer at Prestat. I try: A Napoleon III truffle, a cinnamon one, and a pistachio one. The insides are soft and creamy, the cinnamon one in particular feels like an actual cinnamon bun inside a chocolate. Willy Wonka’s three- course meal chewing gum no longer seems so fantastical, because the juxtaposition of crisp outer chocolate with the molten insides really does feel like you are getting more than just one chocolate with each that you eat.
I try the sea salt and caramel chocolate, a seemingly strange combination that works perfectly, the hint of salt offsetting the sweetness in harmony. A saffron and ginger chocolate gives flavours that are hard to describe, other than to say they taste delicious, and are now my favourites.
I can only fully recommend a trip to the Prestat store. Its whimsy, its delectable array of different chocolates and its friendly staff combine to create a wonderful experience that can be continued until the last chocolate has gone….once there, it is hard to leave, and the consolation of course, is knowing that it isn’t going anywhere.
Anthony Lewis- Binns