Lunch with Alister Haigh
The fourth-generation maker of Adelaide’s famous chocolates happily killed off the Easter bunny.
When fourth-generation South Australian chocolatier Alister Haigh was a student at Geelong Grammar, his father, John Haigh, told him not to bother going to university, as it would not help him learn how to make better chocolate. John had sent his son to Geelong in the hope he’d make connections with important people from all around the world, and that would “put us in good stead going down the track”, Haigh said.
As it turned out, Alister went to school with a member of the royal family. Unfortunately, however, it was a Nauruvian royal family.
“The prince of Nauru was in our house when we were at Timbertops,” he told me.
How large is the Nauruvian chocolate market? “I would say very small,” Haigh admits.
Alister Haigh seems an unassuming man, with eyes a little harder than his smile. He is not given to hyperbole. His favourite answer to a yes/no question is ”to a degree”. He isn’t avoiding the issue, he just doesn’t want to exaggerate. He’s a likeable, good-humoured lunch companion, and he makes very nice – if quite expensive – chocolate.
We meet in a very nice – if quite expensive – Adelaide restaurant, Auge, which gets a two-hat rating from the local daily paper and is numbered among Australian Gourmet Traveller’s top 100 restaurants in Australia. For all that, it’s almost empty at midday on a pre-Christmas Tuesday, and Haigh and I secure the best table in the stylish but unintimidating dining room. (The rest of the floorspace in Auge is taken by the Sputini Bar. I don’t know what sputini is, but it sounds like it might be difficult to get out of your shirt, so I investigate no further.)
Haigh is easy to spot, as he is wearing a tie decorated with cascading bonbons, and a navy suit with ”Haigh’s Chocolates” embroidered over the breast pocket.
He says it’s looking like a good Christmas for the chocolate industry: ”Things are very promising at the moment.”
Chocolate sales are fairly weather-dependant, even at Christmas. In hot weather, people don’t eat as much. If they buy in summer, they’ll pick up a smaller amount, so they can scoff it before it melts. At Easter, its best time of year, a heatwave can knock 10 per cent to 15 per cent off sales.
This Christmas, the fashion is for more dark chocolate. A generation ago, there might have been only one dark chocolate in the Haigh’s Christmas-pack range. Now, the mix is almost even.
I suggest the recent, somewhat startling, discovery of dark chocolate as a health food can’t hurt sales. Haigh laughs. ”Yeah, look, we like the research that’s coming out about cocoa,” he says, ”but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a health food.
”There are beneficial health effects: the higher percentage of cocoa you have, supposedly the better benefits you have – but it does get to a stage where, if you’ve got too much cocoa, I don’t find it pleasant to eat. It doesn’t hurt sales, but it just depends on how … careful you want to be with the truth.”
Haigh’s great-grandfather founded Haigh’s Chocolates in Adelaide in 1915. For many years, the majority of its outlets were theatre concessions. In 1950, Alister’s father John secured six months’ work-experience with Lindt and Sprungli in Switzerland, and came home with a more artisanal approach to making serious, European-quality products.
Alister and brother Simon joined the company in the 1970s, and have been joint-managing directors since 1990. Simon handles finance and IT, Alister looks after people and production. The biggest change on their watch, Haigh says, has been the culling of the Easter bunny (although he doesn’t use those words).
”We went rabbit-free 18 years ago,” he says, ”and only sell bilbies now. We first brought in the bilby 20 years ago. It was almost real size, so it was actually quite expensive. We thought we’d sell a few, just as a novelty. We were working right through Easter just to keep up with demand.
”We thought, ‘Let’s do a bit of product differentiation’, so we extended the range of bilbies. Then we thought, ‘Why are we persevering with rabbits’?”
The bunny’s death blow was swift and merciless.
”From memory we only had one or two rabbits anyway,” Haigh says, ”and we just dropped them one year to see what the customer reaction was, and basically there was no reaction. Sorry, there was positive reaction, because everyone liked the fact we were promoting the bilby, and part proceeds from day one always went to bilby conservation and the control of rabbits in the arid areas.”
Another blow against the rabbit?
”Yeah,” Haigh agrees, dryly, ”but they’re back in force now I believe.”
It’s not easy to create the mould for a new chocolate animal.
”When you come up with a unique shape like that, you can’t go overseas and get one,” Haigh said, ”you can’t buy one off the shelf. So we did have an artist sculpt a bilby. She had to sculpt it in a way that, effectively, a casting would turn out – because bilbies have a long thin tail, and if you had that in chocolate, it would break off the whole time. So she had to curl it around and attach it to the body.”
In the past, Haigh’s has made elephants and tigers. What about kangaroos and koalas? ”Kangaroos, I can’t recollect,” he says. ”The tail’s a bit of challenge. Koalas might work.”
So appendages are a problem in the chocolate moulding industry?
”To a degree,” he says. But the business does not shy from either tradition or innovation.
”We still do a chicken,” he says, ”and there’s a hen. We’ve started using coloured chocolate to highlight their eyes and things. We’re doing Father Christmases with white eyes and white beards.”
Our entrees arrive in dishes that resemble upturned flying saucers. A gnome could wear one as a sombrero. Is this an Adelaide thing?
”I think they have a competition for who can have the biggest, most unusual plate,” Haigh says.
I’ve chosen a mozzarella salad with peaches, cherry tomatoes and slivers of squash. The mozzarella sits like a flower in the centre of a plate, and the squash is arranged like petals. Haigh has crab meat and calamari in an acqua pazza broth.
I ask him what it was like to grow up in a chocolate family. I imagine he was quite popular with his peers.
”Yeah,” he says, ”especially when holidays were finished and I returned to boarding school with a suitcase full of chocolate.”
Was he ever beaten up and robbed for his chocolate? ”No,” he says, ”I just made sure I kept the biggest kids in class supplied.”
He didn’t mind going away from home to Geelong. He thought it was an adventure and the education offered was ”wonderful”.
What was he good at?
”My father would probably say metalwork,” he says, ”because I made a pair of fire tongs, and he keeps on telling everyone how much those tongs cost him.”
He leaned toward maths and economics more than humanities, he says. He enjoyed playing tennis and liked to row. He toyed around with becoming an architect, but knew he’d probably end up in the family firm, at least for a while. ”I didn’t envisage we’d end up where we are or where I am now,” he says.
Haigh’s, once an exclusively South Australian concern, today has 14 stores – six in Adelaide, six in Melbourne and two in Sydney. It employs about 400 people, with about 100 extra staff laid on at Christmas, in manufacturing and distribution.
Alister started out in the factory, with cleaning and basic cooking. He’s done every job in chocolate ”to a degree”, he says. ”I used to know how to work cash registers, and for a very short time I did hand dipping, but I was so slow. Manual dexterity’s not my forte.”
What’s the worst task in chocolate? ”It doesn’t happen now,” he says, ”but probably hand-stirring caramel on a 35- to 40-degree day.”
When he was a boy, did his parents have lots of chocolates around the house? ”No, not really,” he says. ”Dad has always been a dark-chocolate fan, so he always had his stash of dark, but as kids we weren’t that keen on dark. It was always a novelty to go into the factory and grab whatever we could, but because it was never at home.”
And his grandfather?
”His favourite was chocolate-coated ginger. That was definitely unappealing to kids.”
And his own family?
”We’re as bad,” he says. ”We won’t have chocolate at home per se, but occasionally I’ll bring some home and then the fairies will eat them.”
Our main courses arrive on unremarkable plates. Haigh has mulloway, the fish of the day, and I’m presented with a delicious, gamey pile of slow-braised goat on pasta, which looks like it might have been dropped from the sky by one of the flying-saucer entree dishes.
Haigh says he isn’t much of a foodie, and only has a sweet tooth “to a degree”. “I’ll always eat chocolate if I’m offered it,” he says, “but I don’t crave it. I’m happy with one or two pieces.”
His wife is a retired clinical nurse and telephone counsellor, who looks after their home in Adelaide, the family farm, a place she owns with her sister in Robe, and a house they’re building on the Yorke Peninsula. They have three grown-up children. Two of the kids have careers – as an exercise physiologist and a chartered account – the youngest is a marketing and communications student. All worked part-time at Haigh’s to help them through their studies.
The family is widely recognised in Adelaide. “Everyone knows us and has grown up with us,” Haigh says. “It’s nice in some ways, but a drawback in others. Everyone remembers you and they expect you to remember them, and there’s always an expectation of how you live and how you behave. If we ever did something stupid, it’s more than likely it would make the papers. It adds a bit of pressure for the kids to not be kids.”
Does he hope one of his children will one day take over the business?
”At the moment, their career paths aren’t heading in that direction,” he says. ”I’ve told them from an early age they’d be shareholders in the company – they don’t have to work in the company if they don’t want to. My father’s got 11 grandchildren, so you’d hope one of those down the track would end up at the company. It’s just our children are the oldest, so I wouldn’t want to put the pressure on them that I got.”
These days, I get the feeling Haigh knows there are many reasons to go to university other than to learn how to make better chocolate.
MARK DAPIN | THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, 21 DECEMBER 2013