If you’re curious as to the strange coincidence that someone named Cadbury is writing a book about the history of British chocolatiers, cease your cogitating: Deborah Cadbury is, in fact, a direct relation of the family which ran the largest chocolate business of the isles, though she is admittedly several steps laterally distant from the immediate chocolate-making family. If, now that you know this, you’re troubled as to the possibility that Deborah Cadbury may not, therefore, be the most reliable narrator, you may once again cool your firing neurons, because I can say with little hesitation that your fears are justified.
Chocolate Wars comes out just as Cadbury, long a staple of British industry, was acquired by Kraft foods in 2010. I can’t say for certain if the book was written in response to the takeover, but Cadbury in her introduction makes no bones about her stance:
This book is a modest challenge to [Irene Rosenfeld, Kraft CEO] and to Kraft. If her wordsa re to be taken as anything more than platitudes, and if Kraft is truly to respect the values of Cadbury, it must understand its particular traditions and history. The story of Cadbury, in a way, is the story of a different kind of capitalism.
This “different kind of capitalism” to which she refers is what she calls “Quaker capitalism”, an umbrella term identifying the successful businesses of 19th-century Quaker entrepreneurs who eschewed massive profits in favor of paternalism. If you remember the less-than-successful planned community of Pullman, Illinois, you understand the basic gist of Cadbury, but while Americans have become leery of planned communities to the failure of many paternal American companies, these sorts of things did work for a long time in Britain, and Cadbury is one of the most successful examples.
The author does not dedicate any verbiage to the origins of consumable chocolate (which, although interesting, is a topic whose scope exceeds that of the book), choosing instead to begin at a time when chocolate consumed in Europe was mostly in the term of cocoa drinks. The undisputed king of global chocolate manufacturer was Nestlé, a Swiss company which got its start selling manufacturing condensed milk and baby formula; to this mix was added first a triumvirate of British manufacturers—Cadbury, Fry’s, and the Taylor Brothers—and later by the American giants Hershey and Mars1. So how did Cadbury, at one time the smallest of operations, eventually become the largest chocolate manufacturer on the British isle? Some is luck; some is successful corporate espionage; still some is potentially, as Deborah Cadbury implies, a result of Cadbury’s progressive policies with respect to their employees.
Though told, by and large, in a single narrative, The Chocolate Wars is comprised of two parallel themes: one is the rather mechanical (if creative) expansion of the market for chocolate confections, the scientific or industrial breakthroughs required to satisfy that demand, and the rise and inevitable decline (or rather, subsumption by publicly-traded food conglomerates) of Victorian chocolatiers; the second, though, is a narrative about just what the legacy of such Quaker companies (and, by extension, other long-standing companies not borne of the modern tendency for conglomeration and mergers) tells us about business and what we’ve become as a globe of consumers.
With respect to the first narrative, Cabury’s book is fine if unspectacular. Cadbury, like other dynastic businesses within its market and without, has a history of by-the-bootstraps work, near-failures, and steady expansion. This linear and rather predictable narrative ends, ingloriously (and the author emphasizes this sentiment) with its merger with Kraft. Consider, for a moment, that between 1824 and 1969, Cadbury was called Cadbury, and made a variety of chocolate confections, mostly famously its “Dairy Milk” bar; in 1969, it merged with a soft drink company, apparently because it provided a short-term profit to shareholders, and from that point it was known as the droll “Cadbury Schweppes plc” until its demerger in 2008, when the soft drink part of its business became the laborious “Dr. Pepper Snapple Group Inc.” The trail here is clear to see even with Deborah Cadbury drawing particular attention to it; we can watch a simple, prestigious chocolate-making business devolve into a series of financial transactions, marked by names which aren’t indicative of anything except perhaps the umbrella firm which holds them. The notion of shareholders, and a company board acting in the short-term interests of shareholders rather than the long-term interest of the company, is obviously anathema to the livelihood of an autonomous business, and Deborah Cadbury expects us to see this as she does. Most of her narrative, after all, is building up Cadbury as not simply a business, but an institution wrapped up in British nationalism and our rosy-eyed ideals of egalitarian societies and corporate paternalism.
In the second narrative, then, Cadbury’s anti-Kraft sentiment is well-honed and well-placed. It also seems like an inevitability; after all, the successive generations of Cadbury men became less and less Quaker, first consenting to advertising and “fancy boxes”, and then with record profits, expansion, mechanization, and eventually public trading. All of this represents a slow decline into the “modern” economic era, which seems at once coldly sensible and absolutely anathema to the pastoral tale which we’ve been reading, and which our inner selves still want to be common.
There’s a lot to be said for corporate paternalism, especially as relates to the success of firms like Google and modern theories about motivation. The Chocolate Wars doesn’t touch upon them except in the sense that the rise and downfall of Cadbury as an autonomous organization shows us everything that’s good about business, and everything that’s bad about the modern financial system’s approach to them.
- This is not to mention other European chocolatiers likes Lindt, Ghirardelli, and van Houten[↩]