Three enterprising Belfast sisters have a ‘sweet’ taste for export sales

Three sisters in Belfast are the driving force behind one of Northern Ireland’s most successful small confectionery businesses.

By Sam Butler
Tuesday, 19th April 2022, 8:00 am
Melting Pot sisters Dorothy Bittles, Cathy Johnson and Jenny Lowry
Melting Pot sisters Dorothy Bittles, Cathy Johnson and Jenny Lowry

Three sisters in Belfast are the driving force behind one of Northern Ireland’s most successful small confectionery businesses.

The sisters – Dorothy Bittles, Jenny Lowry and Cathy Johnston – have shipped a consignment of gourmet fudge, including vegan varieties, to sweet lovers in global markets such as Lithuania and Germany.

The enterprising trio own and run Melting Pot, a specialist producer of handcrafted fudge bars which has won prestigious UK Great Taste Awards for the quality of its products. Regular markets for the business, which is based in the shadow of Harland and Wolff’s iconic Samson and Goliath cranes on the Newtownards Road, now include the US, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Republic of Ireland and other parts of Europe.

Award winning fudge cooking in the east Belfast plant

“While we continue to have strong sales here we’ve been exploring many international markets and have been doing really well in a number,” says Dorothy. “Business, of course, is now more challenging than ever before due to the rising costs in energy and, inevitably, butter, sugar and sweetened condensed milk that we use to make our fudge. As a result, we’ve been looking closely at ways to keep costs under tighter control without affecting the quality of the products.”

The progressive family business is probably the only successful exporter still featuring every weekend for shoppers at the historic St George’s Food Market in Belfast city centre.

“We’ve been taking part in the market for many years and appreciate the opportunity that it provides for feedback from local people and visitors

from Britain and further afield about our fudge. I guess it’s now part of our business heritage. We are really keen to continue to support the market where we first launched our fudge,” she says.

Award winning fudge cooking in the east Belfast plant

Melting Pot’s journey to success has seen the trio supply luxury fudge to some of the most prestigious stores outside Northern Ireland including Partridges in Kensington which has a Royal Warrant.

Melting Pot is the brand name for Blackthorn Foods, the company the sisters established in 2004 to make fudge from a recipe created by their father as a hobby. They had made fudge with him at home. While they had started out on separate careers they subsequently decided to set up Salad Fayre, a small business that was one of the first here to provide packaged salads. It was a successful business which they later sold.

They then decided – after a short break – that they loved working together and turned the family fudge recipe into another start-up venture at Ballyhackamore in east Belfast. They were able to carry forward their experience in areas such as management, sourcing and marketing from their previous enterprise.

“We’re all in this business because we’re all cursed with a sweet tooth; we all grew up making fudge,” explains Dorothy. “We started the fledgling fudge journey back in 2004,” Dorothy continues. “While we knew many people liked fudge we didn’t really know what to expect. The fudge was really well received. We began to develop good business here especially in delis in the early days. And we really appreciated their support.”

The sister’s ethos is ‘less is more’. They believe in keeping the business as simple as possible, from the ingredients right through to the packaging. The production process is also kept simple. Fudge is still made in open pots and each small batch is hand beaten. This gives the fudge its smooth and creamy texture.

The fudge products are mostly provided in convenient bars that make them handy and easier to enjoy. The fudges come in a range of natural flavours and without artificial flavours, additives or emulsifiers. Ten of these flavours have won Great Taste Awards. The existing product portfolio includes gluten-free, soya-free and non-dairy fudge.

They also make a range of own label fudge and bespoke flavours for many recognised customers especially outside Northern Ireland.

They’ve created a successful and living brand, emphasising the fun, joviality and childhood memories associated with the fudge. This gives Melting Pot Fudge a colourful and homely personality.

The company, which is distributed in Britain by Cotswold Fayre, Hider and Crest, employs around 10 people at its manufacturing operation. While the fudge sector continues to grow steadily especially in Northern Ireland, Melting Pot remains the most successful artisan confectionery enterprise in markets outside Northern Ireland.

It has also participated frequently at leading food trade shows in Britain, the Republic and further afield.

Melting Pot, also a Food NI member company, is focused on growing its business at home and especially in the US and parts of Europe. It’s working alongside its network of distributors to pinpoint and develop opportunities for its portfolio of award winning fudge.