Scotland's Larder: Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium

Cat Thomson enters the magical world of Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium, and meets Poppy and June Calder Thomson who both believe anything is possible.

Published 3rd Aug 2021
Updated 8 th Aug 2023

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory films were one of the inspirations behind a mother and her daughter's not for profit chocolate making enterprise, called Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.

June Calder-Thomson, together with her nine year old daughter Poppy, design, produce and sell artisan chocolates from their home near Fettercairn.

June explains that Poppy, "is a big fan of chocolate and Wonka."

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.
A Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium chocolate bar. Picture: John Devlin

Initially she was looking for a fun way to support her daughter's learning, "so she didn't feel like she was doing maths."

Poppy learned how to clean the kitchen, wash her hands, weigh out ingredients and take temperatures, and the best bit was ,"we made some chocolate together and then she got to eat it."

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppy takes the temperature. Picture: John Devlin

June explains how the sweet partnership works, Poppy does research and design, and she comes up with all the creative flavour combinations, as well as helping with packaging, counting up the bars, labelling them, before helping deliver them to the local shops, while she said, "I'm in charge of chocolate making."

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppy and June of Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium. Picture: John Devlin

Taste sensation

Initially, June was sceptical of some of Poppy's flavour choices; pineapple and mint and cherry and lime, but she said, "they do work together, now I just go with it, the worst that can happen is we have a batch of chocolates which we get to eat."

Poppy is in her element confidently talking to the shop owners that stock their products at Laurencekirk Post Office, Sillyflatt farm outside Inverbervie and What's for Tea Tonight farm shop near Marykirk.

June said, "they all came to us, when they heard what we were doing, and asked to stock our products."

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium
Poppy delivering her chocolate to What's for Tea Tonight? Farm shop. Picture: John Devlin.

She is a proud mum watching Poppy deliver the chocolates, " she marches in saying hello how are you? that's me dropping off my chocolate again, everybody knows her, I'm now just Poppy's mum."

Tears & laughter

Even Poppy's dad, Kevin is involved, he looks after ethical waste disposal of broken chocolates and June said his sense of humour has seen the couple through some tough times. 

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June said what initially began as a fun hobby, of making and giving away their bars to friends, has now turned into something with a bigger vision.

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin

She explains, "one day Poppy saw a homeless person, and we ended up having a few conversations about that and that we are quite lucky that she doesn't really want for anything."

Initially she didn't really understand the concept of homelessness, and she kept returning to the subject for about three days, before she said to her mum, "I want to sell our chocolate and I want the money we make, to go to people that haven't got anything."

Another long term goal of the emporium is to provide Poppy with a sustainable way of earning money when she is older, as Poppy was born with Down's Syndrome.

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin

Real life

I chat to June a bit more about the family's journey to this point and she said, "I'm always happy to tell folk, because the more people that understand what life is really like, as opposed to what you might have thought it is like, then all the better."

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Kevin and June knew each other for about seven years before started their relationship, she was quite relaxed about starting a family, "I'm a great believer in what's for you, will not go past you ."

But when things didn't go to plan they were about to embark on IVF treatment, only to discovered that June was pregnant.

At the regular 12 week scan a heart defect was spotted which meant an amniocentesis test, she explains, "we both needed to know exactly what we were going into."

The couple were told within a few days that their unborn child had Down's Syndrome and they had to make a decision about what to do next.

June said, "we decide to go ahead with the pregnancy, we knew there are certain things are genetic and couldn't be changed but others we could influence at home and with getting the right level of educational support."

So they went into it with a fairly positive attitude.

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppalooma's Chocolate a not for profit enterprise. Picture: John Devlin

Sign of the times

They started learning, Makaton sign language which people with additional needs use to help with communication, and they began signing with Poppy from birth.

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June said, "The doctors have to tell you a worse case scenario, but it is not necessarily an accurate picture, we were told everything from she will never walk, or talk."

"As soon as your child has some sort of condition it seems ok that you can do this kind of fortune telling. If you have a typical child no one will sit down and say this is what the limits of your child achievements."

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium. Picture: John Devlin

"We did our own research and basically decided to fight for our girl and give her the best chance we could."

When they first set eyes on her, June said, "I just thought she was amazing, she was a beautiful wee blonde toot, with gorgeous big eyes but strong for being so tiny, we knew from the outset that she was going to be a feisty one."

Down's Syndrome means you are born with an extra chromosome but the extent that will affect someone will vary, some can be quite profoundly affected others have a minor learning difficulties.

The heart of the matter

After five months, Poppy survived a touch and go heart operation and has since gone from strength to strength.

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium apron as modelled by Poppy.Picture: John Devlin

June said, "you could tell from the outset that she was sharp as a tack she was like a sponge just taking everything in. By the time she was two and a half, she had over 250 signs that she was using."

June said, "one day she just started talking and she has never stopped, we laugh about it and remember when they said she would never talk!"

Poppy has cardiologist appointment every two years, and other routine appointments and overall she  gets a higher level of scrutiny that your typical child.

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium. Picture: John Devlin

However she happily attends mainstream Fettercairn Primary School, June said, "she is going into primary five, and she is a well loved part of the class and the community."

She is just like your average kid, she enjoys reading, and science and drama her mum says, "she is hysterically funny everyone who meets her says so."

Although she has low muscle tone due to her heart issues, which means she tires quicker.

However, June said, "we don't tend to cut her a lot of slack to be honest with you, she plays football on Sunday, she does pretty much what every other kid does."

Real life

There is a perception that if you have a kid with Down's, your life is over but when you talk to parents with children with Down's, they are having brilliant fun, and a great life.

She said," I thought my version of parenthood would be so different to everyone else's, but when you talk to other parents you realise that parenting any child is just hard, every kid brings their own issues or challenges."

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppy is quite a character. Picture: John Devlin

She said, "I have an amazing daughter, she is funny, clever and confident. She can walk into a room full of forty people and own it, she is without a doubt the best thing that ever happened to us."

The business has grown and they supply their artisan chocolates to local shops as well as making limited editions, so they are not over run with orders.

June explains, "The whole point of the emporium, was to have more time with Poppy, so I am trying to keep that balance, by building up our reputation, and customer base but still have a family life."

She also works full time as a health and safety inspector.

Chocolate ninjas in the night

During lockdown, shielding was a difficult for the family because of Poppy's heart condition, she said, "we just couldn't take any chances."

June said, "we did contactless collections of chocolate orders, we have a little fridge set up in the driveway so people would message me when they were collecting, we never saw anyone. Basically we were like chocolate ninjas in the night."

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppy mixing things up.. Picture: John Devlin

They officially registered the business in June last year, and at Christmas time they donated profits to local charities and this year they plan to do the same again.

The long term ethos at the heart of the business is also to provide employment opportunities for people with Down's Syndrome.

June said, "there aren't many employment opportunities and the way funding is going it is not going to be a high priority."

She hopes to be in a position soon to offer, one afternoon a week employment to someone suitable.

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppy keeping a close eye on production. Picture: John Devlin

Her ultimate retirement dream would be to open a shop or cafe when Poppy finishes school and for them to work together, but June adds, "if she doesn't want to, that's fine."

The ideal situation would be June making high quality chocolates in the background while Poppy works front of house, "as she would love mixing with people," she said.

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.. Picture: John Devlin
Poppy delivering her chocolate to What's for Tea Tonight? Farm shop. Picture: John Devlin.

Waiting Game

In the interim June continues to fine tune her chocolate-making with courses at Cocoa Ooze Aberdeen and with Ruth Hinks at Cocoa Black in Peebles.

But she said about chocolate making, "I was hooked from day one."

They use Calibaut Chocolate to make their bars and they are filled with luxurious fillings and ingredients.

They also make a limited edition for special dates like Valentine's, Mother's and Father's day which Poppy helps create, with this inspirational pair at the helm Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium, everything is possible.

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

If you want to view paradise,
Simply look around and view it.
Anything you want to, do it,
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it

Pure Imagination sung by Gene Wilder, in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, 1971
Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium.
June Calder-Thomson. Picture: John Devlin

Poppalooma's Chocolate Emporium

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.
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