How food markets helped to launch the Lavolio sweet brand

Lavinia Davolio, founder, Lavolio
'Food market shoppers are your best testing ground early on,' says Lavolio founder, Lavinia Davolio Credit: Geoff Pugh

Food markets were a huge help early on for British-Italian entrepreneur, Lavinia Davolio, who founded a confectionary company after a 10-year stint in banking.

Lavinia Davolio was not a normal child. While most five-year-olds would spend their evenings trying anything to get out of helping their parents with the kitchen chores, the future founder of the Lavolio sweet brand would always ask for more.

The entrepreneur grew up on a farm near Rio Saliceto, Italy, where dinner was always cooked from scratch, using fresh, homegrown ingredients. She could always be found mucking in at meal time.
“I loved picking and washing the fruit and veg; shaping the meatballs; cutting, rolling and filling the pasta parcels,” she remembers. “I was too short to reach the hob, so I had to stand on a small bench.”

That bench was Davolio’s first step on the road to founding her own confectionary company. Her passion for food realised, the aspiring chef wanted to someday open her own restaurant. But after studying business at the Bocconi University in Milan, she took a 10-year detour, working at a London investment bank following a successful internship. She worked her way up to become one of its youngest directors at 27.

However, in early 2013, Davolio found herself jobless after a big reshuffle. She put a positive spin on things; if there was ever a time to pursue her childhood dreams, it was now, she figured.

So she swapped banking for baking, enrolling at a cookery school to train as a patissier and chef, before opening the doors of her own place. “When I’m in the kitchen, I’m in the zone,” she says. “I get so much satisfaction from seeing the individual ingredients come to life. For me, it’s all about the creativity, concentration and tension.”

It was while cooking at home that Davolio came up with the idea for her company. She was experimenting with sweets and desserts.
“I came across the idea of using a thin sugar shell as a natural preservative,” she says. Inside these small shells she could place pieces of fruit, whole nuts, jellies, coffee beans and chocolate. She was able to create lots of different flavours, using spices and fruit zests – and textures, from crunchy to crumbly to soft.

Thinking that she might be onto something, Davolio tried out her creations on close friends and family. “Everyone got samples,” says the British-Italian entrepreneur, who received enough positive feedback that she put her sweets – and her newly-founded company – to the public vote, setting up stalls at a handful of London food markets. “They’re crucial when you’re testing things early on. Food markets were the first time that I got a real indication of whether people were willing to buy what I was making,” she adds.

However, it’s not as simple as setting up a table and arranging your wares, she warns other small business owners. “Do your research; not every market will work for your product. Consider the shopping occasion: is it a lunch market, or one where people buy pantry items?”

Once you’ve settled on a few good locations, return regularly to see if your first customers come back to buy again. It’s the strongest sign that your product has lasting appeal, she explains.

“Be personable: sport a huge smile and engage with shoppers. Offer them a taster while you tell them the story of the product and business,” says Davolio, who urges others not to treat those discussions lightly, but use them as marketing research sessions.

“Find out how to best talk about your product,” adds Davolio, who would make a mental note of how people reacted to certain words over others, and which parts of her process and back story they related to most. She used those insights in marketing materials and future business pitches.

“Food market shoppers are your best testing ground early on,” she adds. “These people are there to try something new, artisan made and have probably already made the conscious decision to shop small.”

People want a sensory experience, not just a sugar hitLavinia Davolio, Lavolio

It was on the food market circuit, following months of refining her product and pitch, that Davolio met her first official stockist. Today the company, which is based in London and has three full-time and two part-time employees, is stocked in more than 200 stores, including farm shops, delis, Amazon Marketplace, and retailers such as Ocado, Fortnum & Mason. Last year the business registered turnover of £200,000, a 100pc increase on the year before.

Part of the company’s success so far, Davolio thinks, is its focus on the experience around opening and eating the sweets. “People want a sensory experience, not just a sugar hit,” she explains.

Lavolio sweets come in designer tin boxes, adorned with colourful, floral patterns. “We’ve focused a lot on the experience of opening of the box,” says Davolio, who admits to redesigning the brand's packaging at least 20 times.

“It’s about the smell when you open it; the delicate unwrapping of the paper inside. Then you see the bright colours of the sweets.” By treating the unboxing process like opening a present, Lavolio’s sweets have been easier to market as gifts for loved ones.

In terms of what next for the company, Davolio is eyeing up the US market. Key to a successful operation there will be keeping the brand’s suppliers well-informed and confident. "We really listen to them,”
she explains. “We don’t just focus on wowing customers; those in our supply chain need to have that feeling as well.”

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