I visited new Sutton Coldfield chocolate shop and factory whose owner said his idea was ‘laughed at’ at first

In a matter of weeks a former travel shop in Sutton Coldfield has been transformed into a chocolate emporium. Former soldier and army cook, Liam Hall, has brought his brand, Military Chef, to the Gracechurch Centre complete with a shop, ‘factory’ and workshop area.

The former Co-op shop, which had been stripped bare is now replete with chocolates aplenty, fruit and nut, cherry tiffin and the best seller, honeycomb which comes in milk, dark and white varieties.

Liam had been forced to leave his dream job as a soldier come chef in the army, due to ill health. But after trying his luck as a ‘civvy’ cook, he was determined to launch his own business – and the Military Chef was born.

Read more: Willy Wonka-style chocolate shop and factory to open in former Co-op

The 37-year-old started making chocolate at home during the pandemic and graduated to a unit at the Market Village in Sutton Coldfield. And now he’s moved to the Gracechurch in a prominent spot in one of the main gateways to the shopping venue.

Step inside the shop and the colour strikes you – an army green. There’s shelving units showcasing Liam’s handmade chocolate in ‘ration packs’, a nod to his past career . There’s a counter to the right, where a chocolate fountain is placed to cover strawberries and marshmallows and sold in pots.

Beyond the shop area is a workshop area and at the back of the store, an open kitchen where the inquisitive can see chocolates being made by peering through the window from the shopping centre.

Liam opened last Saturday (May 18), with three military Land Rovers parked outside in the Parade. He called in favours from his army colleagues or ‘veterans’ – and they were an SAS ‘pinkie’ used in the dessert, a Signals Corp comms vehicle and a third military 4x4.

Liam, who lives in nearby Erdington, had huge support, with former colleagues travelling from around the country. And his more local customers heading in to see what it was all about.

Read more: I visited new café so popular it had to shut for days, restock & get more staff

'I am in shock - It feels like people accepted me'

He said he was ‘quite emotional’ even days after the opening as some 1,000 people came from far and wide to see the new shop. He said: “I am still in shock. People came from across the country, from Gloucester and Wiltshire, ones who I had served with.

“I had great feedback as well, people with positive things to say. Some had read the BirminghamLive story. They said it was something different, an independent [shop].

“All the hard work I have put into it for three years. And seeing people turn up. I am still in shock. It feels like people accepted me. They came for us.”

'People thought it was a ‘joke'

Poignantly, Liam said he had proved his doubters wrong. He said when told people he was going to start his Military Chef chocolate business, people thought it was a ‘joke’.

He commented: “People laughed at me when I first started the business. They said ‘it’s a bit silly having a chocolate shop called Military Chef’. But I have worked so hard to get to where I am.”

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As well as the lightbulb moment of the Military Chef brand, making chocolate during lockdown as it was ‘safe to make at home’, it’s expanded rapidly from home to a unit in the Market Village in South Parade.

And that hard work has also included weeks transforming the Co-op into a shop, factory and events space and a new home bang in the middle of Sutton. Liam has called in veterans to help him create the multi-faceted chocolate shop.

As well as chocolate in an array of varieties, there’s the fountain, pop and soon will come a dessert bar in June. There will also be coffee – and that too has a military connection. It is from the Soldier On Coffee Company, run by Lance Corporal Bryan Phillips

LCpl Phillips served for the Irish Guards for 10 years but on his second tour of Afghanistan stood on an IED (improvised explosive device), losing both his legs.

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He started the coffee company – with coffee bags of beans stocked in Liam’s shop – and the drink to come in a matter of weeks. Liam plans to sell more veteran-run business products in the future too.

His own best sellers are honeycomb, then fruit and nut and his poppy chocolates with a logo on them. He sells vegan chocolate too – including all his dark choc products.

'I can’t wait to get started - especially on the workshops'

But back to his shop – and that workshop area behind the main shop area. It’s a space for children’s parties, corporate team-building events, hen dos, and more.

Next week, during half term, Liam will hold sessions to show youngsters how to make their own lollipops and chocolate bars, decorate them and take them home – for £25 each.

There will be one session a day, each for 10 people, last one-and-a-half to two hours, running from Tuesday to Sunday (May 28 to June 2). They must be pre-booked in-store of via email: Info@militarychef.co.uk SEND schools have been in touch Liam said – and ‘we have wheelchair access’.

Asked about why a new shop, Liam said: “So much our of business is outside of Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield. Now with this shop people can learn about the brand here."

Liam added: “I can’t wait to get started. Especially on the workshops. I am hoping to get tables and chairs outside if the city council will allow it. There’s a dessert bar, coffee with different flavours, our own chocolate coming soon.

“This is now the time we build. I knew it would work. I always wanted my own business and knew I had the drive to do it!"

The shop will be open from 10am until 5pm from Tuesday to Saturday and from 10.30am to 4pm on Sundays, closing on Mondays.