Born: 16 November, 1938, in York. Died: 16 July, 2013, in York, aged 74
In 1962, the chocolatier Brian Sollitt created the iconic sweet treat that would become an essential part of all respectable dinner parties: the After Eight mint. With its inviting embossed box and individual envelope, the chocolate was a must to be served with coffee, cigars and a brandy. Sollitt was a real-life Willy Wonka straight out of Roald Dahl’s book – who created the Yorkie Bar, Drifters, Lion Bars and Matchmakers – and thus much enhanced the nation’s sweet tooth.
After Eight mints sold worldwide, made billions of pounds for Rowntree and brought much prosperity to the After Eight factory in Halifax. Sales have not been so buoyant in recent years, partly on account of a reduction in home entertaining and also, perhaps, as each After Eight has 358 calories in it.
But After Eight is an institution and is still to be seen at dinner parties. It is said the Queen Mother was a great fan and always had some with her coffee.
War-time rationing ensured that Brian Lawrence Sollitt seldom tasted chocolate as a child. He joined Rowntree on leaving school at 15 and worked there until he retired in 2007. Sollitt’s first job in the factory was to hand-pipe the cream fondants into Black Magic chocolates. He displayed a natural aptitude and was soon promoted to the cream experimentation department.
He was asked to research and then develop a peppermint- based fondant in a dark chocolate coating.
Sollitt had to devise a method of somehow retaining the delicate mint flavour within the thin chocolate wafer. It was a major technical challenge. The system he developed remains, to this day, a secret known only to senior executives at Rowntree.
But Sollitt also showed an inspired ability at marketing the product. The packaging was smart and up-market – really recherché tables had a silver container on wheels that could speedily go round with the port.
The marketing campaign was decidedly rarified – Sollitt did not initially sell the chocolate in supermarkets. The witty television advertisements did much to give the After Eight a trendy appeal. Many, certainly had a tongue-in-cheek feel (“A woman’s place is in the home, eating After Eights and looking beautiful”) but they caught the public’s imagination.
Another captured a black-tie dinner party with the hostess in diamonds and flowing gown purring: “After Eights make me feel expensive, pampered and gay.”
It was considered very bad form if a guest ate the chocolate but left the dark envelope still in the box.
Sollitt was devoted to his craft as a renowned chocolatier, and when Nestlé took over Rowntree in 1988 he remained as an integral part of its research team and the international training scheme.
Sollitt also used his skills as a chocolatier to raise money for charity, making giant Easter eggs, and, on one occasion, a 3ft chocolate Pudsey Bear for Children In Need. He also opened his house every year to raise money for local charities.
Throughout the factory Sollitt was a genial and much admired character. One former colleague recalls: “Brian was an absolute scream at work, brightened up any room he went into and made going to work a pleasure. Inside that mischievous brain was a mind of incalculable knowledge.”
Sollitt was a larger-than-life character and had a laugh that echoed round the workplace. He had the delightful habit of leaving seasonal treats like chocolate Santas or special Easter eggs on a tray outside his office for colleagues to take home.
But his search for new products never dimmed. Sollitt would send memos to the senior executives with new ideas for chocolates that he had developed on the marble slab in his work room.
He spent many months perfecting a new chocolate: the balance of its ingredients and the temperature at which the chocolate was made. Sollitt would carefully hand- cover the chocolates each with their own individual markings so the final taste could be compared in detail.
In his retirement, Sollitt amassed a huge collection of After Eight memorabilia. At Christmas he decorated his house with more than 500 Santas, snowmen and lights. He admitted he bought them from all over the world.
“I couldn’t live with anybody,” Sollitt confessed. “There’s no room.” Long-standing friends and colleagues said he was simply married to his job.
Although he retired in 2007, he returned last year to make a giant 3kg After Eight to mark the mint’s 50th anniversary. Sollitt presented it to the Houses of Parliament with typical panache and described the day as one of the proudest of his life.
Brian Sollitt was unmarried and is survived by a sister.