Sunderland-born Kitty Hope has gone from a publishing sensation to the sweetest of business successes. Craig Thompson speaks to the unlikely TV star.
Talking to Kitty Hope, you could easily be forgiven for thinking she is a southern lass through and through.
But not so. This girl-made-good story started in Tunstall, Sunderland, on a Sunday morning in the early 1970s. After church, Kitty and sister Mags would stop off at Campbell’s store in Ashbrooke as they headed home.
“Sunday was treat day,” she said, “and I always used to buy a Twinkle and a Pink Panther bar. It was fantastic.”
Fast forward 40-odd years and Kitty Hope is talking about her sweet-making empire which has become an international phenomenon - and also made her an unlikely TV star.
It was in 2004 that Kitty decided to turn her love of confectionery into a business venture with her husband Mark Greenwood.
The couple gave up their day jobs and set up the first Hope and Greenwood shop in Dulwich, South London.
A decade on, the business has gone from strength to strength. It now supplies some of the country’s biggest names, including Waitrose and John Lewis, with some of the most creative and luxurious confectionary imaginable.
A shop in Covent Garden opened in 2007, and international interest led to the opening of a staggering 33 stores in Japan. Last month, Kitty and Mark made their TV debut with BBC series Sweets made Simple, with a spin-off book of the same now also released.
The St Anthony’s Schoolgirl has come a long way, and no one is more surprised than her.
“I might come across as a confident person, but this has all taken me completely by surprise,” she adds. “It’s been 10 years in the making - and a lot of blood, sweat and tears - but when the programme aired last month and everyone was so kind about it, I really couldn’t believe it.”
So how did Kitty end up making sweets for a living?
“I studied illustration and graphic design at Newcastle Polytechnic,” recalls Kitty. “My dad had always encouraged the creative side in me. He’d always enter me into poetry, writing and drawing competitions in the Chronicle or Journal. He always taught me to try my best - even if I didn’t win.”
On the day she graduated, Kitty caught a Clipper bus to London.
“I cried all the way down,” she said. “I was so homesick for the first few years away from the North East.
“I missed Sunderland, I missed my family, I missed the kindness people on the street would show you. London didn’t seem to be like that.”
For the next 10 years, Kitty worked as a freelance illustrator, often on children’s books, quickly making a name for herself in the capital.
“It was quite a lonely time,” she recalls. “Illustrating can be very isolating, you’re just working by yourself and that can be hard, especially for quite a gregarious and outgoing person.”
A decade after moving to London, Kitty began working at publishing giant Macmillan where she quickly rose through the ranks.
“I was enthusiastic, I worked hard, I was very driven to succeed,” she said.
One day an editorial director for the company left a script for a new children’s book on Kitty desk.
It was the original text of The Gruffalo - the book that would go on to sell in excess of 10.5million copies across the world.
Kitty teamed author Julia Donaldson up with illustrator Axel Scheffler, and all three worked creating what would become a literary phenomenon.
“I said I would not leave publishing until I’d cracked a book like that,” recalls Kitty. “I knew it would be a success and it was incredible to be a part of something like that.”
Never one to stand still, Kitty left publishing in 2000 to work for a children’s lifestyle company but, a few years in, decided another change was due.
Sitting round the dinner table with Mark one night, the couple discussed their dream jobs. And Kitty told her husband she wanted to open a traditional, old-fashioned-style sweet shop.
So they did.
Their first shop opened just round the corner from where they were living in 2004.
“We went home that night and opened a bottle of wine in the kitchen and went, ‘What have we done?’ because it was just overwhelming,” said Kitty.
The couple – who married in 2000 – develop all their recipes at their home on the Kent coast, where their neighbours get to try out their new creations.
Kitty now hopes to do for sweet-making what The Great British Bake Off has done for cakes and buns.
“There’s been such a revolution in cupcakes and baking, and this is just the same really,” said Kitty.
“There are endless possibilities – you’ve got your wedding coming up and you want something special for it, it’s your mum’s birthday, Christmas, Easter.
“It’s so much fun, and what you can create from what looks like a humble little pan of sugar, is amazing.”
Mark added: “We want to see people getting stuck in and actually doing it, rather than buying the book and putting it on the shelf, or watching the TV show.”
The pair know they would not be where they are today had it not been for the team behind them.
“If you’re running you own business, my advice would be to employ the best people you can,” adds Kitty. “And pay them the best wage you can afford. We wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without a great team behind us.”
So with all this success, does Kitty ever make is home to the North East?
“Of course, I still come back up to see the family. I still miss it so much; there’s no place like it.”