Brian Sollit was a real-life Willy Wonka, one of Britain's most eminent chocolatiers. In a career spanning over 50 years at Rowntree's in York, he created some of the nation's best loved snacks including Lion Bars, Drifters, Matchmakers and the Yorkie, but his crowning glory was the creation of the After Eight Mint. Launched in 1962, it was an instant success, becoming the must-have confectionery for "posh" after-dinner treats. It went on to sell in over 50 countries and had famous devotees such as the Queen Mother.
Born in York in 1938, Brian Lawrence Sollit was one of three children born in a working class suburb of York. He grew up in an era of wartime rationing, with a scarcity of sugar and chocolate. He left school at 15 and secured a job Rowntree's. While training he was still obliged to attend classes and complete PE lessons at the factory. He also voluntarily attended evening classes studying cake decorating, eventually becoming a master confectioner.
He was recruited to the Cream Department, where he learnt the art of piping chocolate and became responsible for the hand-piping on Black Magic and Dairy Box chocolates. His eye for detail and his flair brought him to the attention of the management and he was transferred to the Crème Experimentation Division, where he soon became head. Here his innovation and creativity came to the fore.
In early 1961, the marketing department asked Sollit to create a wafer-thin, crème-fondant mint encased in dark chocolate. This was a huge challenge owing to the delicate constituents of the soft peppermint cream and the thinness of the chocolate. After months of trials, Sollit fathomed a solution to preventing the liquid fondant oozing out of the chocolate casing by developing a new technology – a technique which remains secret.
After tests in Scotland in early 1962, After Eight was launched later that year in its dark green, gold and black packaging with embossed writing. The luxurious, delicate square mints in their individually wrapped silky paper cases quickly took off, It created a new niche in the confectionery market, the after-dinner mint. Early After Eight television commercials showed guests and hosts in gowns and black tie. In 1963, one newspaper advert featured a woman in evening dress. "After Eight wafer-thin mints have the same effect on me as camellias and candlelight," she trilled. "They make me feel expensive, pampered and gay."
Sollit was an ideas man, which was a godsend for the marketing department, as he bombarded them with his thoughts on what they should sell next and new samples. He spent hours at his marble slab, adroitly wielding his palette knife, creating new lines by hand, "tempering" chocolates, piping, cooling and encasing them in individual paper cups, before boxing them and presenting them to the marketing team.
Rowntree's stopped hand-piping its chocolates in 1987, when mechanised shell moulding was finally introduced. Until then, the preparation, hand-piping and marking of the chief confectioner was a cherished craft. Although new technology came in, Sollit remained steadfast in his traditional methodology and experimentation; he never used a thermometer and intuitively knew when a mixture needed to be heated, cooled, stirred and left to set. Known for his cheery outlook and sense of humour, he regularly went round the shop floor in his white coat offering amusingly shaped chocolate treats for the production-line workers.
Rowntree's was bought by the Swiss giant Nestlé in 1988 for $4.5 billion. Sollit retired in 2002 but continued working as a consultant and was a key figure at the Nestlé Product Technology Centre, an international training centre. He was an enthusiastic and patient teacher who liked to welcome visitors from around the world and teach them to speak "propa Yorksha" as well as the odd colloquial phrase. He finally retired in 2007.
Passionate about the products he helped develop, he became an avid collector of After Eight paraphernalia, amassing one of the largest collections in the world. In 2012 he returned to make a giant three-kilo After Eight to mark the mint's 50th anniversary. He described presenting it at the Houses of Parliament as one of the proudest moments of his life.
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. Renowned as a jolly character, every year he decorated his house with 500 Father Christmases and opened it to raise funds for charity.
Revered by colleagues, Sollit was also a practical joker. A female colleague recalled once arriving in red patent stiletto heels, but was worried when approached by her boss, Sollit. He frowned at her and then asked what size they were. She replied and he duly asked to try them on. He was then seen staggering around the shop floor in the stilettos.
Sollit died following a heart attack.
Brian Lawrence Sollit, chocolatier: born York 16 November 1938; died York 16 July 2013.