The other day I was given the opportunity to interview Angus Thirlwell, co-founder of Hotel Chocolat. As it turned out our chat lasted about an hour and the time passed remarkably quickly. Angus is a thoroughly engaging and easygoing chap, and he answered my questions honestly and with good humour. He’s immensely likeable and my first ‘proper’ interview was a lot less nerve wracking as a result.
Here’s what he had to say…
How did you get into the chocolate industry originally?
“Via Peppermints! Twenty years ago I was involved in a company that produced branded packs of peppermints for corporate clients. We realised we needed to expand the business and decided on chocolate. This inevitably drew me into a whole new world, resulting in an obsession which culminated in the inevitable purchase of our own cocoa estate!”
Are all HC products made using your own beans or are other cocoas sourced for different recipes?
“Rabot Estate simply cannot produce enough cocoa for all of our products, but what it does produce is used for our Purist range. Like all chocolate houses, we have established our own house blends, and these are made using Ghanaian cocoa.”
Ethical practices are a key part of the cocoa farming operation – has that always been a part of your vision for Hotel Chocolat?
“The honest answer has to be that the first vision anyone starting out in business has is to be successful. We’ve always tried to hire nice people, but survival as a business is always the first priority.
The desire for ethical trading practices came from the management team who then became involved in seeking out ethical projects. Our most advanced ethical program, which we call ‘Engaged Ethics’, is on St. Lucia. We also have around five years of experience financing projects in Ghana, but this comes mainly from largesse. If we have a good trading year, then we can afford to put some of our profit into these other projects, but we cannot currently ringfence funds for them as a matter of course.
In St. Lucia we have three distinct interest groups – the cocoa growers, Hotel Chocolat as a business, and our customer base. What we offer our customers is this unique St. Lucian chocolate, and next year a chance to ‘live the story’ at our hotel on St. Lucia.”
We then started to chat about the taste of HC’s St. Lucian cocoa. I mentoned how light and ‘soft’ I had found the 100% stick and praised it’s flavour. It was at this point that Angus made some very interesting points about HC’s chocolate; There is no added vanilla in Hotel Chocolat’ s house blends or Purist products. Because cocoa harvesting and drying is very much at the mercy of the elements, sometimes cocoa can acquire a mouldy aspect to it’s flavour (say for example if rains come during drying time and the beans get a soaking). The addition of vanilla will mask any mouldy tastes that may remain after roasting and conching. Hotel Chocolat use only prime quality cocoa beans, and have established good working relationships with their suppliers.
What do you think about Cadbury Dairy Milk’s new Fair Trade credentials?
“Overall Fairtrade is beneficial but the model carries many flaws. Howver it is of cours always far better to do something rather than nothing. We almost abandoned our own ‘Engaged Ethics’ programme just because getting it right is such a minefield. It’s taken time to raise public awareness and now I think we’re at the point where people are going to be looking more closely at Fairtrade and they’ll want to know a lot more about what Fairtrade really means.
In a way Cadburys going Fairtrade is poetic justice. The Cadbury family effectively set up the Ghanaian cocoa trade anyway, and their Quaker ethics were pretty much Fairtrade as we know it today.”
Did you have a favourite chocolate bar as a child?
“I grew up on Barbados, and I’m ashamed to say the only chocolate that was available was Hershey’s! However, when your choices (and experience) are limited then you’re happy with what you can get. Later on when I had tasted other chocolates, I very quickly went off Hershey’s.
When we moved to the UK I used to enjoy a Double Decker.”
Do you have a favourite Hotel Chocolat product, and if so, what is it?
“Anything from our St. Lucia Estate is always my favourite. I feel very connected with the chocolate, and it has such a wonderful unique flavour.
I also enjoy our high cocoa content milk chocolates – the Macho Milk Chocolate at 50%. We’re working on Super-high cocoa content milk chocolate with 70% cocoa and only 10% sugar at the moment.”
Hotel Chocolat has had a presence in the US for nearly two years now. How is that going, and have you noticed any difference in American and British tastes?
“Our first physical store opened in Boston two weeks ago. Up until that point Hotel Chocolat had been an online presence only in the US. The simple explanation is that an online business model was so much cheaper to set up and run, so we used hotelchocolat.com as both a teaser, a showroom, and a shop window. We built curiosity and a sense of anticipation, and it proved very cost effective. Phase Two was the opening of the store, and after a fortnight sales are exceeding our expectations.
As far as differences in tastes go, we’ve seen more interest in our Purist range than in the UK. There’s a tremendous interest in foods in general, and our target customers seem to already have a great deal of knowledge. I was tasting in America and my co-taster was immediately suggesting other food and wines to go with the chocolate! People seem to be very well informed and open to experimentation and America has embraced chocolate in a big way. I think European chocolatiers need to beware – the Yanks are coming!”
We constantly get asked by readers outside the UK and US how they can get hold of Hotel Chocolat products. Do you have plans to expand into other countries?
“We have quite a few international projects underway. Apart from our American shop we have plans to open stores in Bahrain and Kuwait before Christmas, and we’re hoping to be able to expand within the GCC.”
Can you tell us about your plans for a real Hotel Chocolat on the Rabot Estate? When can we come and stay!?
“The Hotel will be opening in March or April of 2009, and as you know it’s at Rabot, where we have our coca estate. It’s in the most beautiful part of the island, South West in the Piton Mountains, sheltered from the worst excesses of island weather. It’s going to be quite an intimate boutique hotel. We can accommodate up to twenty guests at a time, and there will be a restaurant called Boucan (the name for a cocoa drying building). It’s what I call barefoot luxury, where our guests can come and experience the island and the ‘wellness’ of cocoa. The Hotel reflects the Hotel Chocolat brand – there will be no air conditioning, no trouser presses. It’s all about the location and the ambience. Our guests will be able to tour the estate and walk in the cocoa groves. It really is a magical place.”
Sounds great! Can we come and review it?
“We will be inviting people to come and see the Hotel, but I’m afraid you’ll have to find your own way there!”
Hotel Chocolat is known for it’s weird and wonderful range of products. How do you go about developing new products? Is there an in-house team of chocolics brainstorming all day?
“Well, like most chocolate houses we have our own Master Chocolatier, but product development also comes through regular Wednesday meetings in which a group of us, myself included, brainstorm new product ideas. We’ve brought in fashion designers, chocolatiers, marketing and commercial design people, and in the past we’ve tried to reflect what’s happening in London fashion in some of our products. We have a core group and occasional guests who help us with new ideas. It’s something I really enjoy, actually.”
Finally, what does the future hold for you and the company?
“Obviously the Hotel is a big project at the moment. We also have a new factory in Cambridgeshire, so we’re expanding and creating new jobs in that area, which is very rewarding. We’re also taking the brand to the Middle East, as I mentioned previously, and we’re thinking of opening more stores in selected US cities, like san Francisco and Chicago.
Ultimately of course we’d like to be a global brand but we want to maintain our vision and commitment to engaged ethics, so we’ll continue to expand when we feel it’s the right thing for us to do.”
Thank you, Angus!