Driving a sustainable future for Hotel Chocolat
Founding Hotel Chocolat has proved a grand adventure for Angus Thirlwell, as Neill Barston discovers with our exclusive interview with the confectionery manufacturer
“The thing about chocolate is that it’s the most exciting word in the food lexicon – If you mention it, people can’t help but prick their ears up,” asserts Angus Thirlwell with confidence. The co-founder of premium confectionery group Hotel Chocolat appears in optimistic form discussing the ongoing development of one of the UK’s most noted luxury brands. With the company’s cocoa production facilities in St Lucia at the heart of the firm, it continues to set out its ambitions as one of the sector’s most sustainably-focused enterprises.
As Thirlwell explains, it’s been a far from straightforward journey over the past three decades after initially setting up his original company with business partner Peter Harris. He explains that it’s been very much a case of continually refining their operations, as well as tracking present trends and carefully considering the long-term vision for the business.
After their earliest ventures making peppermints, he reveals the company initially entered into the chocolate business in the 1990s, before opening its first Hotel Chocolat store in London in 2004. “We’ve built the business to where it is creating luxury chocolate that changes consumers’ views about the product. We’ve kept on opening stores around the country, and while we may have had a few setbacks along the way, we’ve got a great customer base and team, and when you realise that you have the resources to make things happen within a company, it’s a great feeling,” says the entrepreneur on the company’s increasingly prominent global rise.
The business is well-used to being in the spotlight, with TV viewers recently treated to a behind-the-scenes documentary on the company’s international operations. Everything from tracing the opening of new stores and new products being put through their paces, through to the development of facilities in St Lucia, came under the microscope.
As Thirlwell notes, anchoring its cocoa sourcing there – which now directly employs 120 people with around 500 further jobs created on the island, may have been a complex move, but it something he feels strongly is the most ethically sound means of production. “Having our production in St Lucia is everything to us, and having the right conditions for workers there was the main reasons we did it. “Around 10 years ago, nobody wanted chocolate from there – and it was just being sold off cheaply on the black market. No-one had ever tried to make single origin varieties – but the beans are actually amazing and we’re now in a situation where we can’t actually grow enough,” he explains of the company’s enlightened ethos.
With sustainable sourcing being among the single-biggest topics impacting on the sector, Hotel Chocolat is seeking to do all it can to offer fair conditions for those working on its estates. Thirlwell adds, wages for its employees in St Lucia are twice present fairtrade rates, which he firmly believes is the only way forward if the industry is to have long-term viability.
Further underlining its commitment to the small Caribbean community are its near-finalised plans for Planet Chocolat, a visitor attraction that will allow tourists the chance to again a first-hand appreciation how cocoa is grown. Furthermore, the company founder notes that one of the major factors for raising awareness on sustainability has been the rise of social media – spreading information on the issue quickly around the world.
“If you think about it in simple terms from the production side, cocoa growers should be as respected as much anyone else, which is where we are trying to get to as an industry – to have cocoa growers in semi-servitude is morally wrong. It’s not something that consumers of such a fabulous product want from those who are making their chocolate,” adds Thirlwell, who says that he believes people are increasingly willing to pay more for quality chocolate, so long as those extra prices directly reach farmers.
“We’re about 80 per cent finished with Planet Chocolat now and we’re very excited about it, as we believe it’s going to be something that’s unique in the world where people can come and see the agriculture, all the way through to it becoming finished products. People will be able to stay on the estate and enjoy our cocoa cuisine and immerse themselves in the whole process,” continues Thirlwell, who says that HRH Prince Charles, a strong supporter of sustainability issues, has been among the earliest to see the estate and was seemingly enthused by the work being done on the company’s plantations.
Closer to home, he says that his own approach to business is very much one of getting out and engaging directly with colleagues and customers.
This has led to the company developing tasting club events around the UK, with the aim of creating as much potential consumer buy-in to new flavours in an ever-competitive market.
“When we’re developing bars, we have to create something we feel people are going to like. I hope we’ve brought people with us on our journey – they might start out with one of our 50 per cent cacao bars.
“It’s a bit like with wine, you might start out drinking a very velvety variety, but then you may graduate over time to something like a Burgundy, which is the great pleasure of something like that,” adds the entrepreneur, who says that allowing people to be creative within its ranks is at the core of its philosophy.
While he says he is incredibly grateful to the support of his wife and children, it was decided at an early stage that the company would not be one that would become a family dynasty.
“We work hard here, but we also have a laugh as well. We cannot help but be positive, so long as we keep our culture strong, through keeping our focus on our customers, I don’t think we can go too far wrong,” enthuses Thirlwell, who says it’s his ongoing mission to foster an environment where people look forward to stepping through the doors of his ever-expanding business every single day.