Europe is awash with chocolatiers and the British consumer is spoilt for choice. So the idea that someone could set up a chocolate company with £10,000 and take it from startup to a market-conquering beast in just a decade seems a little far fetched. But that is what Angus Thirlwell and his business partner Peter Harris have managed to do with high-end chocolatier Hotel Chocolat.
In just over 10 years the company has grown from a single store to a chocolate empire encompassing 81 stores with three in Copenhagen, two restaurants, seven cafes, plus a hotel on a productive St Lucia cocoa plantation. The business employs 1,200 people and had revenue surpassing £85m last year.
Interestingly, Hotel Chocolat has thrived at a time when the UK’s only other nationwide chain of high street chocolate shops, Thorntons, has struggled. Profit margins at Hotel Chocolat recently surpassed Thornton’s too.
It is easy to make parallels between the two businesses, but as Thirlwell says, in reality the two are incomparable. “We are in a totally different part of the market,” he explains. It is clever and careful brand positioning which has enabled Hotel Chocolat to grow so large.
From the start, Thirlwell’s focus was solely on the quality of the chocolate. Back in the 1990s, British and American chocolate was sugar laden, low on cocoa and a poor imitation of what was on offer on the Continent. Particularly depressing was the time a group of European chocolate producers went to the European Commission arguing British chocolate should be renamed “vegelate”, as it was made with vegetable oil – a bastardisation of real chocolate.
To Thirlwell, the situation was especially galling given that cocoa has been an important part of British culture over the last two centuries. “It was not doing justice to our heritage... the glory days of chocolate had disappeared and [the British chocolate industry] was in this sorry state,” he says.
He was motivated to change all this, and set about creating a high cocoa product which would be sold in generously thick slabs – something which is part of the zeitgiest now, he says, but was unusual 10 years ago.
Thirlwell describes himself as an ideas man, “emotional, excited about concepts”, the counterpoint to Harris’s “sober, discerning, rational” character. He is from an entrepreneurial family, as his father was one of the founders of Mr Whippy ice cream, who later bought the largest ice cream company in Barbados and moved the family out there to run it. Thirlwell describes his father as a “massive inspiration”, and undeniably his upbringing framed his desire to go into business himself.
“I spent my childhood coming up with hairbrained ideas and my father would patiently listen and say, this is not how it works, you don’t come up with an idea and then it makes you money. You find something you are passionate about and work on it.”
After selling chocolates by mail order, a first shop opened in north London in 2004. Shop locations have been selected carefully, as outlets need to be in areas which are affluent but still accessible. So one of the earliest London locations was in High Street Kensington, rather than Knightsbridge. Thirlwell is clear he wants the chocolate to be an aspirational product but still available to a range of budgets, so a customer can buy something for £2 and it will be the same chocolate as in the £100 box.
The brand has since branched out into other areas, and cocoa-inspired foodstuffs are prominent in the store. “They are a long way from being the best selling part of our product range,” he admits, but this is all part of Thirlwell’s mission to remain a pioneer in the world of chocolate. We meet in the Hotel Chocolat restaurant in Borough Market, Rabot 1745, where I have the opportunity to try some of these innovations. “It is perceived as being extremely wacky by some of our diners,” he says cheerfully.
I order seared cacao-marinated tuna with spiced aubergine salad, coriander and cacao pulp yoghurt, and a side of white chocolate mash potato. It’s delicious; the mash potato tastes nothing like white chocolate, it’s peppery and soft. In a similar vein, Thirlwell hopes to help re-create the grand old tradition of dedicated drinking chocolate houses popular in the eighteenth century. He wants people to see hot cocoa as they once did, an invigorating daytime drink, rather than something for bed time.
There is also the hotel on the company’s plantation on St Lucia, which is profitable and at 80 per cent occupancy four years after opening. It was the scene of his proudest moment, when Prince Charles visited the functional plantation which Thirlwell owns and from where he sources much of the cocoa. “My father came over from Barbados to host the visit. Seeing the look on his face was brilliant.”
There have been bad moments too, including when Hotel Chocolat closed its two US stores. The market has been notoriously hard for overseas retailers to crack; Tesco failed, Pret a Manger took 10 years to make it a success. For now Thirlwell is content to serve American clientele with the St Lucia hotel, as two-thirds of its guests come from the US. That may help build a following for Hotel Chocolat over time, which could mean re-opening stores in the States.
The biggest blooper during Thirlwell’s career was when a thyme flavoured white chocolate creation received the worst ratings for a whole decade. “One customer said it tasted like engine oil, that he could not get the taste out of his mouth for weeks,” he laughs. He diplomatically says the chefs “got a bit close to the flavour”, which I think is a euphemism to describe how horribly pungent it was.
ANGUS THIRLWELL CV
Company name: Hotel Chocolat
Turnover: £85m per annum
Number of staff: 1,200
International presence: Three stores in Copenhagen and a hotel and spa in St Lucia
Job title: Chief executive and co-founder
Business partner: Peter Harris
Studied: French and economics at Sheffield University, but left before graduating. Later, a business qualification at Cranfield School of Management
Favourite Business Book: The Advantage: Why organisational health trumps everything else in business, by Patrick Lencioni
Heroes: My father
Career highlight: When Prince Charles visited my cocoa plantation in St Lucia
Awards: Has received nearly 40 awards and accolades for everything from the quality of the chocolate and the restaurant, to brand appeal.