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Interview: Rise of a chocolate empire

PUBLISHED: 14:49 14 April 2015 | UPDATED: 14:49 14 April 2015

A range of chocolate truffles

A range of chocolate truffles

Archant

Angus Thirlwell, founder of the remarkable Hotel Chocolat, tells us about taking his confectionery brand from Royston and Watford to the world

Angus TherwellAngus Therwell

It’s true, I eat chocolate every day,’ says Angus Thirlwell, entrepreneur and co-founder of Royston-based Hotel Chocolat. ‘My wife can tell when I haven’t. I get in a slightly bad mood.’

It’s nearly three decades since the 51-year-old ripped up the rulebook when it comes to mixing business and pleasure, setting up a confectionery company with colleague Peter Harris. Originally specialising in mints, the company evolved to focus on the pair’s first love: chocolate.

Back then it was a small operation in a lock-up next to a train station, surviving thanks to £10,000 in personal loans, a figure that took a sizeable hit when a product-wrapping machine they bought turned out to be a dud.

The recipe for Hotel Chocolat’s success was dreamt up in Whittlesford, Cambridgeshire, but it was just down the A505 in Royston that things really began to take off after the pair relocated. While some companies benefit from the kudos of a Cambridge postcode, Thirlwell reckoned the association was more important to high-tech companies than it was to a specialist in chocolate.

Hotel Chocolat's Cocoa Bar-Cafe in KensingtonHotel Chocolat's Cocoa Bar-Cafe in Kensington

‘When we first came to Royston nearly 20 years ago it was a very different place,’ Thirlwell remembers. ‘The bypass wasn’t built and the trains weren’t as frequent, but we could see something in the town; we could tell it was a good place. You can get to London, you can get to Cambridge, and there was a good workforce just ready to go – that meant we could build the business up and employ people locally, and that was always really important to us.’ It was an astute observation – the Hotel Chocolat HQ is still in the town.

Around the same time as the move, the company began retailing online. This was the early 1990s, and Thirlwell speaks with pride about how its online presence predates both Amazon and eBay. ‘We were pioneers,’ he laughs. ‘We saw new methods for promoting a classic product, and that apparent contradiction seemed to resonate.’

Hertfordshire played another crucial role in the development of Hotel Chocolat when the company chose Watford as the home of its first high-street shop. ‘After a few years we thought it would be a good idea to open a physical door,’ Thirlwell continues. ‘We were very aware that a lot of people buy their chocolate on impulse and even though our website was very good there was no doubt that you had to wait until your chocolate was delivered.’ The shop would allow customers to visit, taste the products and learn about where the ingredients were from and how it was made.

‘We were looking for somewhere relatively near because we wanted to be very hands-on,’ Thirlwell points out. We knew the first shop would require lots of tweaking and polishing in order to get it exactly right, but sometimes that’s half the fun of business.

The raw cocoa beansThe raw cocoa beans

‘Watford had a great advantage too in that it is a classic British town. We consider it to be a great bellwether for the UK, especially economically.

‘We reckoned if we could get our Hotel Chocolat store to work in Watford, then it was a fair bet it would probably work anywhere.’

The first shop was a big hit and, as Thirlwell predicted, the company built on that success with a phenomenal spread around the country – opening 75 stores in the next 10 years. More stores followed in Copenhagen, and 2013 saw Hotel Chocolat open its first two British restaurants, cutting the ribbon on innovative confectionery projects in London and Leeds.

In another forward-thinking development, the company acquired its own cocoa plantation, the Rabot Estate in Saint Lucia, becoming the only UK company to grow, manufacture and distribute its own product from scratch.

Suitably enough, Thirlwell and his team have created a real hotel on Saint Lucia – the 14-room Boucan Hotel and Restaurant set among the cocoa groves of the Caribbean island. It is something of a return for Thirlwell, who grew up in the West Indies, and he pays regular visits. That said, he still considers Hertfordshire his home – or his ‘sanctuary’, as he calls it.

‘I love going for walks in the countryside,’ he says. ‘I like the undulating land between Royston and Saffron Walden. The very north of Hertford-shire has some really lovely rolling hills and it’s quite easy to get out into the country-side. It’s a great place to live, and a great place to recharge one’s batteries.’

It’s also, he says, a great place to think and plan – crucial to the success of a business that thrives on innovation and on bringing new elements (literally) to the table.

‘We’re a very creative business. Our biggest challenge is deciding which ideas we should back and which don’t deserve to get further than the drawing board,’ Thirlwell says.

Two ideas that have recently come to fruition are Hotel Chocolat’s recipe book, Hotel Chocolat: A New Way of Cooking with Chocolate, as well as a dairy-free range.

Chocolate-themed cookbooks are not new, but Thirlwell’s twist is to strip things back to the cocoa bean, using everything from the shell to the nibs (the unprocessed bean, broken into little bits). The book explains how cocoa can enhance a range of savoury dishes – even those based around meat and fish.

The dairy-free range has been several years in development, and introduces almond milk as an alternative ingredient. Thirlwell points to a YouGov study that says one in three of households now has a special dietary requirement, with gluten and dairy intolerances among the two most common.

‘It’s something we have wanted to do for a long time, but we couldn’t quite get the flavour right,’ he says.

‘Our team of chocolate developers have been working on ways to get the right taste and the right health attributes. But beyond what we do, we’re just fanatical about chocolate because we know the general public are too.

‘Yes, more and more people are looking at the health aspect of chocolate, but everything in moderation is a mantra that has to be applied to diet no matter what you’re eating, so why should chocolate be any different? What we all love is that Britain is truly a chocolate nation.’

Both the cookbook and the almond milk range will be on the shelves in time for Easter. But what does a chocolatier who eats the stuff every day do for Easter?

‘Oh I love Easter,’ Thirlwell beams. ‘Chocolate tastes different when it’s cast into different shapes, and there’s something about an Easter egg that makes it taste particularly nice. There’s no doubt that Easter is the favourite season for all our chocolate makers – bring it on!’

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Hotel Chocolat: A New Way of Cooking with Chocolate, published by Headline, is out now.

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