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17th November 2015

Interview: Hotel Chocolat co-founder Angus Thirlwell

Ahead of Thursday’s talk to Manchester students on how he built his business, Hotel Chocolat co-founder Angus Thirlwell talks to Ellie Gibbs
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TLDR

Beautifully marketed, from the seductive choice of wording to the exquisite presentation of each product, who could resist the cocoa-ey charms of the capsule shop so conveniently located in Manchester’s Arndale? Whether you lose yourself in the arms of the unremitting staff, or browse at your own leisure on the online store, co-founder Angus Thirlwell is here to answer any questions not already made explicit by the brand.

 

The name adds to that luxurious feel of the brand, where it’s a treat rather than a norm. But where specifically did it come from?

It was aspirational. It expresses the power that chocolate has to lift you out of your current mood and take you to a better place. “Chocolat” is almost onomatopoeic, and suggests how the chocolate melts in your mouth.

What inspired the brand, and where did it all begin?

I grew up in the West Indies. We sailed over there in the late 1960s after my father sold his interest in Mr Whippy and took on the challenge of turning around the Barbados Ice Cream Company. I was immersed in an entrepreneurial culture, and surrounded by cocoa trees from a young age!

We all know that Hotel Chocolat is a cut above your average bar. But what is it that makes it so special?

Right from the start, we’ve never played by the rules of what people said a chocolate company should be.  We’re one of the world’s few chocolate makers to actually grow cocoa, on our beautiful plantation in Saint Lucia. Connecting cocoa growing with luxury chocolate making and retailing makes us unique in the UK. Cocoa is at the heart of everything we do.

An obvious one—but are you a chocolate fan yourself?

Cocoa punctuates my day. I start by drinking a cocoa-infused tea to hydrate, and follow that with eggs dusted with ground nibs or chocolate muesli. Then, around lunchtime, an energising barista-made cocoa, and to ease off in the evening, a rum sour whilst enjoying our latest Tasting Box.

Have you found it at all difficult to cope in a time where the nation has become rather obsessed with ‘clean eating’, due to the bad rep chocolate often gets in health?

Our mantra has always been “more cocoa, less sugar”, for a healthier and more satisfying cocoa hit. It’s only when you start pumping sugar and fats into chocolate that it becomes unhealthy. Our house grade milk chocolate is 50 per cent cocoa, and even our white chocolate is 36 per cent cocoa, well above the average. Our 100 per cent cocoa bars have found a hardcore fan base in endurance athletes.

We understand you have incorporated savoury into your products such as the cocoa pasta shells, pesto and finishing oil. Talk us through the range and the process of the new accompanying cookbook.

The roots of this amazing ingredient are deeply intertwined with human history, going back more than 3,000 years. What people often don’t realise today is that people only started getting sweet on cacao 500 years ago. For at least 2,500 years before we added sugar, people mostly enjoyed cacao as a savoury spice. Our cookbook and accompanying cuisine products draw on this rich history, taking inspiration from the dishes and cocktails we serve at our three restaurants (in London, Leeds, and Saint Lucia).

Your christmas products range from the gingerbread spread to the exclusive sculptured advent calendars. What would you recommend for students looking to purchase from the brand?

You can’t go wrong with a ‘Christmas Jumper’ mini slab. Crafted from smooth 40 per cent milk chocolate, at £5, it’s the perfect stocking filler.

In a zombie apocalypse with the chance to save ONE Hotel Chocolat product, which would you choose?

A bar of our 70 per cent Dark Saint Lucia Rabot Estate. It was a real labour of love, restoring a striking 250-year-old estate house and cocoa plantation in Saint Lucia in 2006. At the time, cocoa farming was at an all-time low there and all the local beans that made it to market were lost in mixed bulk sales and anonymous chocolate blends.  I still remember the feeling of pure elation when we became the first chocolatier to produce single-origin Saint Lucian chocolate.

Saint Lucian beans  produce chocolate with a dazzling array of tasting notes, ranging from classically rich cocoa to black tea and ripe yellow fruit, grassy olive oil and dry red Burgundy.

I’m fairly confident zombies would enjoy it too.

Have you considered branding a Golden-Ticket style factory tour? And if so, may I please have a ticket?

Watch this space… We’ve got some exciting things on the horizon.

 

There are options in a range of prices to suit your Christmas budget needs without compromising on quality. Last year I bought a packet of ‘tiddly reindeer’ for a close friend. Or, if you’re feeling lonesome this season, go for a billionaire’s shortbread giant 500g slab all to yourself.

Hotel Chocolat is more than just the products it sells, from ‘bean to bar experiences’ to a ‘chocolate tasting adventure’. Look online to see the range of products, gifts and experiences available—get 10 per cent off until the 22nd of November with online code HC15NOV6PB1FF5F.

Angus Thirlwell will be speaking at an event hosted by the MEC on Thursday the 19th of November, speaking to Manchester students about where his idea came from and how he built his business. This event coincides with Global Entrepreneurship Week. Students can get tickets to the event here.


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