Checking into hotel that began a revolution in British chocolate

Angus Thirlwell, the co-founder CEO of luxury chocolatier Hotel Chocolat, discovered his entrepreneurial spirit as a teenager at Barnard Castle School.

When he wasn’t dashing off on cross country runs on the North York Moors, he set up a few little enterprises at the school.

“That’s where I learned I loved being an entrepreneur,” he says.

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“We provided fresh buttered toast to people’s bedsides. I was 16 and had an operation with a bank of toasters. I had 11 year olds making toast and others taking orders. I paid them with as much toast as they could eat. The masters didn’t know about it.”

A few decades later, his upmarket chocolate chain Hotel Chocolat has identified Yorkshire as a key area for future expansion following a big rise in sales.

The group, which floated on AIM in May, said its store opening programme is progressing well after it opened a new store in Sheffield four months ago. The group already has stores in Leeds, York, Harrogate and Sheffield’s Meadowhall, a restaurant in Leeds and a cafe in York.

Hotel Chocolat said its Father’s Day campaign, ‘Better Than Socks’, performed particularly well​.

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​So is humour an important part of the Hotel Chocolat brand?

​“Yes, it’s very important,” says Thirlwell. “We are a British chocolate brand. We are doing things in a very British way. You don’t see humour in high end French chocolate.”

​He ​says the group has never played by the rules of what people think a chocolate company should be.

“For one thing, we’re one of the world’s few chocolate makers to actually grow cocoa, on our Rabot Estate plantation in Saint Lucia.”

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​Founded in 1993, Hotel Chocolat was a very different firm when Thirlwell started it under the name “Choc Express”.

“It was in the very early days of the internet. Our offer was an alternative to delivered flowers. So it was about express chocolate.

“We went from zero to several millions of pounds in sales, but we wanted to develop the story to tell people about the quality of our chocolate. Friends used to say: ‘I had some of your chocolates and they were surprisingly nice!’. You can’t have fast and good, so it was time to change that.”

Thirlwell came up with the name Hotel Chocolat in 2002.

“I lived in France as a student. When French women say chocolat the word flows, it’s so different to chocolate.”

​The “Hotel” part came from wanting an escapist element.

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“People want to be taken to a special place. Our chocolate ​takes you away from the everyday,” he says.

​The first Hotel Chocolat shop opened its doors in London in 2004. The aim of entrepreneurs Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris was “to start a revolution in British chocolate”.

“It’s been a dynamic period of change and growth, but everything we do is still guided by the three basic values that we started with,” says Thirlwell.

“We believe in originality - being fresh, creative and innovative, and always one surprising step ahead. Brits are really good at design and innovation. Our products look and feel different to French, Italian or Swiss chocolate.”

The second principle is authenticity.

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“It’s about keeping it real. We grow some of the cocoa we use. Cocoa is the number one ingredient. That’s really unusual as usually it’s sugar.”

The third is ethics - how to go about business in an ethical, sustainable way.

“We believe in reconnecting our love of chocolate with its roots. Cocoa farmers worldwide deserve respect and a fair deal. That’s what we offer, from Saint Lucia to Ghana, through our Engaged Ethics programme.”

The cocoa plantation in St Lucia is part of this ethical principle. Thirlwell was sent a 1920s book about cocoa plantations from a grateful customer and he discovered that 100 years ago there was a much stronger relationship between chocolate brands and cocoa growers.

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“Cocoa growers are impoverished now, but 100 years ago it was very different,” says Thirlwell. “Today, consumers know nothing about cocoa and farmers know nothing about chocolate.”

That was when Thirlwell and Harris decided to buy a plantation to St Lucia.

“We want to raise the status of cocoa growing to grape growing,” says Thirlwell.

On trips to St Lucia, Thirlwell and Harris often said “if only we could bring our customers here”.

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“One night we had some wine and decided to build a hotel so we could host customers and show them what’s going on.”

The pair now have a successful 18-bedroom hotel right in the middle of the plantation.

“We thought hey, if we have rooms we need a restaurant, we need a bar, we should have a spa. We have built a real experience,” says Thirlwell.

Some of the restaurant’s recipes feature savoury cocoa, referred to as cacao, and this has greatly added to the restaurant’s success.

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“We thought if the cocoa cuisine concept could excite a New Yorker, we should bring it to the UK. We selected London and Leeds in 2013. It was going to be Leeds, Manchester or Birmingham, but the more we got to know Leeds, the more it felt right. We found an amazing corner site on Boar Lane.

So why is Yorkshire a key area for expansion?

“People say Yorkshire people are very canny. Yes they are, but when they find something high quality they are immensely loyal. If you’re all style and no substance, Yorkshire people are particularly attuned at seeing through it.”

Title: Co-founder and CEO of Hotel Chocolat

Date of birth: April 1963

Place of birth: Newcastle

Education: Barnard Castle School, Sheffield University

Car driven: 10 year old Porsche Carrera

Favourite film: “Subway”, Luc Besson

Favourite holiday destination: Hotel Chocolat’s St Lucia cocoa plantation

Last book read: “The Dead Lands” by Benjamin Percy

What I am most proud of: My family and my brands