A monthly chocolate-tasting club and marketing designs taken from the London fashion scene have won Hotel Chocolat its status as one of Britain’s cool brands. The Hertfordshire company was set up in 2003 by Peter Harris and Angus Thirlwell, building on their previous decade of experience as mail-order catalogue-based chocolatiers, and they opened their first shop in 2004. Today the company has 30 shops across Britain – five of them were opened this year – and has ambitious plans to have 60 retail outlets by 2011. The mail-order business is run as a separate sister company. Founders Harris and Thirlwell have long experience of the confectionery sector, having started off in 1988 selling peppermints for the corporate market before moving on to chocolate. With motifs and typefaces inspired by fashion trends, originality and innovation are part of the company ethos. The company’s 500g “chocolate slabs” include flavours such as roast Italian coffee and triple chocolate wham bam. Other offerings include chilli and almond chocolate “canapés” and a range of “cocoa cuisine” products such as chocolate pasta and cocoa nib balsamic vinegar. The founders emphasise that ethical standards are integral to the company philosophy as well. Its chocolates are made with no artificial additives or hydrogenated fats. Hotel Chocolat runs a 140-acre cocoa plantation on the Caribbean island of St Lucia. The estate dates back to around 1745 and the company had to restore it. Hotel Chocolat has also established an “engaged ethics” programme on the island, buying cocoa from other local growers and guaranteeing to take their crop at 30%-40% above the market price. The company’s efforts to rejuvenate the cocoa-growing industry through a model of sustainable production and fair standards for suppliers have won at least one high-profile supporter: in March Prince Charles cut the first ground for a chocolate factory to be built on the St Lucia estate. A cool image and an ethos of corporate responsibility have helped the company to grow. Harris and Thirlwell have ambitious plans, from opening their St Lucia chocolate factory to tourists, to upcoming plans to build a real Hotel Chocolat for visitors on the estate. The company’s sales have soared 226% a year from an annualised £533,000 in 2005 to £18.4m in 2008.
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