Photograph: David Kilpatrick/ Alamy
Angus Thirlwell, co-founder of Hotel Chocolat, said, “I firmly believe that purchasing Rabbot Estate was destiny.” When he was visiting his father in the Caribbean, a customer walking out of an office sent him a 1920s book about chocolate making. The book inspired Thirlwell to purchase a 101-hectare (250-acre) cocoa estate in Saint Lucia in 2006.
“We wanted to get closer to the origins of chocolate,” he said in a 2008 company video. “It just made sense to do something unlike everyone else in the industry.”
That outdoorsy attitude helped Hotel Chocolat grow into a retail empire stretching from Inverness in northern Scotland to Truro in Cornwall, including franchised outposts in Japan and online sales in the US. However, that rebellious spirit can only get it so far: Hotel Chocolat revealed on Thursday it is to be bought by US food and confectionery giant Mars in a £534m deal.
This represents a victory of sorts for Thirlwell and his fellow co-founder, Peter Harris. He and his family trust still own half of the business and each founder will make a profit of £140 million on completion. Thirlwell, who will remain as chief executive, said he will reinvest in the business with Mars, while Harris, who is development director, will take out most of the cash after retiring. Yet the sale is also an acknowledgment that growing up against big business has its disadvantages.
Hotel Chocolate’s co-founder and chief executive, Angus Thirlwell, said he would reinvest the bulk of his windfall into the business. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
Thirlwell has sugar in his blood: his father was the director of the ice cream brand Mister Whippy, and he has claimed to grind chocolate over eggs at his breakfast.
After leaving university to continue working in business on a placement year in France, Thirlwell returned to the UK. During a job interview he met Harris, who would soon become his business partner.
The difference he saw in 1987 was in mints: branded mints were a good marketing gimmick. Harris and Thirlwell hand-crafted the first batch of 20,000 from the Mint Marketing Company, but they soon realized they were onto something bigger. He founded ChocExpress in 1993 to offer chocolates over the internet, before changing the brand to Hotel Chocolat in 2003 and opening his first shop in Watford, Hertfordshire a year later.
They were in a winning position, as customers enjoyed more refined chocolate with “more cocoa, less sugar”, associated with a brand that cultivated a “deep sense of fairness” towards its farmers.
In 2010, the company opened its first café, followed by a luxury hotel in Saint Lucia, helped by a “chocolate bond” that repaid its lenders in the form of truffles, pralines and cherry liqueur.
These stores became familiar on UK high streets, even as other British chocolate brands such as Cadbury and Thorntons came under foreign ownership. In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, Thirlwell said, “Supermarket chocolate had become boring and rubbish quality” – and too sugary.
Their new owners, makers of Mars Bar (60g sugar per 100g), Snickers (45g), Bounty (48g) and Galaxy (55g), clearly won’t agree with that assessment, but the hotel chocolate brand is a Fills the gap. At a time when luxury businesses have proven resilient, the US company is at the more expensive end of the market.
Other changes may also occur. Hotel Chocolat celebrates the history of its Rabotte estate with a line of beauty brands named Rabotte 1745 and a chocolate-themed restaurant of the same name, serving dishes such as guinea fowl with nib-infused organic milk yogurt, which earned The Guardian Made the reviewer “as nervous as I would be if I had a family-sized Galaxy Selection box”.
A chocolate mixing machine at Hotel Chocolate’s factory in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos/Antonio Olmos
That brand may need a closer look by Mars’ marketing department (already hurt by criticism of racial stereotyping of Uncle Ben’s, now just Ben’s Rice): 1745 is a reference to Hotel Chocolate’s founding date of 2020. Euphemistically described as “sugar form”. ”- a plantation using slave labor. University College London’s Legacies of British Slavery database records a claim of £1,299, four shillings and six pence from 1838, when the UK decided to compensate owners of enslaved people for their lost property – in this case 46 humans in. Hotel Chocolat’s website says its treatment of farmers on the same plantations sets it apart from the rest of the industry.
Big Chocolate’s strength is its ruthless efficiency in delivering products to customers. Thirlwell told reporters on Thursday that the hotel had become a major hurdle for Chocolat in recent years as it aimed for ambitious expansions in the US and Japan.
There was “huge appeal” to foreign customers in terms of taste and pricing, he said, but the problem was “manufacturing, distribution and things behind the scenes” that customers didn’t see. The mighty Martian machine will now follow the British upstart.