With a new resort, restaurant and on-site chocolate-manufacturing facility set to open in St. Lucia, Hotel Chocolat co-founder and CEO Angus Thirlwell is turning the cocoa bean into a more-than-mighty sweet reward. This is his unconventional recipe for success.As a chocoholic, I have always imagined St. Lucia’s twin peaks, the Piton mountains, as confections rising out of a Caribbean bonbon box. So, when word arrived that the rapidly expanding British confectioner Hotel Chocolat had purchased one of the island’s historic cocoa estates, I was intrigued. At a time when the CEOs of many luxury brands have their expansion eyes firmly trained on China, Hotel Chocolat’s co-founder and CEO, Angus Thirlwell, is placing bets that operations on a small, out-of-the-way island will lend his brand an unrivaled competitive advantage. The company’s ambitious revitalization plans include opening an eco-conscious resort and restaurant, developing an ethical trade program with farmers and establishing an on-site manufacturing facility. When that happens, Hotel Chocolat will own perhaps the only cocoa estate in the world where the beans are transformed into chocolate on the premises. Guests will be able to participate in every part of the process — from cocoa tree to chocolate bar.
After a sweet night’s sleep in one of Hotel Chocolat’s modern cottages with views of the Pitons, I take an open-air shower that’s naturally enhanced by the rainforest mist sweeping in off the mountains. I’m meeting the 48-year-old Thirlwell for a morning hike through the company’s Rabot Estate, a plantation dating back to 1745, and as we set off, I ask if being part of the hospitality industry was always part of his plan. “When we created Hotel Chocolat in 1993, we had no idea we’d end up being hoteliers,” Thirlwell says, leading me down one of the many trails that wind their way around the 140-acre property. “Originally, the name referred to that place in your mind where you’re relaxed and your senses are more alive. People can be having a terrible day and chocolate turns it around. We wanted to be part of that emotional connection.” A legion of fans turned that metaphor into a business reality. Today, Hotel Chocolat has 55 U.K. locations, two shops in the United Arab Emirates, a robust online business and a store in Boston, with plans for a New York outpost soon.
As a gentle rain begins to fall, we continue the tour of the lush estate. While I’m sporting a rain jacket and hiking boots, Thirlwell is dressed in designer jeans, a polo shirt and slightly scuffed Italian loafers. With his wavy hair, rock-star swagger and unconventional business ideas, I can understand why he has assumed a rather mythical status. “At one time, there was a real connection between fine-cocoa growing and chocolate making. Now, hardly any high-end chocolatiers get their hands dirty growing cocoa,” he says as he takes a deep breath, detecting the sulfur in the air from nearby springs, and wonders how he might capture that smell in chocolate. “We’re trying to catch up with the wine world. Winemakers become inspired walking among the grapes. But for decades, chocolatiers haven’t experienced the terroir.”