The company is not only bringing chocolatiers back to the land, it is also changing the way that land is cultivated. Hotel Chocolat’s Engaged Ethics Program with cocoa farmers is a step beyond Fair Trade, which Thirlwell says he found too confining for his operations. To incentivize St. Lucian farmers to cultivate cocoa, the company pays farmers triple the going rate, guarantees payment within two weeks (the standard is six months) and provides free technical assistance for a crop that can be notoriously fussy to grow. To date, 107 farmers have joined the program, creating hard-to-find jobs in the island’s countryside. “We always lead from the premise that we make fantastic chocolate, but we’re underpinned by this engaged ethics,” Thirlwell explains. “I’m convinced that makes our customers feel better about enjoying the chocolate. We’re able to attract a higher-caliber worker to our team because we’ve got a cool brand, high-quality product, and we’re also socially responsible. We have people with degrees who are not your average shop worker drawn to us. That’s a real hard business benefit for me.”
As Thirlwell guides me to the area where the company has broken ground on the manufacturing facility, he tells me customers are at the heart of almost every Hotel Chocolat decision. The company has 100,000 Tasting Club members who pay for the privilege of testing and providing feedback on 14 new truffle flavors each month. Only the highest rated make it into the stores. “The Tasting Club has been a real drumbeat of innovation for us the last 12 years,” Thirlwell says.
In fact, the on-site chocolate plant would not be possible without the club. When, for the first time in company history, privately held Hotel Chocolat needed capital for expansion and intensive projects like the resort, restaurant and manufacturing facility (all progressing simultaneously), Thirlwell resisted the temptation to seek additional investors. He worried that outside-profit pressure would limit Hotel Chocolat’s culture of innovative risk-taking. Instead, Thirlwell sought funds from those who had an emotional attachment to Hotel Chocolat — the Tasting Club. The company created a Chocolate Bond, certified by the British government, that pays interest to the participating holders in the form of chocolate — monthly Tasting Club truffles — while the company puts its money to work on capital projects. “We raised nearly £4 million[approximately $6.5 million], which [was] enough to pay for this factory,” Thirlwell says. “I met one of the chocolate bond holders at lunchtime. She came to see where her bond money was being spent.”
Back at the main compound, under the soaring roofs of the property’s sleek restaurant, Boucan, Thirlwell insists that I try a cacao martini made with sweet pulp from the pods we had just picked. I wonder whether a manufacturing facility in the middle of the countryside on a small Caribbean island can ever be financially successful. Thirlwell smiles. “Every year, there are 500,000 well-educated, prosperous Americans and Brits coming to St. Lucia. If we can get a portion of them to come here and understand our brand, then we’ve got advocates for life. There’s a sound — if slightly unusual — business idea behind it.”
As I look out toward the majestic Pitons, the clouds part and a rainbow appears, curving down to the estate. There might just be a pot of gold in the enterprise — covered in chocolate, of course.