The name conjures up romantic images of languorous days spent in tropical splendor. Which is precisely the point, according to Angus Thirlwell, co-founder of the UK-based company
. “The company has been around for nearly twenty years, originally as a catalog retailer,” explains Thirwell, “but about seven years ago we realized that our brand really didn't reflect our aspirations for the future so we decided to change our name.
“'Chocolat' is more romantic than 'chocolate' and we wanted a name that would transport people, in their minds, to this magical, escapist, place that provides physical pleasure and nourishment of the soul. Once we came up with 'Hotel' we immediately knew it was right choice.”
Sometime this Fall, Hotel Chocolat will be more than a collection of over 40 retail boutiques in the UK and the US
(in Boston) – it will also grow to include an actual luxury eco resort on the Caribbean island of St Lucia
, closing the circle and bringing the metaphysical to the real world.
The main plantation house at Hotel Chocolat on Rabot Estate.
Rockers on the Plantation House veranda for guests to relax in.
Located on the Rabot Estate, a World Heritage Site
, the Hotel Chocolat features a view down to the ocean soaring to views up to 1000 m (over 3000 feet) twin volcanoes. The hotel boasts eco-conscious barefoot luxury in an intimate boutique - only 14 rooms - setting. True to its cacao heritage, the hotel's 60-seat restaurant, Boucan, is built on the site of an old boucan (throughout the Caribbean today, a boucan is place where cacao is fermented, and boucan and buccaneer share the same linguistic roots, perhaps going all the way back to Arawak word for barbecue).
A view down to the water from Rabot Estate.
The Pitons from Rabot Estate.
But this is only one part of the Hotel Chocolat story. St Lucia
has a long history of cocoa production but there has been little or no export from the country in a long time. Rabot Estate is not only the site of a hotel, it is the center of the company's efforts to reinvigorate the local cacao industry which has fallen on hard times; many established cacao farms were turned over to faster-growing bananas. With support from the Board of Directors and the Government of St Lucia, Hotel Chocolat representatives met with independent growers all over the island to see what they could do to help.
“From the beginning, we knew we needed and wanted independent cocoa growers in St Lucia to work with us,” says Thirwell. “We met with them and asked them to join our team. We guaranteed to purchase 100% of the crop and we pay a premium that is as much as 30% over the international commodity price. We also provide technical assistance. There are no middlemen, so all the benefit goes to the farmer.”
“When we started out a couple of years ago we worked with two farmers. Today we're working with more than 80 independent growers that supplement what we grow on Rabot Estate. We've established a central collection facility where we oversee all the fermentation and drying to control quality, and we've established a number of nurseries on the Estate to provide farmers with subsidized seedlings. It's still a little too early to precisely quantify all the benefits to farmers and the local economy of what we're doing, but growing from two to eighty farmers in two years is an indication that we must be doing something right.”
Drying racks on Rabot Estate.
The company intends to begin making chocolate in small batches from defined areas of Rabot Estate and from different areas of the island. The goal is to locate areas that exhibit interesting terroir characteristics and then to commercialize them. The hotel is set to open this coming November (2010) and there is a site for the chocolate factory nearby. This close proximity will enable Hotel Chocolat to experiment freely on a small scale with a focus on small batch and vintaged production. Other beans grown on the island will be sent to a cocoa processor who, working in close collaboration, will create chocolate on a larger scale for use in other products.
One aspect of opening the hotel is especially interesting to me: agro-tourism offers a means of independent “verification” of the claims made for an operation by people who are visiting. Hotel Chocolat is committed to a total open access policy where anyone staying at the hotel can ask any of the farmers any questions they want about the operation of the business. Visitors can see for themselves the fermentation and drying and walk through the farms to “inspect” them. This is a very low cost alternative to expensive certification programs and it's straightforward and transparent - anyone with an interest in finding out what is really going can take personal responsibility for doing so.
The company has been approached by groups interested in its approach, called ‘Engaged Ethics’, and there is a move underway to transplant the approach they are pioneering on St Lucia to several other Caribbean islands, including Jamaica and St Vincent.
Not content to innovate on the plantation, Hotel Chocolat announced recently that it was raising money through a private bond issue offered to the approximately 100,000 members of its Tasting Club. The dividends for investment are truly sweet – investors receive their dividends in chocolate. (Just as I was getting ready to post this article, I received an e-mail with an update on the progress of the bond issue. Those details (a smashing success so far) can be read here