I don’t mean to sound like one of those “Remember the 70s” Facebook accounts that urges people to get all misty-eyed about Spangles and the memory of stabbing your schoolmate in the leg with a compass, but chocolate isn’t what it used to be. Dairy Milk now tastes hideous, and Galaxy isn’t much better. Cadbury’s Easter eggs, once a joy to receive, offer all the sensory delight of eating plastic.
No wonder the posh end of the market has grown in recent years. Hotel Chocolat has 126 shops across the country. It also has a publicity and marketing department with TV companies on speed dial, because Hotel Chocolat: Inside the Chocolate Factory on Channel 4 follows Inside Hotel Chocolat on Channel 5.
These types of shows are always uncritical advertising for a brand, albeit pleasant to watch. We see development chefs road testing new products – in this case Easter eggs with pecan pie brownie, salted caramel cheesecake and cookies’n’cream coatings, and an attempt to recreate Caribbean and Mexican cacao tea.
The team visited farmers in Ghana, where they gave a paternalistic talk about sustainability and saving the environment. All of this was overseen by CEO Angus Thirlwell, an ever-smiling presence who seemed to be involved in every aspect of the business down to a granular level. “I want that flake to be gossamer thin,” he said, inspecting machines that produce the company’s hot chocolate (which is delicious, by the way, although I manage to make it without shelling out for their £99.95 “velvetiser” machine).
It was also interesting to see new products being road-tested on a group of customers, who weren’t sure about the cacao tea. There is something satisfying about seeing chocolate being made: glossy ribbons of tempered chocolate on a conveyor belt, or being poured into moulds. But it does take away a little bit of the magic of an “artisan” brand when you see it all being produced in bulk in a vast factory.
The show was upbeat, but if you read the business pages you will have seen that the company’s shares plummeted last month after Thirlwell warned of lower sales growth. The firm recently announced the closure of its US stores, although we should not take that as a bad sign: Americans aren’t good at chocolate. Just look at what they’ve done to Dairy Milk.