Hot chocolate sales are rising as its appeal broadens. In fact, it is more important than many in the hospitality trade realise, discovers Ian Boughton.
It has long been known in the café trade that hot chocolate is worth at least 15% of the average coffee shop turnover. The key, say many serious players, is not to assume that drinking chocolate is just for children and oldies.
"You miss this at your peril," confirms Martin Lines, marketing director at Nestlé Professional. "Twenty-seven per cent of coffee shop customers regularly purchase a hot chocolate - 7% up in two years."
It is no coincidence that several brands have used a promotional theme of "chocolate for adults" supported by some very clever innovations.
The target market is now so wide, says Elaine Higginson, managing director of First Choice Coffee, that the caterer has to suit the product to their customer base.
"Catering outlets where a premium price is not possible are suited to instant chocolate, but restaurants and hotels should now be looking at a drink with a high cocoa content to be made with milk," she says.
The cocoa content is important. The best-known British chocolate drink is from Cadbury, which features a relatively low cocoa content. When challenged about this at a Beverage Service Association conference, a Cadbury speaker replied, correctly: "That's the British taste."
Other brands are now looking to turn the consumer to the Continental taste, with its higher cocoa content. There is already a small but valuable specialist market of drinkers who like 70-90% cocoa - and the 100% cocoa drink does exist. In general, newer hot chocolate brands tend to claim a cocoa content of about 40-50%, which suits both a cup or mug serving with milk, and the relatively new idea of a "shot" size in an espresso cup with no milk.
Marco Beverage Systems was an early mover in this trend with its Ciocco machine - the latest is the Ciocchino from Keylink. Managing director Sanjeev Ramchandani says the British are Europe's leading chocaholics and that caterers should realise the possibilities this brings for different ways of serving.
At one extreme is the "straight shot", and at the other, as the Chocca Mocca company argues, is making a feature of presenting mug-sized hot chocolate as a "taking time" drink, not one to be rushed.
The British taste can be more profitably catered for, says James Hutchins, founder of James Chocolates. "Our hot chocolate is a blend of milk and dark chocolates flaked together. The dark brings a depth and some punch, and the milk chocolate adds creaminess, which appeals to the British palate without us having to add a bucket of sugar."
That reference to the sweetness of many hot chocolates hides a hazard, warns David Latchem, managing director of Café du Monde.
"We removed all the trans fats from our hot chocolate because of research showing how unhealthy it is," he explains.
"It took us some time to balance our blend again, since these fats gave a sweeter taste - but rather than adding back sugar, we increased the strength of the cocoa content. Many hot chocolates, however, are still made using trans fats."
Chocolate is not a seasonal drink, although the winter is the obvious time for promotion. Andrea Stopher, trade marketing manager at Twinings, says that nothing can compare to hot chocolate as a profitable drink in these circumstances. She says that promoting Twinings Swiss Chocolate as a winter warmer - making use of the brand, the origin and the concept - has lifted the drink into the premium price category.
Flavours are another key to a high-ticket hot chocolate. One of the very best flavouring ideas from the café world has been to recreate famous brands in chocolate drinks - for example, using coconut flavouring, chocolate and steamed milk to give the impression of a Bounty bar, or adding orange for the Terry's product. Some of those big brands have now responded with the legitimate versions - the most recent is the Galaxy hot chocolate from Mars Drinks.
It is also possible to market hot chocolate on an ethical basis. Jon Marlow, head of sales at Cafédirect, offers a way of using fairness as a point of difference:
"Our San Cristobal drinking chocolate won a Great Taste gold star this year. This quality is down to freshness, with the cocoa flesh being processed within six hours of being picked. There is a great demand for chocolate promoted through taste, provenance and fairness."
Cadbury 0870 191 7343
Cafédirect 020 7033 6000
Café du Monde 01322 284804
First Choice Coffee
Keylink 0114 245 7801
Marco Beverage Systems
020 7274 4577
0800 032 3444