How to sweeten your hot chocolate offering

06 March 2020 by
How to sweeten your hot chocolate offering

Many operators are aware of the advantages a strong tea and coffee offering can bring, but most are failing to create a premium opportunity from hot chocolate. Ian Boughton discovers the best ways to sweeten your deal

There is a beverage which is a massive all-year profit-maker for some parts of the catering trade, but which other parts of the industry have missed completely – hot chocolate.

The coffee-house trade has always understood the value of hot chocolate. It accounts for 5% of year-round beverage sales in some chain cafés, and up to 15% in some independents.

However, several recent researches have highlighted a curiosity. Hot chocolate is the fastest-growing drink in the general catering sector, and in one survey, 60% of consumers said it was served best in coffee-houses – but only 8% of hotel guests liked the chocolate they were offered.

Has the hospitality trade missed this sector? "Any business competing with the high street should recognise chocolate as a big opportunity," says Gemma Screen, marketing manager at Extract Coffee Roasters. "Offices, workspaces, universities and museums with in-house cafés are all recognising it.

Quality chocolate has been overlooked in hotels, but this is starting to change, and we'll see more quality hotels and restaurants investing in better quality chocolate drinks."

Some have already seen it, says Marco Olmi at Drury Tea & Coffee. "The main market for hot chocolate is cafés, but we now supply some restaurants that you wouldn't expect – we have a Michelin-starred chef whose restaurant accounts for more than 100 cups of hot chocolate a fortnight, which is business worth having.

"And as a nation, we now see more children eating out, which adds a useful chocolate market. Exactly the same goes for hotels, with chocolate as a late-night drink – we do a delicious chocolate for them, and there is a market there."

Many chocolate brands sympathise with the problem of in-room hot chocolate in hotels, where a powder stick product is often the only practical option. The in-room solution is yet to be found, agree several brands – but, they also agree, this can be countered by offering a more special and profitable option in their bars and restaurants.

The name game

It is a market that is looking for a branded solution, says Zareen Deboo, foodservice operations manager at Ferrero, which owns the Thorntons brand. "Hot chocolate has seen the greatest growth of all out-of-home hot drinks over the last year, but our research shows the same disparity between key markets and the chocolate experience they offer, so our launch of Thorntons Luxury hot chocolate is to raise the standard.

"Our findings show that 75% of people prefer a branded hot chocolate... and 90% would prefer Thorntons."

The two acknowledged independent pioneers of quality hot chocolate in the café trade are Kokoa Collection and Marimba. Both brands work on identifiable single-origin chocolates, a concept already familiar in speciality coffee, whereas the British chocolate market has always been used to a generic chocolate product with no source story.

Paul Eagles of Kokoa Collection devised a chocolate disk that melts quickly in hot water or steamed milk, creating a whole new profit category for coffee houses.

Marimba hot chocolate
Marimba hot chocolate

"Hotels and restaurants are still low down in the order of volume sales for hot chocolate," says Eagles. "But our own recent experience is of a 30% increase, which comes from reaching these new markets with authentic hot chocolate. Just as with coffee, our clients now give their customers a range to choose from – gone are the days when a customer would order just a ‘coffee', so why should they be expected to accept a ‘hot chocolate' with no input as to its sweetness or character? "We have had great success with hotels that have dedicated café-bars."

Marimba made its name with easy-melt chocolate flakes, again sourced from identifiable origins, and the company's Brad Wright now holds the unusual position of chocolate barista trainer. Chocolate training is a relatively new concept, he explains, which exists because there are things that operators need to know.

"A little bit of understanding will make a real practical difference to the business you do with hot chocolate. There is a world of difference between powdered chocolate, solid chocolate and flakes, and how they work – the new non-dairy milks all react differently with chocolate, so you can't just use the same technique with all milks and hope it will work.

"A lot of caterers say they are now asked for different milks with chocolate, so they really need to know about things like this!"

Think about the origins

At Willie's Cacao in Devon, Willie Harcourt-Cooze is the owner of a Venezuelan cocoa farm. He sees restaurants now beginning to make a feature of the origin and source of their chocolate, because their customers are interested in the story. He, too, sees an increase in operators using his chocolate with plant-based alternative milks.

So does the Guittard brand. "We have found an increased demand for alternatives that don't require the use of dairy," remarks managing director Erik Bruun Bindslev. "Our Grand Cacao is made from old-fashioned Dutch-process cocoa powder. This achieves an unparalleled intense chocolate flavour, very different from many of the sickly sweet options available, and plant milk gives a nice thick consistency.

"As with coffee, it is the independents who have driven the change, and hotels will inevitably come on board as the demand for quality hot chocolate rapidly expands."

In choosing their hot chocolate, caterers also need to understand cocoa content. This is a minefield – at a Beverage Standards Association conference some years ago, Cadbury gave a presentation proving that its drinking chocolate powder, generally reckoned to be around 34% cocoa solids, is the one that suits the taste of the British public. Of course, Cadbury's domination of the drinking chocolate market at one time was almost entirely responsible for the public taste.

Today, while many chocolate drinkers like a cocoa content of 70% or even 90%, most brands aim for a general public taste of around 50%. "We have a range of cocoa percentages, from a 58% Venezuela to an 82% Madagascar," says Paul Eagles at Kokoa Collection. "We are definitely seeing a shift in interest up to the 70% mark, and in line with eating-chocolate trends, we are now developing a 100% hot chocolate."

The importance of this has been missed by many caterers. A typical hazard is in the preparation of mocha, a profitable drink of espresso, chocolate and steamed milk – which is not as easy as it sounds, says Paul Eagles.

"You have already selected a great house coffee – tick. You pick a great hot chocolate – tick. So for your mocha, you just mix them together, and will that be great? No, it won't! You must understand your possible combinations of coffee and chocolate for flavour, sweetness level and strength."

If you use a really punchy dark-roast espresso with an 80% chocolate, then you may well get a very bitter result, explains Brad Wright at Marimba. "Is one ingredient going to be too powerful for the other? Many caterers say they have never thought about this – and when they do think about it, they move on to ideas like combining a white chocolate with a mild espresso, which can result in a very nice house special."

Add a bit of colour

Ideas like this are where some hotel bars have begun to score, he says. "We supply lots of premium hotels and restaurants who find that hot chocolate performs fantastically well for them when ‘spiked' – using alcohol to turn hot chocolate into a cocktail can open up an amazingly creative menu. There are hot chocolates with Baileys and rum for winter, fruity flavours for summer, even Irish mochas in white chocolate. A little bit of flair will see hot chocolate sales soar. White chocolate in particular gets a lot of attention on a menu."

A high-quality white hot chocolate is a potentially big seller, says Gemma Screen at Extract. "Just like advertising your drinks as ‘dark hot chocolate' has more appeal than just ‘hot chocolate', so will white get more attention.

"Both white and dark hot chocolate make great partner ingredients for other drinks.

Add a scoop of beetroot powder to white chocolate for a hot pink hot choc; do the same with dark chocolate to get a red velvet hot chocolate. These drinks are visually appealing and bang on trend."

Even the big coffee chains have seen the potential of colour in hot chocolate, and Costa has just launched its Ruby chocolate drink.

Ruby is a natural chocolate phenomenon with a fruity taste and colouring, and the Barry Callebaut brand has called it "the fourth chocolate", alongside dark, milk and white. Costa has marketed it as "baby pink, fit for a princess" at £3.35, which is impressively high for a coffee-shop hot chocolate – in a restaurant, that price could easily be pitched much higher.

Hot Beverages - Costa Ruby
Hot Beverages - Costa Ruby

Callebaut has now gone farther with colour, introducing its Caramel Gold for hot chocolate, saying it is "intense yet well balanced caramel chocolate, with rich notes of toffee, butter, cream and an exciting dash of salt".

Callebaut recently included chocolate drinks in its Desserts Report, and concluded that attention to quality will make hot chocolate a growth sector, because eight out of 10 consumers now expect hot chocolate to be nothing less than "a luxurious, expertly-crafted drink".

Tea hot chocolate

A surprising variation is hot chocolate tea. This is not time-consuming to make, says Erica Moore of Eteaket. "When our tea room opened, we quickly realised that ‘tea hot chocolate' was a gap in the market. Hot chocolate was popular, but customers expected more than a regular powdered hot chocolate. Our tea hot chocolates quickly became a staple on our menu.

"We cold-brew our tea overnight and use a small 25ml measure of it; we melt two buttons of Kokoa Collection in a small measure (maybe 25mls) of boiling water, put the mixture in a jug with milk, 70% milk and 30% the tea/chocolate mix, and steam it together."

Kokoa Collection
Kokoa Collection

The concept of a tea chocolate has also cropped up from Novus Teas. Director Allan Pirret explains it is a teabag product that combines black Chinese and Indian leaf teas with cocoa bean and vanilla.

"It's a decadent combination of tea and chocolate with a cheeky sweetness. It's a very different taste experience from a hot chocolate, and an excellent winter warmer."

Not such a mocha-ry

To the coffee trade, a mocha is a profitable drink formed by a combination of coffee and hot chocolate. There are cafés who create a mocha by adding chocolate syrup to a latte, which drives some chocolate brands to fury, but others point to the usefulness of using flavoured syrups to create a chocolate-themed house special such as a Black Forest hot chocolate.

"To create a chocolate drink or a mocha using sauce or syrup is not actually punishable by hanging," argues Darril Ling of Dandelion Imports, who distributes Routin 1883 syrups. "A cherry, orange or rum syrup can be the perfect addition which will form a ‘special' on your menu."

Routin 1883 syrups
Routin 1883 syrups


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