On a visit last week to their Rabot estate which they bought in 2006, near Soufriere, in St Lucia, estate director, Phil Buckley pointed out the three phases included re-establishing Rabot as a viable thriving cocoa grower, building a chocolate factory in St Lucia and finally building a boutique chocolate hotel. He hinted that the hotel will take visitors into a wondrous world rivaled only by the magical chocolate factory of Willie Wonka.
He revealed the company’s project is not only for St Lucia but for the entire Caribbean. “When we revive the cocoa here we will go to Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent, Jamaica and many other islands,” he said. Buckley revealed he has been in talks with Trinidad and Tobago’s government and hopes to start functioning in the new year.
“We hope to start working in Trinidad and Tobago on a large scale where we will be implementing fermentation and drying of the cocoa there,” he said. Estate overseer, Marius Felix, said the first phase of the company’s goals was to basically establish a centre of excellence.
“We mean that it is going to be an area where the best in cocoa production technology is going to be practiced. Where farmers in the region will be happy to come around to see what is being done, to see the data we have based on our field operations,” he said.
He continued: “We are hoping to develop new varieties of cocoa right now. We are linked up with two of the world’s best universities as far as cocoa is concerned, Reading University and the University of the West Indies,” he said.
He added that at the estate which is wholly organic has 17 types of cocoa at present.
Buckley explained with their plan to have a factory in St Lucia will mean a huge resurgence in the world for fine flavoured cocoa.
“We spent three years reviving cocoa on this island as well as this estate. We are now in a position where we have driven up the tonnage to about 20 that is a significant improvement to when we started which was one and a half tonne,” he said.
He pointed out that building the factory in the middle of the estate means the added value of the cocoa stays in the island rather than staying in the West.
He revealed the factory is designed to allow 250,000 visitors a year, “which will be a great addition to the tourism product for St Lucia and the Caribbean.”
Hotel Chocolat is Britain’s number one private company it was founded by Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris in 1993. The company began as a catalogue-based business known as Choc Express, in 2003; they re-branded as Hotel Chocolat and launched their first retail store. “Our growth in the last two years has been 226 percent, we got about 42 shops in the UK and we are the only company in the world which harvests the beans. We process them, we send them to our factory and we send them to our own shops. We have plans to be about 100 shops in 2011 and we plan to open in ten countries across the world in the next five years,” he explained.
Buckley described the company as a unique one having what they call engaged ethics.
“It is because we find fair trade is too constraining in the things we are allowed to do. We like to push the envelope, we like to roll up our sleeves and get involved,” he said.
Buckley explained they chose St Lucia for many reasons, one of them being the island’s “fine flavoured cocoa”.
“We also wanted to work with a government that had a good reputation, we also looked for a workforce that was at a certain level in terms of education and also the culture,” he said.
Hotel Chocolat has also given more jobs to the island’s farmers, they are currently doing business with 73 of them. They provide the farmers with seedlings so they can regenerate the farms and establish fine flavoured cocoa on the island.
The estate pays the local farmers 40 percent above the world market price for cocoa.
“We are actually subsidizing the price to get people back into cocoa. The price is not going down, we have deliberately driven the price up to get people back in. Ethically we think the chocolate industry can’t continue to sustain the model as it is that is why we have changed it, which is why we are pioneers, we have turned the entire chocolate industry on its head,” Buckley said.