Shiny tanks of molten chocolate stand guard over a factory floor where three production lines squirt, chill and fill festive treats into existence.
Production of Hotel Chocolat’s Christmas selection starts in June at its factory in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, and finishes several weeks before Christmas, when it switches to making Valentine’s Day and Easter delicacies.
Christmas is by far the busiest time of year for Hotel Chocolat’s shops, where sales easily outstrip Easter, the traditional time for a chocolate binge.
This year, robots have been shouldering a bigger share of the work in making peanut butter and jelly confectionery and batons of dark chocolate as the company copes with rising costs that led it to report an annual loss this year, after a bumper time during the coronavirus pandemic, when sales jumped by two-thirds over two years.
On one production line, workers in hairnets and white coats sprinkle florentine and biscuit pieces into moulds for chocolate Christmas wreaths. The process requires only six people, down from 36 previously, as new robots lift the chocolates from their moulds using suction.
An additional gadget will place chocolates into their presentation box, a process currently done by hand, to save more time and labour costs. It means employees’ efforts can be concentrated on giving a hand-finish to chocolate treats.
Angus Thirlwell, a co-founder and the chief executive of Hotel Chocolat, says: “We now have the scale and stability in the ranges that we can use automation to become a smarter manufacturer.”
He says doing so will help the brand resist passing on the full pressure of price increases on raw ingredients, energy, labour and transport.
“We have moved from a manufacturing environment where the challenge was: ‘Can we make enough?’ to now, over the next one to two years, focusing on: ‘How do we make [things] faster and mitigate costs and refine and optimise?.’”
He says a machine that puts the card cushion on top of a finished box of chocolates, for example, has paid for itself in only six months.
Hotel Chocolat’s factory employs about 250 people across three shifts 24 hours a day, five days a week, with only a handful of extra agency staff required at peak times, thanks to automation.
Additional technology – and a potential extension to the factory complex – could also help extend production to up to 1bn chocolates a year from up to 300m at present.
Ollie Hughes, who oversees the manufacturing plant, says experienced people will continue to be an important part of the mix, alongside machines, because they are able to quickly adapt to create experimental new products or seasonal twists on standard ones.
One idea that has been rapidly gaining traction is vegan milk chocolate, where humans still have a key role to play.
On the fourth floor, partitioned from the rest of the factory so you have to change your foot coverings, cap and white coat before entering, is a Willy Wonkaish tangle of gleaming silver pipes and tanks where Hotel Chocolat creates the dairy-free alternative for its chocolates and hot chocolate flakes. The area is separated to ensure no contamination from milk products.
Made with cocoa butter, hazelnut flour, caster sugar, soya lecithin and Belcolade cocoa, tumbled together for several hours to create a liquid – ingredients are gradually added by hand. Hotel Chocolat’s nut milk chocolate can then be piped directly to where it is required around the factory.
The recipe took five years to develop so that it was sufficiently “creamy” to meet demand for a premium vegan alternative to milk chocolate.
Demand for vegan chocolate has soared, with some dairy fans keen to cut down on their intake of milk-based products for environmental reasons. Hotel Chocolat has produced six different types of vegan milk chocolate this year compared with only two last year.
Despite a tough year, the company has achieved growth of considerably more than 10% in its “unbelievably vegan” chocolate range this year.
“You can see from data that customers are coming back and rebuying once they have got a taste for it,” Thirlwell said.
Automation has been important in meeting demand for Hotel Chocolat’s hot chocolate drink sachets – created for its Velvetiser drinks maker – another rapid growth area.
Production of the sachets started in 2019 with an adapted herb grater processing solid chocolate to create 5m sachets of chocolate flakes a year. That process was gradually improved to get to 15m.
Now a new system creates flakes from piped strips of chocolate that are then chilled and broken into flakes by rollers able to create 55m sachets a year at present and, eventually, up to 180m.
A many-pronged automated rotating packing machine then ensures each sachet has the right amount of flakes and is sealed up before sending on each packet to be automatically slipped into the cartons of 10 they are sold in.
The newest stage of automation is a machine that builds a packing box for six cartons and delivers the box on to a pallet – meaning that 16 fewer people are required in the packing process.
“The stereotype of our type of manufacturer is legions of low-paid people doing menial work,” Thirlwell says, adding that technology allows it to concentrate on better-paid full-time roles with people who can quickly adapt to help test new ideas rather than spending time making up boxes.
“We have got the opportunity as a British manufacturer to step up to the next level,” he says.
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