Darren Williams says that he started volunteering for the Samaritans seven years ago, while working for Costa Coffee, as a way of finding fulfilment outside of the corporate world.
In his current role as Head of Retail at chocolate retailer Hotel Chocolat, it could be said that Williams has found a way in his professional career of combining both his corporate and charitable instincts.
Hotel Chocolat co-founders Angus Thirlwell & Peter Harris have never been afraid to stand apart from the crowd and this approach can clearly be seen in the retailer’s unique corporate responsibility programme Engaged Ethics.
“Engaged Ethics changes people’s lives,” Williams told Retail Gazette.
“We have done some tremendous work in Ghana, from assisting healthcare and funding schools to educating people about how to grow cocoa.”
Established as an alternative to Fair Trade accreditation, Engaged Ethics is not a charitable exercise but rather a kind of mission statement from the chocolatier: A promise that the retailer will try to make the lives of its suppliers and the communities they live in better through self-help programmes and beneficial trading practices.
Hotel Chocolat aims to buy the cocoa beans it uses to make its luxury chocolate at prices between 30 to 40 per cent higher than its rivals; it buys those beans wet rather than processed to ease the farmers’ workload; and it ensures that all of its ingredients can be traced back to where they were grown.
Williams explained: “Being outside of Fair Trade allows us to go over & above some of its basic standards. The way that we buy and pay for our cocoa, and the quality of the products we use alongside the cocoa, are industry leading.”
The company is certainly used to being different; as it operates its own commercial hotel on the Rabot Estate in St Lucia where it grows some of its beans, it insists on referring to its customers as ‘guests’, and it specialises in unique luxury products like its giant chocolate slabs.
And being different seems to be paying off, as it has also been one of the quiet success stories on the British high street over the last couple of years, and in 2011 it reported a pre-tax profit rise of 25 per cent and a 12 per cent jump in revenues.
Its latest innovative idea is a cafe-cum-shop-cum-restaurant called Roast & Conch which opened at the beginning of this year in London’s Covent Garden.
Conch & Roast is a concept store where ‘guests’ can buy hot beverages, savoury dishes, cakes, pastries and breakfast items all made with fresh cocoa which is ground, conched and tempered in front of their eyes.
“We have always been proud to be a British Chocolatier, controlling the process from tree to bar, and this new concept gives guests the opportunity to see that process in a new format.”
“It is a micro way of bringing the tree to bar process into central London and showing guest some of the work we do.”
The format has proved so successful that a second Roast and Conch store will be launched in Copenhagen in June and a further roll-out is being planned, as the business looks to expand its international footprint after establishing a reputation of quality in the UK.
When Williams joined Hotel Chocolat in 2009 it had just opened its 30th store. Last month, that total moved up to 61 with the unveiling of an outlet at the revamped concourse of London’s Kings Cross train station, but the retail boss cautions that it has never been interested in aggressive expansion.