As the crafted hot chocolate concept opens its seventh site, MCA speaks to CEO Tori Nunn about how the cafe brand is looking to follow the single origin journey of speciality coffee 

Jens Knoop

When Jens Knoop realised that chocolate drinks were very much an afterthought on café menus, or simply the preserve of high-end chocolatiers, he decided to create his own.

Opening dedicated chocolate drink café, Knoops, in Rye, East Sussex in 2013, the aim was to share his love for cocoa and create the finest chocolate drinking experience in town.

With a curated chocolate menu, Knoops gives customer the chance to build their own indulgent creations according to their preferred cocoa make-up.

Fast forward to 2022 and the brand – pronounced Kuh-noops – has hit the sweet spot, its seventh site opening this month in Oxford, joining cafes in Brighton, Kensington, Chelsea, Clapham Junction, Richmond and Rye.

Now the boutique operator is looking to launch up to ten more outlets by March 2023.

“Jens knew that drinking chocolate in the main hadn’t been developed as a proposition,” chief executive officer Tori Nunn, tells MCA.

“On the high street there’s a large number of coffee shops [but] there aren’t any expertly crafted chocolate drink shops bar ourselves.”

Drinking chocolate is often associated with a powder but each Knoops hand-crafted beverage is made from chocolate buttons – ironically ‘Knoop’ means button in Dutch.

There’s an array of 22 cacao percentages to choose from to suit individual tastes.

Options start from a 28% creamy natural white chocolate rising all the way up to a 100% extra dark pure cacao sourced from the Solomon Islands.

In between, you’ll find drinks such as a 39% Ecuadorian single-origin featuring notes of nougat, vanilla and almonds, a pinky hued 47% cocoa blend featuring a hint of sweet red berries, and a 73% single origin from the Philippines that has citrus, honey and caramel undertones.

“As you go up the range and you’re in that higher percentage, that is a much darker, more intense, arguably more grown-up taste,” Nunn explains.

An advantage of the vast selection is its broad appeal.

“People who have more of a taste for coffee, they come in and say we couldn’t believe that you could have a not sweet hot chocolate.”

While woman aged between 24-45 are especially attracted to the concept, marshmallow-loving children are also enthusiasts along with vegans - although the customer demographic largely depends on the location, Nunn says.

Oat, soya, coconut, hazelnut and almond milk are served at the same price as dairy.

“A lot of people don’t associate being able to get a vegan hot chocolate,” Nunn says.

“If you choose a chocolate that’s over 54% and add a non-dairy milk it will be a vegan drink so we find a lot of people come from the vegan demographic, especially in Brighton.”

The brand is also big on ethical sourcing, taking a similar approach to specialty coffee.

Knoop, whose passion for chocolate was sparked during his childhood growing up in rural Germany when his grandmother introduced him to the sweet treat at the tender age of five, hand-selects the cocoa depending on several factors, including the grower’s sustainability story.

Only fully traceable blends are sourced that positively impact local communities, and the company knows which cooperatives contribute to each cup.

The single origin cacao from Peru and Columbia to Tanzania and Madagascar can be traced back to individual farms.

As well as hot chocolates, which are served in 8oz and 12oz sizes, customers can select lighter iced drinks from six chocolate percentages served with dairy or plant-based milk and poured over ice.

Milkshakes made from Knoops white chocolate ice cream are also available in 10oz and 14oz formats.

Hot chocolate prices start from £3.05 rising all the way up to £6 depending on the size of the drink and type of chocolate selected.

A menu of tea and coffee, including a cacao tea made with the husks of the cacao bean, is also available.

Online, the Knoops store sells the ingredients, appliances and recipe books to encourage those at home to embrace the theatre of ‘Knoopology’ – the four-step process that involves choosing the temperature of the drink, selecting the chocolate percentage, adding a choice of milk followed by extras such as sweet vanilla, zest orange or chilli if so desired.

So what does the future have in store?

The business is currently scouting for potential sites in large commuter towns, cathedral cities, and tourism-driven locations.

While Knoop’s Chelsea store has a seating pod downstairs, the majority of cafes operate on a takeaway basis, which Nunn describes as a “very conscious decision” and is one that will remain.

The aim is for people to grab their “hot chocolate, go on a nice walk and enjoy it”, she says.

Centrally, new roles have been created within the business. A head of property was recently appointed, together with a head of people.

“As we open more stores, we increase the number of staff that we have,” Nunn says. “I think it’s so important we ensure we look after our staff and continue to put the right procedures around support in place, especially in the hospitality industry which has been so impacted by Covid.”

In terms of its backers, the business works with “a carefully considered group of investors”.

“The intention is to open another ten stores and then along with that to try and start to grow our online business,” she adds.