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How Knoops is raising the bar for craft chocolate beverages

Founded by Jens Knoop in 2013, Knoops’ sophisticated take on drinking chocolate is resonating strongly with UK consumers and saw the brand secure a sweet $10m from investors in late 2023. CEO William Gordon-Harris speaks to World Coffee Portal about why he believes Knoops can disrupt the coffee shop category and become a billion-dollar global brand

Knoops’ Victoria Street outlet in Edinburgh | Photo credit: Knoops

The UK branded coffee shop market has never been more diverse and today a small, but growing, number of non-coffee specialists are innovating the retail café space with bubble tea, chai – and drinking chocolate.

Keen to develop a childhood obsession with chocolate for a mature audience, German-born Jens Knoop opened the first Knoops (pronounced k-noops) store in East Sussex in 2013, selling a range of single-origin chocolate beverages sourced from around the world.

“Jens stumbled across the idea of barista-quality hot chocolate in much the same way as Howard Schultz came back from Italy and brought barista-quality coffee to North America,” says Knoops CEO William Gordon-Harris.

The vision was to convey chocolate through the lexicons of specialty coffee and wine. Knoops’ drinking chocolate menu includes around 20 single-origin chocolate varieties from major cocoa-producing nations such as Ecuador and Peru to more niche origins such as the Solomon Islands.

Customers can choose a wide range of cocoa strengths and tasting notes for their hand-prepared iced or hot chocolate – from a subtly floral 35% white Colombian to an intense and fruity 75% Tanzanian.

The business works with a small selection of chocolate makers, including renowned bean-to-bar craft maker Firetree, which has forged direct trade relationships with cocoa farmers from Madagascar to the Phillippines, Papua New Guinea and the remote pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

“Jens sources chocolate from all over the world to ensure it caters to a broad palate. We are giving adults permission to enjoy chocolate without infantilising them through the process,” says Gordon-Harris.

Chocolate beverages currently account for approximately 90% of Knoops’ in-store sales. However, the brand also sources specialty coffee from Minas Gerais, Brazil and roasts at its facility in Woolwich, UK.

“There’s no reason not to associate yourself with Knoops for coffee as well as chocolate. We offer something that is perhaps more luxury and emotionally connected than a high street coffee chain because we’re creating a category,” says Gordon-Harris.

Offering a broad range of single-origin chocolate and coffee beverages makes the Knoops proposition more attractive to consumers, he adds – especially non-coffee drinkers who often find fewer low-caffeine alternatives at UK coffee shops.

The brand’s indulgent, hand-prepared beverages are also resonating strongly with younger consumers, who are increasingly seeking new concepts in the UK’s competitive branded coffee shop market.

Introduced to Knoops by his school-aged children, serial entrepreneur Gordon-Harris says his first conversation with Knoop was a ‘lightbulb moment’ that led to him to invest in the business and become its Executive Chairman in 2019.

The business began expanding the following year, opening stores in London’s Kensington and Chelsea, before rolling out across some of the UK’s affluent university cities in 2021 and 2022, including Brighton, Oxford and Cambridge. In 2023, Knoops accelerated regional expansion with  outlets in Bath and Manchester, secured over $10m investment and reached group-level profitability.

Gordon-Harris, who assumed the role of CEO in July 2023, is now ready to unlock Knoops’ full potential. Further openings are scheduled this year in Nottingham, Exeter, Norwich, Cardiff and Portsmouth as Knoops aims to reach 50 UK sites by the end 2024 and 300 by 2028.

“There’s no reason not to associate yourself with our brand for coffee as well as chocolate”

Knoops’ drinking chocolate menu (left) and CEO William Gordon-Harris (right) | Photo credit: Knoops

Significantly, Gordon-Harris believes there is an addressable market for Knoops to become a billion-dollar brand and is laying the groundwork for the business to pursue its ambitious goal of reaching 3,000 stores globally.

“We’ve had inbound requests from countries all over the world – Canada, Mexico, India, Indonesia and South Korea. We’re lucky to be in a position to build for where we will be rather than where we are now,” he says.

In March 2024, Knoops agreed its first international partnership to open stores in the Middle East and will open its first outlet in Dubai later this year. Alongside planned expansion across to Egypt, Kuwait Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, Gordon-Harris said conversations with prospective joint venture partners in China and the USA are ‘formulating very well’.

“We find ourselves very strong in those conversations because the brand and the category are so compelling,” he says.

In addition to international outlet growth, Knoops will also be launching its debut ready-to-drink (RTD) line next year – comprising iced chocolate and iced dairy-free chocolate products.

“RTD will serve as a touch point in supermarkets to close the loop on how we want to be seen which is ‘the name’ for crafted chocolate drinks. Stores that are geographically spread, robust online and wholesale channels and an exciting direct-to-consumer RTD range,” Gordon-Harris says.

There is no doubt Knoops is a rising star in the UK café segment and the recent acquisition of Hotel Chocolat by Mars for £534m ($679m) shows there is a huge market for premium chocolate experiences in the UK and beyond. 

With Knoops melting the hearts of chocolate lovers young and old, Gordon-Harris is quietly confident the craft chocolate café category will go from strength to strength.

This article was first published in Issue 19 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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