East Sussex hot chocolate pioneer Jens Knoops talks to Rebecca Pitcairn about how he’s made a successful business from one of life’s little luxuries
There’s something ever so comforting about a mug of creamy hot chocolate. More indulgent than its tea and coffee counterparts, hot chocolate is that affordable little luxury that you can treat yourself to every now and then, without breaking the bank.
That sentiment is the exact reason Jens Knoops, 52, set up the hot chocolate brand Knoops from a tiny listed building in Rye, back in 2013. This month, the brand which sells expertly-crafted hot chocolate from a carefully-curated menu of 22 different percentage chocolates, will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the opening of its ninth store in Knightsbridge.
“I would have never have dreamt when I opened that first little store in Rye that within 10 years I’d be opening my ninth opposite Harrods in London, it’s surreal,” says Jens, who attributes his love of chocolate to his German grandmother, who would reward him with a small piece every evening.
Hamburg-born Jens, who moved to the UK 26 years ago to study photography at what was Bournemouth and Poole Arts College, was working internationally in opinion research and marketing when he had his ‘lightbulb’ moment to start a hot chocolate business.
“I kept hearing consumers talking about this small, affordable luxury treat – in marketing terms it’s called the lipstick effect, where you spend a little on a luxury item,” he explains. “It was winter 2012 and at the time I was living in central London and, as I walked through the streets, I couldn’t find a decent hot chocolate anywhere. There was a trend emerging for bean to bar chocolate, where people were starting to want to know exactly where the cacao beans in chocolate were from but that was for eating chocolate, not drinking it.”
At the time, Jens was in the process of moving from London to Camber Sands (“because I love being by the sea,” he says) and heard about a soon-to-be vacant gallery space on Tower Street, in the centre of Rye. It was the perfect spot from which to launch his luxury hot chocolate shop. However, Jens admits, he had some way to go to convince customers of the quirky concept.
“We opened on 18 April, 2013, and I remember the very first drink I served, it was a double espresso,” Jens laughs. “I couldn’t quite believe it, but I knew there was work to be done and I wasn’t going to turn customers away because they wanted a coffee instead of a hot chocolate.”
The menu ranges from a creamy 28% white chocolate blend to a 100% single origin chocolate from the Solomon Islands and there are a number of herbs, fruits, roots and spices, such as cinnamon, lavender, sea salt and even szechuan pepper that can be added into the mix. The total number of different combinations is difficult to count (unless you are a mathematician) and Knoops staff are given training in what Jens calls ‘Knoopology’ so they can advise customers what flavours and chocolate percentages go best together.
“People usually think of hot chocolate as being one particular type – sweet and usually made from powdered chocolate, because that’s what we have been brought, but there are so many different types,” says Jens. “Of course, we have some customers who come in and have the same thing every single time, but there are others who always want something different and have a list on their phone of different combinations they want to try.”
Jens, who now lives in a house on the cliffs at Fairlight, just outside Hastings, says it’s difficult to choose his personal favourite. “It changes all the time with my mood – do I want to experiment or go back to the familiar? But in terms of extra added ingredients I do like sea salt as it emphasises certain flavours in the chocolate. Sometimes it brings out the sweetness, sometimes it brings out the caramel.”
Listening to Jens list off more of the various combinations he’s tried recently and the flavour characteristics of different chocolate blends, I tell him that he reminds me of a sommelier and he says he’s often called that. In 2021 he put his chocolate-pairing suggestions down on paper for a cookbook featuring 40 drinks and 20 dishes, all created using chocolate flakes. This year he hopes to launch Knoops’ own chocolate, as well as open a further six stores before the summer.
It’s quite something for a man with no previous food and drink experience, although Jens tells me, his career in chocolate may well have been written in the stars. “My surname, Knoop, which the business is named after, is a popular name in the north of Germany. It doesn’t mean anything in German, but in Dutch and African, it means button and we work with chocolate buttons. So, perhaps it was meant to be before I was even born.”
Knoops Sussex branches can be found at Tower Forge, Hilders Cliff, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7LD and 42 Market Street, Brighton, BN1 1HH. knoops.co.uk