What’s better than a nice cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day? Every year, the number of options offered by Starbucks, Costa and Caffe Nero during the festive period appears to increase. Christmas, it seems, is a time when sugar consumption fades as a concern, with consumers permitting themselves a chance to indulge.
While overall volumes of hot chocolate on supermarket shelves have declined by 7.5% to make way for coffee, according to The Grocer, sales of seasonal beverages in the cafe chains appear to be going strong, suggesting there is the opportunity in this category for inventive ideas – if only during the holidays.
That may be part of the reason why Wildflower Cakes & Bakes became a bit of a social media sensation at the end of last year. The small operation caused a stir in The Sun with its hot chocolate bombe: a chocolate shell that melted away when mixed with hot milk to release cocoa and mini marshmallows.
Sales of Wildflower's £1.75 gold-dusted bombes were strong enough that it decided to migrate from just a Facebook page to a proper website domain. Flavours on offer included dark, milk, white, orange and mint flavours, with luxury versions (“made from better quality, ethically sourced ingredients”) going for £2.50. There was even a vegan version complete with vegan marshmallows.
While Wildflower was a fairly small-scale operation, it wasn’t the only outfit experimenting with melting chocolate balls. Retailer Lakeland, for example, also offered its own version for a limited time back in October.
Cocoba Chocolate, a café based in Bluewater Shopping Centre, introduced a golden hot chocolate bombe and bauble on its online shop for Christmas this year (also with a vegan option) with the slightly pricier tag of £3.95 individually and £9.95 for a cracker of three.
The hot chocolate bombe hasn’t come out of nowhere. It’s very clearly based on the melting chocolate desserts that have been on fine dining menus for years now and recently began appearing at Whitbread restaurants. Theatrical and fun, it makes consuming hot chocolate more of an occasion.
Chocolate generally was the fastest-growing category in 2019, according to Nielsen, thanks to sustained innovation in NPD – specifically for dark variants, premium gift formats and healthy options.
Putting it into a mug also riffs off the cake-in-a-cup idea that has become commonplace in recent years – Betty Crocker does it, Dr. Oetker does it, Sainsbury’s has a version and even fitness companies are offering protein-packed variations.
So is Sparkie convinced by the cocoa explosions?
The hot chocolate ball is a really clever idea. With true innovation, it takes a special mind to come up with the initial idea, but from here the possibilities are endless. The logical approach would be to test an ever-expanding range of flavours, but I think the actual market could be savoury versions – having a coating that melts into the hot water but protects some kind of filling.
Using the right coating, you could go as far as including perishable products by having natural antimicrobials and preservatives on the outside drastically slowing bacterial growth – using the coating to limit the availability of air would allow the texture of crunchy ingredients to be maintained for long periods, for example. There is a huge array of convenience snack products that could be made using this approach.
The big problem that I have with the balls discussed here, however, is the price – £2.50 is a lot for a single mug at home.
I have seen pre-mixes for mug cakes and the like come and go. While they seem like a very solid convenience product, the convenience of them don't tend to go far enough as you typically still need to add an egg or butter. If someone came up with a complete powdered mix that was "just add water" they could do very well if the quality holds up. Ultimately, the big issue with them is that ready-made cakes are cheap, so a product like this either has to be better than what you can pick off the shelf or drastically cheaper in order to be successful.