Liquid dessert? Chocolate drink? Divine indulgence? Whatever it’s called, one thing is certain: hot chocolate is not just for children anymore.

Operators across the nation are targeting the adult market, turning out thick, intensely flavored chocolate drinks created for sophisticated consumers with a soft spot for sweets.

“We did trend research and saw burgeoning interest in chocolate,” says Rob Grady, director of hot beverages for Seattle-based Starbucks, which in January introduced Chantico. “We thought we could add something special to the market.”

Chantico is billed as a “drinkable dessert.” The dense, velvety beverage is served in 6-ounce cups–the smallest beverage the chain dispenses. “We were looking for something premium, authentic and grounded in the roots of chocolate,” says Grady. “And we wanted something that matched the preferences of our consumers: a dark, intense chocolate.”

Au Bon Pain also believes consumers are ready to sip some serious chocolate. The Boston-based chain this year introduced its Choco Bon Loco line as part of a push to upgrade drink offerings.

Two flavors are offered: bittersweet, and spiced, zipped up with chiles and cinnamon. Both are blends of three types of European chocolate, steamed milk and vanilla. The chain, which promotes them as “a crazy chocolate experience,” expects the taste for Choco Bon Loco to continue long after winter ends. “It’s a chocolate drink,” insists Jim Fisher, vice president of marketing for the 230-unit chain. “It’s not hot chocolate.”

Choco Bon Loco targets customers looking for the next new thing. “As we travel around New York City, we see that are becoming popular. We anticipate growth in consumer interest,” Fisher explains.

Chocolate is a universal flavor, one that Max Brenner believes transcends all cultures. “The cliche about everyone loving chocolate really is true,” he says. Later this year, Brenner will open the first Max Brenner Chocolate Bar in New York City; a dozen units already are scattered across the globe, with eight in Australia. Chocolate drinks–straight and gently laced with liqueurs–desserts and pastries will be the menu mainstays.

A WARMING TREND

Long before chains began dressing up hot chocolate, independent operators were melting chocolate for grown-up tastes.

Maury Rubin, owner of New York City’s City Bakery, is so enamored of the winter warmer that he celebrates it with a month-long festival. During February, each day’s menu features a different version of the drink–bourbon hot chocolate, ginger hot chocolate and Love Potion Hot Chocolate among them. An essay contest asks people to weigh in on philosophical issues such as when to eat the marshmallow–before or after the drink is quaffed.

NoMI, the fine-dining restaurant in the Park Hyatt Chicago hotel, warms customers with Haut Chocolate Chaud, a wintertime menu showcasing five hot chocolate drinks.

Aztec Elixir–a blend of dark chocolate, ancho and chipotle chiles, Mexican vanilla and cinnamon served in a margarita glass and garnished with a chocolate-covered marshmallow–is the most popular drink, while Truffles a Trois is the “most aesthetically wow,” according to Alli Engelman, the hotel’s director of marketing and communications.

Haut Chocolate Chaud has been a hit. “People have gone crazy over it,” says Engelman. “It definitely has increased our nonalcoholic business in the lounge.”

Patrons at Chicago’s Angel Food Bakery go crazy over Barthelona hot chocolate. To fully appreciate it, they put down the cup and pick up a spoon.

“We cook it until it is very thick and chocolaty, and serve it with house-made vanilla bean whipped cream,” says Owner Stephanie Samuels, who modeled the drink after those she sampled in Spain.

Samuels imports solid chocolate, heats it with whole milk, and offers the drink in 3 1/2- and 10-ounce sizes.

INFINITE POSSIBILITIES

In San Diego, where the weather nearly always says “summertime,” Chi Chocolat patrons don’t think twice about trying its creamy hot chocolate. Owner Susan Luo serves earthy-rich cups of both milk- and dark-chocolate varieties. She also brews a line of chocolate-spiked espresso drinks.

Dana Taylor Davenport says people in Seattle have been trying “an almost infinite number” of hot chocolate drinks since 1977, when he opened Dilettante Chocolates Cafe & Patisserie. Today, he serves them at the flagship and at four Seattle-area Dilettante Mocha Cafes.

“Chocolate in general appeals on the basis of color and sugar intensity,” explains Davenport, a third-generation chocolatier and president of Dilettante Chocolates. “We want to provide choices.”

Guests can select hot chocolate made from molten chocolate, chocolate truffles mixed with cream or from cocoa. Options exist within each category.

Molten chocolate drinks come in white, milk and dark chocolate varieties. “And once people get used to the choices, they start mixing and matching,” says Davenport. “They’ll ask for two pumps of milk chocolate, one pump of dark chocolate.”

A 3 1/2-ounce Cioccobreve, made with molten chocolate and half-and-half “goes down like silk.”

“It’s a beautiful drink,” boasts Davenport, who is equally proud of his Ciocco Grande, a drink that allows diners to add the molten chocolate of their choice to steaming mugs of milk.

“That’s for people who want to make an extended occasion out of their hot chocolate,” he explains.

Children don’t dawdle over chocolate. But grown-ups, increasingly, are doing just that.

26% Percent of foodservice operations that menu hot chocolate or hot cocoa, with 39% of college and university operators featuring the drinks. (R&I 2003 Menu Census)

All American

Liquid chocolate drinks may be in the news, but plenty of consumers still put their money on traditional hot cocoa.

At Port City Java, hot cocoa is made with premium American dark or white chocolate sauce, whole milk and marshmallow, topped with whipped cream.

The Wilmington, N.C.-based chain also does a big business with Mochaccino, made with premium chocolate sauce, coffee, whole milk and whipped cream.

Approximately 60% of the hot cocoa drinkers choose dark chocolate, and 40% white, according to Port City COO Don Reynolds. Both versions are sold in 12-, 16- and 20-ounce sizes. The smallest of the trio contains 532 calories, but most consumers aren’t concerned.

“We brought out the 20-ounce size four years ago, and got the shock of our lives,” says Reynolds. “I’m still amazed at how many of them we sell.”

Too Haute to Handle

For those who take hot chocolate seriously–very, very seriously–the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City offers what may be the ultimate indulgence.

For its Grand America Chocolat tasting, Executive Pastry Chef Kurtis Baguley has whipped up a tasting of three hot chocolates, each made with an exclusive, super-premium chocolate and served in a porcelain demitasse cup with original designs. Served with a few tea-time treats, the tab for the drinks is $500. Not to worry, though–guests get to take the demitasse cups home.

Here’s the formula Baguley uses: Combine 2 cups half-and-half cream, 1 cup water, 2 1/2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder and half a vanilla bean and heat just to a boil. Turn to a simmer and stir in 3 1/2 oz. each of finely chopped bittersweet chocolate and semisweet chocolate. Stir until smooth. Remove from heat and strain. Reheat gently at service.…