San Francisco's New Wave of Artisan Chocolate

Passionate entrepreneurs capitalize on the city's historic sweet tooth.

The history of San Francisco is lusciously intertwined with the gourmet chocolate industry. You could say we built this city on a collective sweet tooth. The man who pioneered artisan chocolate was Domenico Ghirardelli, an Italian merchant who immigrated to San Francisco in 1849 with dreams of striking it rich.

Like many of his fellow prospectors, mining proved unsuccessful. Fortunately, he had a plan B; it came in the form of 600 pounds of chocolate he brought on his journey to America. Ghirardelli fell back on shopkeeping, unloading his confections to miners. Business was good until 1851, when a major fire destroyed much of the city, including his store.

The future candy magnate rebuilt on the corner of Kearny and Washington streets, which became Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. as we know it today. After surviving earthquakes, several more fires and a few mergers and acquisitions, the beloved granddaddy of gourmet chocolate is now owned by Lindt. Chocolate is still made in nearby San Leandro, California, from bean to bar. 

As much as Ghirardelli is synonymous with San Francisco, to come to our city is also to enter a village of passionate modern-day artisans, from bakers to coffee roasters to farmers.

At the center of this movement is Todd Masonis, the owner and chocolate maker at Dandelion Chocolate. There are those who claim to be chocoholics, and then there’s Masonis. He has built a sweet factory on Valencia Street in one of San Francisco's busiest neighborhoods, the Mission, joining a vibrant community of food producers. A stone’s throw away is legendary Bi-Rite Creamery; on the same block is Abbot’s Cellar, a restaurant specializing in craft beer pairings. A couple blocks away are third-wave coffee roasters Ritual and Four Barrel

Dandelion’s tasting bars are a labor of love; consecutive Good Food Awards serve as proof of concept. They are made of two ingredients–beans and sugar–and do not contain the fillers such as vanilla, cocoa butter or lecithin found in most formulas, even premium bars. The beans are meticulously sourced from farms that are selected for quality and commitment to the environment and to the workers. Once the beans arrive, they are hand sorted on site and given a light roast to coax out what Masonis calls flavor precursors.

“One year, it’s strawberries, and another year is cherries,” he says of his Madagascar harvest. It’s an entirely different approach with a set of standards more akin to wine than candy-making; the process is tailored to the crop. “Rather than make them all taste the same, we’re just going to get the best we can.” 

How Dandelion came to be is another classic San Francisco tale. Before making chocolate bars, Masonis co-founded a social networking company at Stanford University called Plaxo. He sold it in 2008 to Comcast, all the while developing an obsession with chocolate.

In 2010, he started roasting beans from a friend’s garage and garnered a cult following at the acclaimed Underground Market (now closed), where amateur cooks could sell their wares to the public. He started winning awards. Orders came in fast. Before he set up a physical location in early 2013, fans were already lined up. Today, the cafe serves hot and cold chocolate beverages and mochas; features a rotating pop-up bakery; is a fully-operational factory; and employs a staff of 25.

There wouldn’t be a Dandelion if it weren’t for local legend Scharffen Berger, founded in the Bay Area in 1994 and often credited for the revival of the chocolate arts. John Scharffenberger, a winemaker by trade, created chocolate with the objective of highlighting the true flavor of cacao. He was also the first chocolate maker to label chocolate with the percentage of cacao inside. 

To be a chocolate lover right now is to have a world of options: old school, new wave and everything in between. We are in the midst of a full-on boom.

Poco Dolce, founded in 2003 by Kathy Wiley, explores the savory side of chocolate with its bestselling tiles enhanced with a sprinkling of gray sea salt (or sel gris). At Jade Chocolate, owner Mindy Fong draws from her Filipino and Chinese heritage and handpicks flavors that she grew up with, infusing her confections with green tea, toasted brown rice and Indonesian chocolate.

Chocolate lovers would also be remiss if they didn’t take a tour at TCHO, a hip chocolate company operated by Wired magazine founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe that recently relocated from the Embarcadero to a larger factory in Berkeley. On the private tour (reservations are required though admission is free), newbies learn to discern cacao’s taste on TCHO’s flavor wheel of six notes ranging from nutty to floral. 

As much as San Francisco has an appetite for chocolate, residents equally love to root for entrepreneurs with talent and a dream. Beloved chocolatier Charles Siegel took his sweet proposition to the Internet, asking Kickstarter users to back his kitchen and boutique. The store and cafe, Charles Chocolates, opened last spring on the border of Mission and Potrero Hill. Another resource launching talented food producers is La Cocina, a small-business incubator. Two graduates of the program are Kika’s Treats and Neo Cocoa. The former deals in chocolate covered shortbread. The latter, run by a trained pastry chef Christine Doerr, specializes in luxuriously smooth truffles without a hard-candy shell. Both sell at the Ferry Building, a local bastion for gourmet bites. Another can’t-miss stall is Recchiuti Confections, which marries European technique with a masterful combination of complex flavors like tarragon and grapefruit. 

With Ghirardelli entering its 162nd year and San Francisco’s community of serious artisans pushing the art and science of cacao, bean aficionados have a lot to look forward to.

“Some people believe there will be chocolate tourism and $200 chocolate bars,” says Dandelion’s Masonis. “Some people think there will be a local chocolate roaster on every corner. One hundred years ago, there were chocolate houses and coffee houses, so who knows.” One thing is certain, San Francisco is chocolate heaven. From single-origin bars to truffle bon bons, you’ll find our town is chock-a-block with sweet treats.

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