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A Taste Of The Long History Of Bay Area Chocolate

Asal Ehsanipour
Fog City News, a newsstand and chocolate shop on Market Street, carries over 200 different types of chocolate.

This story originally aired in Septemeber 4, 2019 and it aired again in the March 28, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Click the play button above to listen to this story

The Bay Area’s long history of chocolate spans all the way back to the Gold Rush. Since then, the region has been a source for chocolate innovation again and again, from a Berkeley-based revolution in chocolate desserts to a craft chocolate revolution in the ‘90s that turned the industry on its head.

Ghirardelli, Guittard, and the gold rush

Earlier this month, thousands of people gathered under the glittering, iconic Ghirardelli Chocolate sign for the company’s 23rd annual Chocolate Festival. They came from all around the Bay Area — some even from Riverside — to celebrate their love of chocolate.

Ghirardelli’s story unfolded during the Gold Rush with one of San Francisco’s first Italian immigrants. Soon after Domingo Ghirardelli arrived, he realized his fortune was not in bars of gold, but chocolate. He sold chocolate candy and other goods to gold miners. Well over a century later, Ghirardelli’s the oldest continuously operating chocolate manufacturer in the US — older than even Hershey.  

Ghirardelli has always branded itself as a bastion of San Franciscan chocolate, but there’s another chocolate company with an almost identical origin story. During the Gold Rush, Etienne Guittard — who learned to make chocolate at his uncle’s factory in France — originally traded chocolate for mining supplies. He eventually returned to France, brought back his own equipment, and founded Guittard Chocolate Company.

Credit Asal Ehsanipour / KALW News
At Guittard Chocolate Company, fourth generation President and CEO Gary Guittard beside family photos of relatives who helped build his family's business.

Fourth-generation President and CEO Gary Guittard shows me the complex process of making chocolate, starting with burlap bags that stack to the ceiling, full of fermented cocoa beans. Gary explains that here on-site, they’re then cleaned, de-stoned, winnowed, roasted, and ground.

“It’s basically like grinding peanuts,” Gary explains. “When you grind peanuts you get peanut butter, and when you grind the nibs you get unsweetened chocolate.”

We dart puddles of that unsweetened chocolate, weave through heavy machinery, climb up ladders, and duck under pipes throughout the tour. The space is stuffy, until we reach a cool area with finished chocolate chips, the tiniest I’ve ever seen.
“Ten thousand chips to a pound,” says Gary. “So these are teeny tiny guys.”

For years, Guittard and Ghirardelli had factories just blocks away from each other, their smells blending and swirling through the city.

“You smelled all of that stuff in downtown San Francisco. You could walk down Montgomery Street and smell chocolate. So that’s gone,” Gary says.

It’s gone, because both Guittard and Ghirardelli moved production to the suburbs. Today, Ghirardelli is owned by the Swiss mass chocolate maker Lindt & Sprüngli AG. But Guittard remains family-owned and operated, the oldest of its kind in the country. They supply chocolatiers like Charles Chocolate, Recchiuti, and even See’s Candy.

Guittard and Ghirardelli started at the same time, in the same place, because San Francisco could import cacao along Pacific trade routes from the South Pacific and West Coast of South America. This differed from cacao imported along to the East Coast, which meant San Francisco’s chocolate used to have a distinctly “West Coast” flavor. This was also before refrigerators and air conditioning, so San Francisco’s cooler climate was key to producing chocolate year-round.

Since then, throughout the country, most major chocolate companies ramped up production so much, the flavor of their chocolate suffered. They mostly used cheaper, “bulk beans” and added a lot of sugar, making sweet  but bland chocolate. Chocolate was treated like more of a commodity than a luxury until the 1970s, when Bay Area dessert chefs like Alice Medrich reinvented how they approached chocolate.

Alice Medrich, Cocolat, and a revolution in chocolate desserts

In Alice’s North Berkeley kitchen, she has a framed photo of herself slumped in a chair, exhausted after the opening day of her famed chocolate shop, Cocolat. It’s here that she’s feeding me truffles made with three local chocolates.   

“This guy’s Dandelion, this is Guittard,” says Alice. “I made very little sugar adjustment in these and I used a lot of chocolate.” That’s why she’s known as the First Lady of Chocolate.

For Alice, it all started with a visit to France.  

“I had a landlady, we lived in her private home, and she made homemade chocolate truffles for us,” says Alice. “Compared to the chocolate candy that I grew up with, this chocolate truffle was like a little bittersweet poem.”

Alice tinkered with the truffle recipe back when she returned to Berkeley.

“People just went nuts for them,” she says.

The chocolate truffles were packed with real, immensely flavored chocolate.

Credit Asal Ehsanipour / KALW News
Alice Medrich makes slightly modified versions of her original chocolate truffle recipe using three local chocolates: Guittard, Dandelion, and Michael Dunn.

“It wasn’t sweet,” says Alice. “I mean, of course it was sweet, it was chocolate. But it was very very bittersweet and it melted like satin on my tongue.”

That taste and texture was because she used little sugar, and no cocoa powder or shortening. Alice credits her success to the spirit of Berkeley at the time.

“I think Berkeley was always more unconventional and accepting and curious,” Alice says.

She believes Berkeley’s open-mindedness allowed for more innovation. Local customers welcomed Alice’s European approach to ingredients, which then spread across the Bay Area, and eventually, the country. The chocolate truffles we eat now? Alice popularized them first.

Back in the 70s, Alice helped change the scene by the way she used chocolate. She says it paved the way for another chocolate revolution in the 90s, which innovated the chocolate itself.

Today, Alice says our chocolate is “endlessly complex and interesting. It’s like Disneyland of flavor.”

John Scharffenberger, Cacao, and a new craft chocolate movement

What brought on this new wave of chocolate innovation? A company called Scharffen Berger. When a doctor named Robert Steinberg got diagnosed with cancer, he left his medical career and pursued a passion for fine food.  He convinced his friend, winemaker John Scharffenberger, to join him.

“He showed me a little picture of a chocolate factory he had worked in, in Lyon, called Bernachon and I looked at that and said, ‘We can do that,’” says John.

People now compare artisanal chocolate to fine wine all the time. That started with John. Back then, Scharffen Berger broke ground by focusing on flavor, loading their bars with cacao, chocolate’s main and most expensive ingredient.

“No one ever talked about cacao,” says John. “Ever.”

So he says, Scharffen Berger taught their consumers, even bringing cacao beans to trunk shows.

“We were the first ones and everyone was like, ‘What! What’s that?’” says John. “People were grabbing them, eating them as if they were almonds. I said ‘No their shells are on them!’”

Unlike American mass chocolate producers, Scharffen Berger plastered cacao percentages on their packages. Other chocolate manufacturers had a Willy Wonka approach to chocolate making, where  no one knew what happened behind closed doors. So when Scharffen Berger opened their Berkeley factory to the public, it was a revelation.

“The transparency that was common in the wine business, I just transferred it to us,” says John.

Though Scharffen Berger’s approach to chocolate eventually gained traction, John says the company struggled until one day they assembled a booth at a San Francisco farmers market. With cacao beans on display, John handed out samples. Within an hour there were 200 people in line.

“Robert and I sat down and said, ‘You know, we just have to do this for the people,’” says John. “‘That’s where it’s at.’”

Scharffen Berger sold their bars directly to customers, charging just a bit more than mainstream brands. It worked because fine chocolate was an unsaturated market and their bars were an affordable luxury. The company grew rapidly until 2005 until their were approached by Hershey. John insists he and Robert weren’t looking to sell just yet. But after Hershey doubled their offer for a reported 50 million dollars, John and Robert gave in. Four years later after Robert had already passed away, Hershey shut down the Scharffen Berger factory in Berkeley.

“It was really disappointing because it was working,” says John. “We had so many people coming to it, and it was such a big part of the Bay Area really, it was a nice thing. It was disheartening. I mean, I kind of had to put on my, uh, my blinders and realize you know, I had made my decision to sell.”

Hershey’s acquisition of Scharffen Berger left a vacuum within the American artisanal chocolate scene. But, soon after, craft chocolate makers popped up everywhere, and even companies that’d been around for generations knew they had to adapt in order to survive.
“When John came out with his product, it opened my eyes to a whole different world,” says Gary Guittard.

Gary says the new artisanal movement exposed a weak spot he always suspected in Guittard’s chocolate making, so he set out to make chocolate with more distinct flavors.

“All the experiments we did, all the things we tried to figure out how to do, it really drove me nuts.”

Todd Masonis, Dandelion, and a new wave of Bay Area chocolate

Eventually, Guittard expanded their repertoire of cocoa beans, started working directly with farmers, and revamped their production methods. These days, Guittard wants to prioritize flavor over productivity, however it’s a tight balance making artisanal chocolate at scale. Guittard just expanded production, but Gary’s nostalgic for the company’s old San Francisco factory, the kind Dandelion Chocolate has in the Mission today.

Dandelion produces two-ingredient, small-batch dark chocolate bars: just cocoa beans and sugar. They reflect the Bay innovative chocolate scene in its most current form. Like TCHO, another local craft chocolate, Dandelion’s President & CEO, Todd Masonis, has roots in tech.

“We’re just a couple of guys in a garage who wanted to make some chocolate,” says Todd. “We got some machines, saw if we could do it, and before we knew it, we were making chocolate.”

Todd brings a sort of Silicon Valley maker mentality to chocolate, but he’s inspired by more than the startup world.

“I remember when I had my first bite of Scharffen Berger,” he says. “I didn’t know that chocolate could taste this way.”

Todd was personally affected by Hershey’s acquisition of Scharffen Berger. He says Dandelion probably wouldn’t exist if not for the sale. Using Scharffen Berger as pioneers, Dandelion invites customers behind the scenes through classes, and their cafe, even trips to cacao farms abroad. Todd says it’s the Bay Area’s long history of chocolate that’s ushered this current shift.

“I think it’s the most exciting time for chocolate in the last 150 years,” says Todd, “and it’s definitely one of the most exciting times to be in the Bay Area since the Gold Rush.”

Todd says we’ll see even more evolution in chocolate over the next 10-15 years, and it’s likely to advance right here, because the Bay Area is an always has been ground zero for chocolate innovation.