One of the favorite topics of San Francisco’s sometimes snobby food freaks (We love ‘em, we ridicule ‘em, we confess to being them) is the local proliferation of so-called “Third Wave” coffee houses and roasters. Starbucks and Peet’s—once viewed as premium, relative to standard-issue diner Joe—have been downgraded in the minds of javaficionados who now opt for Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, and their kin.
But coffee is not the only bean demeaned and esteemed by the elites. (Say that three times fast.) Witness the evolution of San Francisco’s cocoa business and choco-tourism, from Ghirardelli to Tcho:
Ghirardelli Chocolate has long been the candy brand associated with our city. Ghirardelli perambulated from factory to factory around town from its founding in 1852 until settling until its landmark headquarters near Fisherman’s Wharf in 1895. In the early 1960s, Ghirardelli left the hands of its namesake family ownership, purchased by another Italian immigrant family business—the Golden Grain Macaroni Company, creators of Rice-a-Roni—at which point the bayside factory was shut down, with production moving to suburban San Leandro, south of Oakland. (Today, Rice-a-Roni is owned by PepsiCo., and Ghirardelli is an American subsidy of Swiss mega-choclatier Lindt and Sprungli).
Ghirardelli Square, long a lure for choco-tourists, is a triumph of marketing, not manufacturing. Opened in 1964 on the former site of the SF chocolate factory, it’s an early example of the sort of urban renewal project later mimicked by the likes of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and nearby Monterey’s Cannery Row—basically a mall built on the bones of an old industrial site. The Ghirardelli Chocolate brand still throws a cocoa halo over the place, its flagship retail operation complete with faux manufacturing display—and pretty damn good hot fudge sundaes—anchoring an otherwise unexceptional collection of shops and restaurants. And next weekend (September 8 and 9), the Square salutes its past with the 17th Annual Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival, featuring ample samples along with a bake-off, an ice cream eating contest, and a talk on chocolate manufacturing from a Ghirardelli honey.
To move from old school to new wave in San Francisco chocolate, walk just a mile and a half east along the waterfront from Ghirardelli Square to the Tcho chocolate factory. Founded in 2005 (making it over 150 years junior to Ghirardelli) and owned by the original publishers of Wired magazine and a NASA space shuttle engineer along with a chocolate business veteran, Tcho’s vision of chocolate is less influenced by Willy Wonka than by wine-tasting (and the third wave coffee business). Organic single-sourced cocoa beans; close relationships with farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; complex flavor profiles; hushed white production facilities, and high-end contemporary packaging are hallmarks of this boutique brand. Its a stark, contemporary contrast to the Ye Olde Fudge Factory imagery and brass fixturing at Ghirardelli’s sundae and candy shop. In fact “candy” is not a word you’ll hear on the fascinating—if more than a morsel self-serious—Tcho factory tours, offered for free a couple times daily (Reservations required). Much of the one-hour “tour” time of is spent in a slide show presentation and tasting session rather than on the plant floor, but its reasonably educational in regard to chocolate production and an utterly compelling demonstration of branded corporate storytelling.
Later this year, another fancypants chocolate manufacturer is slated to open its doors to the San Francisco public: Dandelion Chocolate‘s “bean to bar” facility in the Mission. Watch for coverage here on the San Francisco Agenda.
On the Tcho tour: Free chocolate tasting and hygienic headgear