food

San Francisco: Dandelion Chocolate

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I am so excited to talk to you about my latest discovery: Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco! They are a small-batch chocolate factory on Valencia Street in the Mission. In addition to the factory, they have a wonderful café where they serve an incredible assortment of chocolate pastries, hot chocolate and their flavorful hand crafted chocolate bars.

Here’s an interview with one of the founders, Todd Masonis, who shares the story behind Dandelion Chocolate as well as details of the bean to bar operation. I just love his passion and determination!

1. What was the inspiration behind Dandelion Chocolate?

Dandelion originally started as a hobby. Although we were avid chocolate eaters, my business partner Cam and I did not have any real culinary experience. We started by buying some cocoa beans and roasting them up in a garage. After many experiments and building machines we started to share our chocolate with friends and family. They were blown away by the unique flavors we brought out and encouraged us to share our chocolate with more people. Later, we brought our chocolate to the SF Underground Market (a now-defunct market for budding food entrepreneurs who lack health permits) and found that many people liked what we created — and were willing to pay a premium price for it. After that, we realized we were on to something and started to turn our hobby into something bigger.

2. What is the difference between industrial chocolate and small batch chocolate?

Most of the world’s chocolate is industrial chocolate — created by just a few giant companies — companies like ADM, Cargill, Barry Calleabaut. The goal of an industrial chocolate-maker is all about consistency and low-cost. It’s about getting low quality beans, mostly from Africa, based on a varietal that has high field but poor flavor. Then the beans are over-roasted and many things are added to the chocolate to even out the flavor or increase the factory’s output. In many ways, this is a miracle of industrialization but is very different from what we, as small-batch makers, do. We search for the best flavor possible, from the best beans possible, and work hard to celebrate the differences in each harvest and roast. In that regard, it’s closer to coffee or wine.

3. Where is your chocolate made? Where do the beans come from? Please tell me about your fine ingredients.

We make all of our chocolate on site at our Valencia Street factory in San Francisco. All parts of the process are on display and customers can come in and watch us roasting cocoa beans or tempering bars. Our beans come from all over the world – right now we are working mostly with farms in Venezuela and one in Madagascar. Our particular origins vary with the seasons and what we find. In terms of ingredients, our recipe is simple: cocoa beans and cane sugar. That’s it, just two ingredients, since we like to highlight the flavor of the bean without adding other things like cocoa butter, vanilla, or lecithin. It’s hard though, because that means that our flavor has nowhere to hide — it’s either a great bean, roasted well, or it’s not going to taste good.

4. Why did you choose the Mission as the location of your chocolate factory and café?

The Mission, and in particular Valencia Street seems to have emerged as a new gourmet ghetto of sorts — it’s sort of ground zero for the city’s food movement and is more for the people of SF than tourists. We are amazed by and in awe of our foodie neighbors: Tartine, Bi-Rite, Four Barrel — not to mention even within our building, Craftsman and Wolves and Abbot’s Cellar. It’s a great place to be for food.

5. What are your favorite items and what are your most popular items in the café?

We are most known for our single-origin tasting bars, but we now have a café where our pastry chef, Phil, wakes up every morning and creates various treats with our chocolate. Since it’s based on his current mood and mind, it’s hard to pin down, but his chocolate-caramel tart is amazing. If he stops making it, I think we’ll have riots.

6. Please tell me about your packaging, where does your beautiful paper come from?

We found a paper mill in India that hand makes the paper* from recycled garments and then silk screens them with our design. It’s a lot of work and our paper can be delayed due to monsoon season, but the feel and craftsmanship are worth the wait.

7. Prior to becoming Chocolate makers, what did you do?

Before chocolate (B.C.) my business partner, Cam and I were both in tech. We had started an internet company together that we had the good fortune to sell in 2008. That gave us some extra time and money to pursue our passions.

8. What’s next for Dandelion Chocolate?

We’re really just getting started — we moved the chocolate factory on to Valencia street in the fall and just opened the café about two months ago. We’re still getting into a rhythm and would like to be open more days, make more chocolate, and explore new origins. But we like to do less and do it well, so it’s a long, slow process.

9. Is there anything else that you would like my readers to know?

I’d say the most interesting thing about what we are doing is that we are part of the New American Chocolate movement that is happening now. Basically what happened to coffee and micro-brew is happening to chocolate and it’s fun to see all the new makers popping up with completely different ideas, roasts, and techniques. I would definitely recommend that everyone check out the other small makers: e.g. Madre, Potomac, and Ritual just to name a few.

*The wrapping machine that Dandelion Chocolate uses to wrap their bars in handmade paper is from 1955.  I love that it was originally painted in a rich red. It brings such character to the machinery! To see it in action click here.

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