While some of your lovers may be appeased with heart-shaped boxes of mediocre creams and gels during this chocolate season, those trying to win the passions of true food nerds had better reach for a higher bar. A chocolate bar, of course, now in the Dogpatch and soon to be situated on Valencia Street, that asks and answers a panoply of questions far beyond just “milk or dark?”.
For the chocolate lover who thinks, local burgeoning flower Dandelion Chocolate is a smart, artisan bar as only SF can temper it: fueled by passion and dot-com dollars, hand-crafted in small batches on hacked or self-constructed machinery, featuring beans bought directly from small farms in the far flung cacao growing regions of the globe, flavored with nothing but roasted cacao and sugar. No dairy, cocoa butter, vanilla, or lecithin get in the way of the fact that it tastes really, really freakin’ excellent. “We get amazingly good beans, minimally process them, and give them a very, very light roast. We get the best flavor we can from each bag of beans,” says entrepreneur and chocolate maker Todd Masonis. Mission accomplished.
Shoppers of the Mission Community Market and Noe Valley Farmer’s Market are quite familiar with Masonis, Cam Ring, and Alice Nystrom, the young trio who stand at their stall, bowls of teasing tastes in hand, asking passers by to appreciate the flavor profile differentiations of real chocolate bars made from beans from Venezuela, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and the like. Each batch of bars– about a thousand from 30 kilos of cacao — regardless of how popular or in demand it may be, is a unique snowflake of the beans, the roast, the process, and the flavor. And once the supply is gone, it’s gone.
Recent relationship-building visits to farms in Mexico, Madagascar, and elsewhere give these chocolate enthusiasts more to talk about with their growing audience of artisan food appreciators — as well as access to the farmers’ best beans. “Our plan is to try to educate our customer and hope they stick with and learn something,” adds Masonis.
But education is not only for the consumer. Learning how to make chocolate, building the business, and now scaling the business has been a learning curve for the chocolate trio as well. Masonis and Ring sold their dot-com Plaxo in 2008, allowing them “free time enough to follow our passions.” According to their website, “Our friends often said that given enough time, it seemed inevitable that [we] would open a chocolate factory. They watched as we experimented with growing small cacao plants in our apartments, pan roasted beans in the oven, and ate our way through the many of the chocolate shops of the world.” Their passions fueled a garage hobby, often powered by machinery to roast, crack, winnow, grind, conch and temper the chocolate that they rigged together themselves. Nystrom heard of their unusual venture through friends — there are only about 15 bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the US, about half of whom have sprung up in just the last few years, according to Masonis — and she jumped at the chance to align herself with the team.
After making chocolate for family and friends, Dandelion launched at the now-defunct Underground Market before moving on to the farmers markets and other storefronts like Bi-Rite, Chocolate Covered, and Fog City News. Glitches with City permits have slowed the construction of the 740 Valencia Street operation, now under construction, which Masonis is hopeful will open in a matter of months.
“The vision is that there is a small factory and a little storefront where people can buy a hot chocolate and a brownie. Hundreds of years ago, they used to have coffee houses and chocolate houses. We’d like to make a chocolate house happen once again.”