All Photos: Wendy Goodfriend
Mission Creek in San Francisco will soon get a new 7600-square foot chocolate kitchen and retail space from San Francisco resident Chuck Siegel and his sweet company, Charles Chocolates. The open kitchen will allow guests to see their confections being made and enrobed, and Siegel has crafted new items and mendiant-style chocolate bars while bidding adieu to less popular creations (looking at you, marzipan and marmalade). The café offers an extension of the menu done for Outside Lands: hot and frozen hot chocolate, “a cake or two,” tea, pastries, cookies, brownies and s’mores. Because Siegel has always fancied helping young chocolatiers, he plans on also sharing his space as an incubator for fresh talent.
Siegel was in business for over six years until March 2011, when his shop in the Westfield Mall and the overall company closed in an unexpected and dramatic turn of events. Siegel regrouped and opted for a Kickstarter campaign with 400 backers (including this writer) to successfully raise over $53,000 and get a lease for space at 535 Florida Street. The site used to house the Potrero Brewing Company and still has heat lamps that no doubt make typical San Francisco chilly days more pleasing. Siegel said he was able to buy glass shelving units from the Betsey Johnson store on Fillmore Street before it went out of business. The shelves will get prime real estate in the retail space. “My wife and daughters kept going to the sales there before it closed and the last day, I was able to buy these shelves. My family loves that I got them there.”
Getting the Kickstarter infusion of capital allowed Siegel to buy back vital company assets which were acquired by a former investor. It ultimately meant Siegel could at last return to making his beloved small-batch chocolates and confections.
Charles Chocolates are made with premium stuff, by hand: organic herbs, fruits and nuts as well as organic cream and butter. Siegel, who is self taught, won a Good Food Award in 2011, nabbed a Sunset Magazine’s “Best of the West” award, as well as accolades from 7×7 and the East Bay Express. His most exciting creation may be a signature edible chocolate box which creatively doubles the eating experience in a novel way. Because Siegel is due to open the new space as early as this Friday, I wanted to see what’s new.
Siegel’s Kickstarter update on Monday January 28 detailed the final details: “Once the painting is finished tomorrow all that stands in the way of us opening the kitchen and store is laying an epoxy floor, installing the glass walls that separate the kitchen and retail store and a half a dozen inspections (it’s not as bad as it sounds!).” I interviewed Siegel at the new site and his comments have been edited for grammar and content.
Bay Area Bites: Kickstarter was a big part of your move to return. What was that process like? Is it a unique Bay Area success story?
Siegel: It’s not unique to the Bay Area to use Kickstarter. I think the Bay Area uses it more because we have a greater awareness. I actually participate in food and chocolate campaigns that are all over. For us it was a wonderful way for us to raise the money and I love the concept of crowd funding. We were also able to reengage with our fan base and we already had their information from our newsletters. None of our fans stopped eating chocolate for the last year. So I need to reengage them. We know they love our products but Kickstarter let us relaunch and all those participants are getting a box of our chocolates.
Bay Area Bites: Tell us about the café menu. What are the highlights and how did you come up with the items?
Siegel: I decided to look at what was selling and not selling and pare things down. Maybe not keep things that only I love. Like marzipan–ours is really unique. We cooked it with Meyer lemon or blood orange, so it’s very strongly flavored. We had some really dedicated followers but just not that many of them (laughs).
I’ve had a year to play and try to find perfection with my ganache, which is silly given how simple ganache is. I am also doing small ganache that I call pave. It’s named after paving stones. It is very very simple ganache but also not so simple to get just right. I’ve been making these for years.
I’ve expanded the bar line because they are really fun. Everyone knows I like bars with a lot of stuff in them. I’ve made some smaller bars, like the mendiant, which has different fruits and is very French. Mendiants are always pretty but silly as a product to me because it’s really hard to eat and get more than one thing in your bite. One has fresh roasted almonds, sultanas and comes in bittersweet and milk chocolate. The other bar has candied lemon peel, pine nuts, pistachios, hazelnuts and sultanas. The idea is to get really strong bursts of fruit and nut with the chocolate. The chocolate has to lead and I don’t want the flavors to overpower the chocolate; the key is to make it complimentary. I played with hundreds of bar combinations and these two are the ones I think are great. Right now I am calling them the ultimate fruit and nut bar because when I was little I loved the Cadbury fruit and nut bar.
Like in Emeryville, the kitchen here is designed to be watched. We wanted to have things folks can hang out and enjoy.
Bay Area Bites: You had a factory in Emeryville but are reopening in the Mission. Why be in SF? And the Mission?
Siegel: We moved to Emeryville for convenience and cost. I actually love Emeryville. I started my first company, Attivo Confections over there.
Our new place is in Mission Creek. I love this neighborhood. It’s had a lot of really interesting food spots opening: Cana for Cuban, Heath Ceramics, and flour + water. We’ve been eating at Slow Club for 20 years. Walk three blocks and you’re at Mission and Valencia streets.
I did an interview with Tamara Palmer and she called the new space “Potrero Hill” and people corrected that it is actually located in the Mission. That was the only thing they commented on for the story. There is a Mission Creek Merchants Association and we are in it.
I wanted to be in the city because I live here and have done so since 1986. For retail, SF can’t be beat. When we needed 7400 square feet, I knew it wasn’t going to be found on Valencia. Or at least be affordable.
Bay Area Bites: What’s different this time?
Siegel: So much… the opportunity to do more with retail because we’re in the city. It’s opened up a lot of opportunity. I’ve been doing this for 25 years so now get an opportunity to take everything I’ve learned in terms of kitchen, layout, equipment, and products. We will incubate young chocolatiers — because there’s nothing cooler than seeing someone make chocolates on their own and do it well. I get almost a feeling of parental pride from seeing that. I have always done it, but informally. We hire them, they learn skills and they go off on their own. This time, we will formalize it and make it more of a program so they get a stronger knowledge of how to sell, market and package and what are the laws. They’ll have a slightly easier time of it.
Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors?
Siegel: When I first started my first company Attivo Confections, I called Joseph Schmidt and Alice Medrich. It’s classic how good things come from the Bay Area. Both were remarkably generous with their time and expertise. Alice especially was patient. I called her one night when my ganache was broken and she helped me figure it out. If it wasn’t for them, I probably would’ve never made it. That’s why I like to teach and help. It’s really great to have them to turn to.
Bay Area Bites: What are the best and worst things about working with chocolate and selling a food product?
Siegel: The best: it’s chocolate. I really don’t know if there is a more universal food item. There’s something really fantastic about making something and seeing the enjoyment in their face. It’s an absolute kick to make something that everyone enjoys. Chocolate only exists to bring joy and we eat it for pure pleasure. There can be a real intellectual part to it too, with what’s going on in the bean to bar market now. Some folks are using traditional technique and some are not; that’s one of the most exciting things about the industry now.
The worst part is that chocolate is remarkably temperamental. Even now, I’ll have things happen with chocolate that completely floors me. I know how to use it in confections and pastry. But at times it’s confounding. Most of our confections are very perishable. We use nuts that are prone to rancidity and cream and butter that are perishable. We’re actually making food but it’s food made with chocolate. When you buy a fresh truffle, it’s meant to be eaten fresh. It doesn’t age like a bottle of wine. It will help folks understand what we do.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you eat and drink when you aren’t working?
Siegel: I eat mostly at home. One of the best things about this neighborhood has an amazing number of places to eat. I’ve always loved flour + water. I’m not a huge drinker but I love fun and inventive cocktails so I love Trick Dog. It’s become one of my instant favorites and they make really wonderful drinks. It’s become a place to go to after work.
Tartine is one my favorite places for lunch. Their sandwiches are awesome.
Or I’ll just go to El Farolito. My wife danced Brazilian samba. She’d dance and I’d walk around the Mission and then go have a burrito.
Bay Area Bites: What are your suggestions for Valentine’s Day? How will you celebrate?
Siegel: I can’t say how I’ll celebrate because then my wife will know (laughs). I love the fact that Valentine’s revolves around chocolate but it bothers me too. I’ve never quite understood why it happens to be chocolate. The most fun way to celebrate may be our edible chocolate boxes, which is a really unique way of presenting chocolates. Velour hearts were never something I could wrap my head around. We did them a couple of times and then I had 1/2 a pallet left. We gave away to another chocolatier because I promised myself I’d never use them again. I love flowers for Valentine’s, too.