The Dandelion Chocolate cafe is a simple space. Customers sip European hot chocolates while sitting at sturdy wooden tables. Tall shelves surround them, displaying locally-made sweets. Above, the rafters of a large, open roof are exposed, lending an architectural feel. A Scandinavian design influence is clear.
In this respect, it is similar to a lot of other Valencia Street food establishments. The minimalist style meant to portray a muted sort of luxury is shared by neighbors Mission Cheese and Four Barrel, among others. It even has a good number of bearded twenty-somethings working behind the counter.
But Dandelion isn’t just a chocolate shop. It’s a chocolate factory.
Located at 740 Valencia Street, Dandelion calls itself “one of the few places in the world” that actually makes it own chocolate, a process you can watch while eating a Venezuelan brownie at their counter: The cafe is in their factory, open to all curious onlookers.
“We feel like a lot of what we’re doing is about education,” co-founder Todd Masonis explains. “We want to put everything on display, to be very open. We want to combine the enjoyment of chocolate with the fact that we’re making the chocolate.”
Masonis and his partner Cameron Ring see themselves as part of the “new American chocolate movement,” an informal term that describes a slew of artisanal chocolate makers who have started out in the last five years. (It’s much like microbreweries, Masonis explains.)
These foodies pay particular attention to taste and quality, rather than profit and quantity, something that “industrial chocolate” focuses on.
“Industrial chocolate has been about getting really inexpensive beans and roasting them very heavily and adding lots of things to them so that the differences don’t matter,” Masonis said. “It’s kinda chocolatey but there’s nothing going on there.”
Not so with Dandelion, which only uses cocoa beans and cane sugar to bring out the individual nuances of the bean, making the genetics and location of the chocolate of paramount importance. No added cocoa butter, vanilla, milk, or trans fat.
This simplicity of ingredients preserves the rich nuances of the chocolate, says Masonis, who adds that chocolate has more flavor complexity than either wine or coffee.
And you can see it all play out in front of your eyes. Dandelion has free 30-minute tours of its factory, Chocolate 101 and 201 classes for beginners, and even trips to Belize and Hawaii for the more agriculturally-inclined.
The process begins in these far-away countries, where farmers start with a cocoa pod the size of an outstretched hand. Unlike their eventual products, these fruits are quite colorful, going from green and red to yellow and orange during their 6-month maturation. Once ripe, they are cracked open for their beans, which are fermented and dried before being shipped to Dandelion.
Then follows the painstaking process of weeding out the bad eggs, so to speak, by hand. All chocolate companies take out the rocks, rope, and plastic that gets mixed into their shipments. But Dandelion goes further, taking out anything that’s “even slightly weird” — beans that are too small or cracked, for example.
The beans are then roasted, cooled, and shelled. The latter is called “winnowing” and leaves just the meat of the bean, the nib, to be ground up with sugar in a menanger machine. Three days later, the resultant mix solidifies into a real chocolate bar.
Well, not quite.
“Chocolate is not naturally shelf-stable,” Masonis explains. This means that if you leave it alone, it will “bloom” — turn white and gritty. To prevent this, the melted chocolate is pumped through a machine that agitates it in a particular way, aligning its molecules to make the crystals stable.
Once the chocolate is pumped into molds, cooled, and hand-wrapped in foil, it goes over to a red, German-made 1950s wrapping machine. It quickly wraps the bars in handmade paper from India, specially made for Dandelion.
After receiving a label sticker and a ribbon, the $8-a-piece chocolate bars make their way to the hundreds of retailers Dandelion delivers to, many thousands of miles away.
Or they travel a few feet to the front of the store.
Dandelion’s process has improved over the years. Masonis and Ring have moved from small-time home operation to farmer’s markets to a full-blown factory in the Mission, with another, much larger one in the old Howard Quinn Printing building to come later this year.
The pair, who met in their freshman year at Stanford, started a tech company Praxo in a garage in Mountain View and sold it to Comcast in 2008 (for some $175 million). Coming from Silicon Valley, with backgrounds in computer science, the two knew nothing about chocolate making and had to learn everything from scratch.
“The way we’re doing it is how people were doing it 100 years ago,” Masonis said. “So you just had to do it from first principles. There’s a lot of good information on the internet, a lot of people in our same situation sharing tips, on internet forums and such. But mostly you just had to try things.”
After friends and family raved about their chocolate, Masonis and Ring opened up at the Underground Market, a farmer’s market “where you didn’t need health permits.” Success there gave them the confidence to begin construction at 740 Valencia, into which they moved at the end of 2012.
Since then, they’ve been nothing but successful. The store is quite often packed, and there are over 300 stores on their retail waitlist. “Our wholesale person says that her job is ‘Customer Disappointment Management,’” said Masonis. “We just can’t make enough chocolate. We just say no all the time.”
Because of this, Dandelion will be opening a new factory on 16th and Alabama. This space will add significantly to their production capability, allowing the Valencia factory to focus more on tours and classes. (The new factory will also have these, but not as many.)
“In the short term, it’s about trying to make more chocolate,” Masonis said. But he doesn’t want to end up like industrial chocolate, focused on quantity rather than quality.
“We want to make the chocolate taste even better. We want to expand and try out experiments with new machines,” he added.
And another manufacturing location in the Mission will help Dandelion become even more embedded in a neighborhood Masonis says has been very supportive.
“The advantages [to being here] are the community. Four Barrel, for instance, was very welcoming, and they came up to us and said ‘We want to use your chocolate,’ and that was awesome,” Masonis said.
“Being here in the Mission, it’s a stamp of approval,” he added.
This is first in our new series Made in the Mission, in which we profile local manufacturers and their wares. Suggestions welcome for future stories. Send ideas missionlocalATlocalDOTcom.