Dandelion Chocolate on Valencia Street. Photo by Lydia Chávez

While chocolate factories tend to be the substance of dreams, workers at Dandelion Chocolate in the Mission District say their experience has instead become a chocolate-covered nightmare.

“There’s been a long pattern of difficult decisions made for us, especially a lot of things that have come into focus over the last year during the pandemic,” said Christine Keating, who has worked at Dandelion for nearly seven years.

That includes worker safety, hours, and overall working conditions during the pandemic — a particularly stressful time for factory and food service workers locally and across the country. She said that as employees have been cut, chocolate production goals have ramped up.  

“Even before that,” Keating added, “people who brought up problems were treated like they were the problems — and they were the only ones who felt this way, and they were siloed and retaliated against.”

So, Dandelion employees are kicking off a campaign to form a union — the latest effort in a unionization wave that has swept several mid-sized businesses in San Francisco, including Anchor Brewery and Tartine Bakery. And like those businesses, Dandelion is doing so under the aegis of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 6.

The Dandelion workers formally informed Dandelion’s leadership of their intention to unionize this morning, and an election will likely be held in four to six weeks. Right now, 50 employees are on board, Keating said, though some of her coworkers are still “on the fence.”

“Obviously, we’re trying to stand together in solidarity for better wages, a safer workplace, and accountability and transparency,” she said.

In an interview, Todd Masonis, Dandelion’s owner and founder, did not sound outright resistant to the effort. “Anyone who’s working hard to make for a better company is something I’m receptive to,” he said. “I’m really eager to hear what people have to say.”

As he has not been given a formal letter, he would not commit either way on recognizing the union. “I’m not an expert on the matter,” he said. “Obviously, I would like to become more educated.”

Overall, he said, he understood the workers’ anxiety, and said that the pandemic was a challenging time for everyone at the company, noting that Dandelion almost went out of business last year. “The pandemic has been challenging, and we’ve been doing what we can,” he said.

Although Keating and other workers told Mission Local that the effort has been in the works for nearly a year-and-a-half, decisions by Masonis in the last week put them into overdrive.

Tim Ryan, a Dandelion chocolate maker at the store on 18th and Valencia, said his team has been cut from around 11 to six workers, but they are still expected to make as many as 600 chocolate bars a day, a similar number as before the staffing cuts. “We couldn’t continue on in the pace we were going,” Ryan said.

Yet after the workers confronted Masonis about the issue several weeks ago, the owner last Tuesday gave the workers a “proposal,” Ryan said. Masonis said he would “pause” the Valencia Street production site and transfer all production to Dandelion’s 16th Street factory. As such, the chocolate makers had a choice: take an unspecified job at 16th Street — which could pay less — or take a voluntary layoff and a $1,000 severance.

“He gave us until Thursday at noon to decide whether to stay or go,” Ryan said.  

Several chocolate makers took the meager buyout, but Ryan and Chyler Barraca, another chocolate maker who was at the meeting with Masonis, decided to stay. “It was more like an ultimatum,” Barraca recalled.

Masonis said that his decision to shut down the Valencia site had more to do with addressing the concerns about the production pace while taking the time to more “thoughtfully” build a team up at the location. He added that the employees were offered “equivalent roles” at 16th Street, though their schedules would still need to be hashed out.

Furthermore, he said, the $1,000 severance for employees that chose to leave would have come with six months of unemployment, with benefits, from the government — not a terrible deal, he said.

But Keating said the low staffing and higher expectations extends to other areas of the business that specializes in producing its high-end, handmade chocolate. She said the team that wraps the chocolate bars — all done by hand, including the pristinely tied bowties on gift boxes — has been shaved down to just a handful. “It’s very detail-oriented work,” she said, but that work has caused a lot “repetitive stress injuries” for the workers.  

Meanwhile, Dandelion is producing more chocolate this year. In the first two months of last year, Dandelion was producing between 24,000 to 31,000 chocolate bars per month. This year, production has jumped to between 35,000 and 36,000 a month, she said.

And physical conditions of the job are not Dandelion’s only problem, the workers said. Last summer, Mission Local reported that racism and a lack of diversity permeated the company’s culture, and leadership took few steps to cure it, according to former workers there.

Although Dandelion took a few performative steps to address the issue following the bad publicity, “nothing has really changed,” Barraca said.

Masonis rebutted that the company has fulfilled numerous commitments to making Dandelion more inclusive, such as implicit bias training and hiring diversity consultants. But, he said, “We’re committed to do doing more and we’ll continue to do more.”

The nascent unionization effort could be facing an uphill battle. Although Masonis did not outright reject the effort, other local organizing efforts have been met with resistance from business owners.

In December, a years-long unionization effort by veterinary technicians at the VCA Animal Hospital in the Mission was quashed after the multibillion-dollar VCA corporation shut down the site and sold it to a local hospital.

Meanwhile, Tartine’s owners have resisted the union, and right now its formation is being battled out at the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., according to Augustin Ramirez, an organizer with the ILWU who is helping Tartine’s workers organize, as well as the Dandelion employees.

“The workers of Dandelion saw the movement here in San Francisco with young workers,” Ramirez said. “This is a very young workforce — they saw what happened at Anchor and Tartine, and they’re following in their steps.”

He added that Dandelion would not be the first chocolate manufacturer the ILWU has helped to form — Guittard Chocolate has been with the union for the last 40 years.

“We do represent chocolate,” Ramirez said. “It’s nothing new for the ILWU.”

Julian Mark

Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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21 Comments

  1. Hi there, I wanted to add some additional context to this story. As reported, we have temporarily ceased making chocolate at our location on Valencia Street due a number of challenges. This was not something we do lightly, as Valencia is our original flagship and is near and dear to our hearts and, for many, has been their introduction to craft chocolate.

    We care deeply about our team members. Dandelion itself saw our revenue drop by 80% last March, and we are proud that we were able to keep so many of our team members employed, safe, and whole even when our future was uncertain.

    With chocolate making on hiatus at Valencia Street, we offered the six Valencia chocolate makers one of two options: join us at our neighboring 16th Street factory in equivalent roles and pay, or to take a voluntary layoff with additional severance. The 16th Street factory makes the bulk of our chocolate, so it makes sense to consolidate our two locations until we can relaunch the Valencia factory in a way that is safe and tenable for our staff.

    Due to the recent COVID support bill, we determined that a layoff option would provide these team members with six months of full pay and health benefits from the state. In addition, Dandelion is providing an extra $1,000 to make sure these team members have time to find other opportunities outside of Dandelion. Four of the six affected employees have chosen to stay, and two have opted for the voluntary layoff.

    I’ve just now seen the formal letter about unionization and look forward to working with the team to continue to improve and grow Dandelion.

    Best,
    Todd

    1. I was an assistant manager at the Valencia Street factory in 2019. From that perspective, I want to speak in support of unionization by Dandelion workers.

      The work done by the factory workers at Dandelion Chocolate has afforded the company international recognition as an industry leader in craft chocolate by producing some of the most perfect bars of chocolate you’ll ever encounter, full stop.

      However, it’s demanding and undercompensated work. Wages are low, production demands are high, and quality standards are elite. Set aside any Willy Wonka notions for a moment and think of an actual factory: the work is strenuous, loud, physically and emotionally taxing, and dangerous.

      The key to the company’s success is that they hire very well. They’re great at hiring and exploiting young talent. Their hiring process is rigorous, with rounds of panel interviews and unpaid trial shifts, and despite the low wages they offer, Dandelion manages to put together teams loaded with exceptional humans. The team of chocolate makers I worked with included engineers, chemists, biologists, food scientists, artists, actors and chefs.

      Promotions at Dandelion are difficult to come by. Exceptional effort may be rewarded with an enamel pin given at a monthly all-hands meeting, but rarely with promotions or wage increases. Disturbingly, as has been reported elsewhere, I witnessed a pattern of racism in the distribution of power at the company. Most BIPOC who work for the company hold precarious, underpaid, at-will positions. More secure salaried and management positions are mostly held by white folks. I myself am a white man who was hired from outside the company to help lead a team of majority young women of color who had much more experience than me.

      This austere and racist approach on the part of the executive team fosters a workplace culture where competition over a few prime roles means those who hold the prime roles look to validate their position by pressuring their teams to meet ever-higher levels of efficiency and productivity.

      The workers at Dandelion would deserve the protection of a union even if they weren’t a world-class team. Exploitation of workers anywhere hurts us all, and we should recognize the value of unions as a bulwark against exploitation and as a foundational piece of an equitable democracy.

      But the fact is Dandelion workers are some of the best in the world at what they do — they are innovative, artful, rigorous craftspeople, making chocolate that wins international awards and praise, and attracts chocolate makers from around the world who visit in hopes of gleaning from their methods and expertise. These workers deserve to reap their rewards. But as it stands, they’re hardly even paid a liveable wage or afforded basic job security.

      I call on Todd Masonis and the executive team to recognize the Dandelion Union immediately and to meet and exceed all of their demands, just as they expect the workers to meet and exceed theirs.

      For the rest of us, let’s do what we can to support union-made chocolate. As a start, here is a petition of support: http://bit.ly/3vKfYlZ

      Cheers,
      Dave Mertzig

  2. This is the same lousy union that caused the port of Portland to shut down and lost a $93,000,000.00 judgement for their corruption.

  3. Time to start paying fair wages and lower the prices of chocolates.
    We all should be pro union . Without unions people were working from sun up to sun down 6 days a week for nothing. Slaving for the white man.
    Unions have brought you the 4 day work week and 6 hour work days , benefits and pensions. These just like housing are human rights . 95% of employees should be unionized. 1 voice is not enough. Together the voices scream .
    If you don’t like it, leave SF and go toTexas or Florida . Viva la razaaaa

    1. Instead of a union, why not start their own competitive chocolate business? If it’s so easy to pay workers more and still make money, develop a business plan and any bank will gladly give you a loan. The employees could all be part owners or let them be a union. Everyone wins!

  4. Hmm Ricardo Ruiz – you say pay the workers more AND lower the price of chocolate. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. I wonder where all of that money will come from? Be realistic. I doubt a company that almost went out of business is just sitting there with a fortune in the bank.

  5. Geeze. Y’all should consider chocolate in its greater context. Humans love chocolate, and yet most of it is full of racism ,slavery and “unfair working conditions” (to state the problem as mildly as English allows)–from the semi-hidden source. Before pondering Dandelion’s supposedly horrific actions any further, quick, go check your cabinets! Any Nestle chocomilk? Any mega-corporate chocolate of any kind? Any Reeses Pieces or Hershey’s chocolate bars? What do all of those and Dandelion NOT have in common? Almost all the industrial stuff is harvested by kidnapped child sex slaves, many of whom have never tasted refined chocolate. Consider that at least Dandelion saves you from that heavy negativity when you mindlessly consume slave chocolate maybe almost every day. Todd at least says the right things when challenged, here about “unfair working conditions” and before about racism, while also offering a relatively pure staple. As you nail him to the stake, take a moment to source your own consumption, San Francisco!

    1. Buying cheap chocolate from conglomerate companies does not excuse small companies for poor treatment of employees. I will agree that large corporations need to address their behaviors. There is zero reason for Any company to expect employees to produce more with less resources. And to buy into that type of thinking hurts everyone in the labor force. Racism from any company large or small is inexcusable.

      Your comment is a red herring to divert discussion about a Local problem. Stop screaming about why Consumers are a problem. It is disingenuous and off topic.

      1. Angela, talk about disingenuous and misleading comments supposedly “on topic.” Your facts are fatally wrong here, so there’s that. Your opener, “Buying cheap chocolate from conglomerate companies does not excuse small companies for poor treatment of employees,” purports to refer to Dandelion, we assume? Someone should do her research before getting out and climbing up upon her box.

        The “screaming” you seem unable to parse is further fleshed-out below. Now it’s maybe economic privilege, rather than racial, that obscures your ability to see and process related info in the shared context?

      2. Well, Angela, sadly it appears as though Mission Local highly curates its comments section. So, it’s more of an editorial space where their chosen message is crafted. It’s been more than a day since I replied to you, on topic, but the comment remains unapproved. I’ll give it another try without polemics.

        You and Carlos–and most people (!) in our society–display a frightening cognitive dissonance here and in similar instances of global capitalism. Your comments “Buying cheap chocolate from conglomerate companies…I will agree that large corporations need to address their behaviors,” and, “Stop screaming about why Consumers are a problem. It is disingenuous and off topic,” reveal you as a bad actor upon the capitalist stage. A consumer with the shriveled and blocked mind that the modern system is designed to neuter in precisely the way you model. You write, “I will agree that large corporations need to address their behaviors.” With you, the one who eats the stuff, blandly shirking responsibility in this way, how is that different from a suburban Karen who similarly might comment in a distant, vague and disassociated way that, “the police should do something about how they treat POC.” The diffusion of harm by global capitalism wants to make everything no one’s problem: both in the ownership organization of corporations by anonymous stockholders who are collectively owed all loyalty and allegiance, as well as in the everyday hiding of atrocities through chains of middle-men, like in the case of chocolate. So, back to Karen; often, when you want to educate a Karen, and begin to talk about old harms that still resonate today, in order to educate her, sometimes she’ll maybe make a face like she just sucked a lemon and she’ll want to push those facts and realities as far away as possible in the mind because it’s all just too much to consider together, kinda overwhelming. For her. She’ll say things like, “But that was so long ago. We didn’t do that. That was other people.” Or while still enjoying her privilege in so many aspects, she’ll vaguely concede that, “something should be done about that.” She’ll wonder why we just can’t all be magically equal in the moment. It might take a few moments of non-reactive thought, but I challenge you to consider how your limp, “Oh well, the companies should do something about that,” isn’t much different from others in contemporary society unwilling to put views that are distant for them squarely in the front of their minds, where you’d maybe like the issue to be.

        Finally, just to consider and admittedly inviting you to stretch the mind a bit here: as far as group karma goes, maybe chocolate is still, at the moment, too toxic a substance in this world system to be enjoyed free of subtle resonances like the ones you collective rail against in SF. As you work to fix them, endeavor to work on fixing the problems with chocolate, which remain very local for you, too.

        1. Sir or madam —

          The comments section is monitored by actual people. Actual people who may not check for your comments on a weekend.

          The world shall continue.

          Yours,

          JE

          1. Nice recovery, JE, even if not the maximally true reason for your tardiness.

            It’s he/him/his, thanks.

            Finally, will it? That’s very much an open question at the moment. Sure, in some form, but this is an apocalyptic age. If anyone has ears, let him/her/it hear.

            Best,

            Luke

          2. Sir —

            It’s not a “recovery.” There isn’t a Bat Signal that informs us when you’ve commented over the weekend.

            I think it’s going to be okay.

            Best,

            JE

  6. Tenzin Thomas Masami, yes chocolate generally is rife with exploitation and abuse. But you’re not making a case for why these workers shouldn’t demand better treatment. Your perspective is very consumer oriented and not concerned with the lives of these workers, specifically. I’m tired of people being told to shut up because someone else has it worse. Workers all over the world deserve freedom from exploitation and abuse. What you’re saying, what does it actually do for the child laborers forced to harvest chocolate for the rest of the world? Not much. It more just silences these SF workers demanding better treatment.

    And so what if the boss man says the right thing when questioned? What actions come of it? The same, siloed and ignorant white leadership who think poc are just overreacting when “jokes” are made comparing them to monkeys.

    All people deserve freedom from exploitation and abuse. A rich man graciously bestowing jobs upon us doesn’t mean you need to defend him. It’s servile.

    1. Hmn, Carlos, or do you just care about YOUR suffering? Or the suffering you’re forced too see and have to care about? Part of the systemic evil of global corporate capitalism is sanitizing and hiding-from-view our collective horribleness in the marketplace. I return this comment to you with its full force, directed toward you: “Your perspective is very consumer oriented and not concerned with the lives of these [west African, and Latino, and other, cultivation and production-side] workers, specifically.” I get what you’re saying, and your good points are taken. I’m actually on your side, if you’d have me. Your criticism of my criticism goes too far. Just as you point out that the solution to the problem isn’t zero-balance, neither is my observation. But did you check your cabinets, at least in your mind, or your non-fancy chocolate consumption over the last week? Since the article talks about chocolate as if it were maybe grown in the rooftop herb garden or who knows where, and since the enormous quantities of “every day” chocolate we consume rather mindlessly are full of the most extreme forms of these disgusting forms of oppression, it can be illuminating to hold the two up together in the same conversation. Can your mind absorb the scales of harm, and the different types and degrees, together, or it is just too much?

  7. Anyone remember the large grocery store on 24th Street which closed down because the employee wanted to be in a union.

    Be careful what you wish for.

    Oh, and Ruiz, where is this place that has a 4 day week and a 6 hour day? Not buying it.

  8. We’re with you, Dandelion workers! Maybe reach out to workers at the Arizmendi Bakery co-op down the street for support to walk pickets.

  9. Anyone running a Biz in SF when other locations might be an option has balls given how insane the local officials , and media are.

  10. As a former employee of Dandelion, I feel I need to contribute a bit of information here for readers. I don’t know much about unions, so I can’t comment on whether or not the request to unionize by Dandelion employees is a good or bad thing. I can, however, provide some insight into how Dandelion treats it’s chocolate makers. Spoiler alert: extremely, extremely well. There’s no doubt that there is work to improve the company. But the insinuation that the company is oppressive and unfair to its employees is, in my opinion, deeply misguided. 

    Dandelion goes above and beyond for its employees. They hire folks who are unskilled in chocolate making, paying them a starting rate that is above minimum wage, train them to do their job and give them a clear path for advancement. It’s an impressively made leveling program and is well documented and accessible to all hourly employees. Health, dental, vision, 401k, and life insurance are all available and even better, employees have choices among the plans.

    Pre-pandemic, chocolate makers were regularly sent to origin to learn about where the cacao comes from. There’s even an application process to do a month-long, expenses paid exchange in Japan. All employees are PAID to attend onboarding courses on how to make chocolate, where chocolate comes from, etc. Chocolate makers are scheduled for regular work hours, are always paid overtime if they work it (which is rarely), get an hour long lunch break, and get major holidays off. Vacation requests, however long or complicated, are almost always approved. There’s a specific team dedicated to factory safety and regular audits are performed. Yes, it’s difficult to get hired, but it’s also incredibly difficult to be fired from Dandelion. The company does everything it can to help employees improve if there are performance issues (and well documents their efforts).

    Performance evaluations are given regularly because historically, they were requested by employees and provide a space for them to discuss advancement and opportunities for growth. Pre-pandemic, Dandelion shut down the factory for the last few months of December and paid all employees their regular rate (plus an average of tips for tipped employees) so folks could take a break and be with their families after a hectic holiday season. Once the pandemic hit and Dandelion had to shut down, the company offered everyone the same set of options if their job couldn’t be done remotely. If they felt it was best for them, they could leave and file for unemployment or they could choose to stay at home and be paid their normal rate (plus a supplemental amount of their average tips if they were a tipped employee) until another temporary or permanent spot became available for them elsewhere in the company. 

    These are all facts that can be verified. It concerns me that there have been absolutely zero concrete examples of mistreatment given by those unionizing. Again, there’s much work to be done at the company and I have no doubt that there are some concerns that these employees have that must be addressed. But the notion that Dandelion mistreats its employees is far from the truth. Before jumping on the unionization bandwagon, I’d encourage you to reach out to Dandelion or other folks familiar with the company to get the other side of the story. 

    Also, $8-$10 for a chocolate bar isn’t pretentious or ridiculous. If you’re supportive of a company that pays a fair price for it’s raw product, pays workers fairly, and keeps manufacturing in the US, then you should understand that it’s virtually impossible to sell the product for any less and remain in business. 

    1. Everything this person said is absolutely true. There are so many points in this article that are completely misconstrued or simply incorrect.

      If Dandelion is to negotiate a union contract, the health benefits offered to hourly employees would actually be worse than what is currently offered. They regularly evaluate safety conditions, go through hypothetical scenarios to keep people on their toes and record any instance of safety violations. This article mentions Dandelions being “at-will” employees and this is a confusing piece for me. I have seen Dandelion leadership work their absolute hardest to keep employees on board. There are team members that show less than desirable work ethic and do not lose their jobs because Dandelion believes that there is an alternative way of resolving these issues through personal and leadership development or additional support. A person on my team was late 12+ times in three weeks and Dandelion would not allow their manager to let them go. Instead, they sat down and had a meeting with the team member and asked what support that team member needed to be present for their job. We have one of the lowest turnover rates of any organization I have ever known or worked for (excluding the pandemic year). Even throughout the pandemic, Dandelion did not take layoffs lightly. They did their best to keep people at work even when there was no work to be done for those first few weeks of lockdown. They offered financial assistance for anyone that was in a difficult situation. The CEO pulled money out of his own pocket to provide this support. And the very moment that things started to pick up again, those individuals were called back.

      Our organization has WEEKLY All-Hands meetings where ANYONE is invited to present their work or share updates from their respective departments. Following these presentations, we have an open forum for folks to share feedback, ask questions, or express concerns. This can be done anonymously if the person chooses. Our CEO regularly says that people can feel comfortable reaching out to him for support or to express any concerns. His email address and phone number are available to anyone in the organization.

      All of those currently on the organizing committee has yet to provide us with any specific examples as to why they have decided to unionize. People in the organization are genuinely just confused (and hurt) by this whole effort. Dandelion is by no means perfect, no organization can be. Our leadership is compassionate, empathic, and understanding, and I am certain there is an alternative way to resolving the issues we have that avoid the systemic and cultural implications of taking on a union.

  11. Yep! If the workers are being retaliated against now , they will see what retaliation is when union management jumps in bed with company management .

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