This week Dandelion Chocolate officially opened its café. The new spot is a fabulous place to watch chocolate being made as well as savor the opportunity to sip and slurp artisan hot chocolate, cacao fruit smoothies, Tisano cacao husk tea and Four Barrel coffee. Dandelion is run by Todd Masonis, Cameron Ring and Alice Nystrom, a team of passionate chocolate makers who are adamant about using beans that are sourced directly from quality small farms. Masonis and Ring are the co-founders and have a background in technology. Dandelion’s chocolate bars are not too sweet, and the company garnered a Good Food Award last year. They are again in the running for another Good Food Award -- hold your breath til Friday night, when the winners are announced.
Masonis and Nystrom took time out of their bustling schedule to catch up with Bay Area Bites. The opening day café was crowded and folks were admiring the cacao pods, David Lebovitz chocolate books and sharing plates of fresh pastries from Dandelion’s pastry chef, Phil Ogiela.
Bay Area Bites: The café is modeled after the chocolate houses found in Europe years ago. How and why did you go with this concept? Masonis: We did our research. There are a couple of different places like Bernachon in France. For 100 something years, they have been making chocolate from the bean in small batches. At Bernachon, they have a little patisserie and make treats in the back. It’s unique and interesting, not like anything here. From what we read, there used to be chocolate houses and coffee house all over Europe. Locally, you tend to see a chocolate or truffle shop but there’s nowhere to experience chocolate. We want to have a place where people can hang out. Hopefully over time people will say: “Oh they’re melanging and conching,” while they’re here and we’ll get a real relationship with customers.
Bay Area Bites: Why do a chocolate café in the Mission? Masonis: We felt like there are a lot of chocolate shops in the area and wanted to create a place for the community, not just for tourists. We felt sad when Scharffen Berger got bought. Valencia Street has such vibrant food and there’s a lot of stuff happening here: Four Barrel, Craftsman & Wolves. We found the space two years ago and since then, the whole area has expanded. We got a little lucky and had a really great real estate broker but didn’t realize with commercial spots you don’t just find things right away.
Nystrom: Why not do the café here? [Laughs]. We didn’t know what we had when we found it. They rented it in 2010 and then it turned into the best block. I lived at the South end of the Mission and have seen this area change phenomenally. It’s exciting. People are doing really amazing things with food and also things for the community. I’d love to do both.
Bay Area Bites: Do you drink chocolate daily? Masonis: I try not to. I used to be a fan of the really thick European style drinking chocolate. Our pastry chef spent two months to develop the recipes. The Mission version is unique. The iced chocolate is like tea, and is a thin and light style of chocolate drink.
Bay Area Bites: Your bars are straightforward and do not have fillers or a lot of sugar. Describe the bean to bar process and why you do things that way. Masonis: Our process starts with really good cocoa beans. That starts with finding good beans. Then we get a bunch of beans. After that, it takes awhile to figure out what works, so we do taste test after taste test. Then we roast, remove the shells, grind, temper, mold and finally turn the beans into chocolate bars. We really like to highlight the bean. A lot of chocolate companies are concerned with price and consistency. We work really hard by keeping the sugar levels the same (low) so you can taste the bean.
Bay Area Bites: You won a prestigious Good Food Award last year for your Costa Rica 70% bar and are nominated this year for your Madagascar 70%, Dominican Republic 70% and Venezuela 70% bars. How does the Good Food Award drive your success and make a difference in sales? What was the process like? Masonis: The way it works is you do a blind taste test & submit up to three bars. We were selected as finalists for all three. On Friday, they announce the winners. The winners know if they’ve won via email. Some people say “We’re going to SF to the awards,” and then you know something’s up.
Nystrom: When we were in a tiny commercial kitchen, I had this big scheme of getting us into the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market. First thing I said is, “We need a Good Food award.” Once we won, there was a huge change in terms of volume and exposure. It was really huge for us to make those bars; we made it when we were doing 25 bars a day. When we won we had our first employee and winning was our first real visible sign of progress. We didn’t get into the Ferry Building, but we did win.
Bay Area Bites: Todd & Cameron have a background in technology. How does that affect your way of thinking and doing business? Masonis: The main thing is that we weren’t afraid to try new things and events -- how to do it. When we started, we’d hear things like, “It’s going to take 30 yrs to learn how to roast.” If you do things in the traditional way, maybe that’s true. But one of the things we learned was using scientific method and technology will move things a lot faster, and we were able to find and create the flavors we like. We focused 100% on flavor and price and consistency were secondary.
Bay Area Bites: With items like cacao fruit smoothies, cacao husk tea and iced chocolate, you have things that are likely new to many consumers. How did you come up with the menu? Masonis: There were a bunch of things we wanted to do and having amazing hot chocolate is one of them. In France, they have a tradition of hot chocolate. We wanted to bring that yet also have things that are unique.
The cacao smoothies are very difficult to import. They have to freeze. We managed to find an importer to bring the pulp. That’s something that only one other place in America has.
We’ve told our pastry chef, “Here’s a chance to think about the flavors and from there invent them.” With good chocolate, an experienced pastry chef and a lot of time, it leads to amazing flavors.
Nystrom: We have things you can’t get elsewhere. They’re all new to me. With the fruit smoothie, I’ve only tried the cacao fruit on the farm, when it’s sticky, warm and goopy. Seeing it when it’s cold and delicious means a different kind of drink. People get so excited with the chocolate tea, when they know there’s a less rich option than hot chocolate. It’s also exciting for us to explain the process and get people interested that way.
For the chocolate tea, we worked with our pastry chef. For his first batch of ideas, he came back and none of us were happy. It turned out we all had these different visions, including Phil. I’m really happy because it hasn’t been done before and the end product is one that none of us expected.
Bay Area Bites: You collaborated with Almanac Beer for your Biere de Chocolat. How did the beer come about? Masonis: Someone knocked on someone’s door. One of our employees is really into beer and said, “We should do something with them.” We worked hard and made lots and lots of nibs. Our volume is different than theirs, and we had to roast lots of beans. We would deliver 25lb. bags of beans, and it was definitely a lot of work. I’m not a huge beer drinker yet we’re pretty thrilled at how it turned out.
As much as this block is interesting, Dogpatch is as or even more interesting. Walk down the hall there and there are seven chocolatiers, as well as beer makers, photographers, and artists. I know of some other chocolate makers who are in the middle of the country. That can be so much harder.
Nystrom: The chocolate beer was due to one of our newest production employees, Tyler. He had just got here from Boston and took a class with them. He took them some nibs. It turned out they could use it and in a serendipitous way for the whole thing: the beer is delicious. It’s fun to work with another SF institution.
Bay Area Bites: Do you have any Valentine’s Day recommendations? Masonis: Our publicist Jennifer Roy and Alice are working on some events. There’s a local paper mill that is so new -- Pam DeLuco made paper out of cacao bags and on Valentine’s Day we will let people get creative outside our store, on the sidewalk. It’d be awesome to do late night desserts but this year we’re definitely not ready for the pressure of messing up someone’s Valentine’s Day. We are in the process of creating some special chocolate treats, too.
Nystrom: Pam is a farmers’ market customer and she makes paper with papers sacks. She helped us hire our fulfillment lead. Hopefully it’ll be a playful Valentine’s Day activity. We’d love to be open late and have dessert flights but can’t right now. This way we can do something with the neighborhood.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you go to eat and drink? Masonis: I finished work on Sunday at midnight and the only thing open was Mel’s Drive-in, on Geary. I do like Range. Their pastry chef is amazing. I’ve certainly gone to my fair share of pastry places and have a sweet tooth.