If you like to bake cookies, like me, there's a good chance you've picked up a bag of semi-sweet or extra dark Guittard chocolate chips at the market.
"Ooooh, this must be French," I've thought, failing to look closely at the fine print on the packaging. (Guess who quite recently acquired her first pair of reading glasses?)
In fact, Guittard may be the biggest local chocolate-maker some of us had no clue was local—even though they've been making chocolate here since the Gold Rush.
The original Guittard was Etienne, who came to San Francisco in 1860 from France (i.e. I wasn't entirely off the mark). He realized eventually the big money lay in satisfying the San Franciscan sweet tooth. Flash forward to 1868, when E. Guittard Co. opened its doors, about 16 years after Domingo Ghirardelli.
Presumably, there was room for both of them in this chocolate-loving city, because they were both thriving when the 1906 earthquake hit. Guittard's factory moved briefly to Commercial Street and then to Main Street, where it sat until 1955. Redevelopment then forced the operation to relocate to Burlingame, where it's stayed ever since, at 10 Guittard Road.
This is why people living in or traveling through Burlingame and Millbrae often report a sudden need to consume chocolate.
What It's Like Inside
It’s like the engine room of an old battle ship, if an old battle ship smelled like warm chocolate. The machinery for roasting, grinding, refining is massive and much of it is more than 60 years old, shipped in from Switzerland and Germany.
The company is even older, celebrating its 150th year—still manufacturing in the Bay Area, still privately owned. These days, that’s the business equivalent of a miracle. Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is now owned by the U.S. division of Swiss confectioner Lindt & Sprüngli. See's Candies, headquartered in San Francisco, is owned by Berkshire Hathaway.
Guittard sits in an economic sweet spot between big companies and little ones, supplying chocolate for everyone from See's, Williams-Sonoma and Shake Shack to Recchiuti Confections and Charles Chocolates. "Everybody’s had [Guittard chocolate], and they don’t realize it," says CEO Gary Guittard.
The company has expanded to a new facility in Fairfield, but much of the processing of the chocolate still happens in Burlingame.
Gary's daughter, Amy Guittard, says there's a mind-bending range of variation in chocolate, depending on what variables you play with and how. The nib, for instance, is more or less 50 percent fat and 50 percent solid. Once those two elements have been separated from each other in a hydraulic press, you can adjust those percentages, depending on your intended application. "That wide array of percentages is important if you're a pastry chef or even a home baker," she said.
Gary Guittard also loves to nerd out on the specifics. He can tell you where cocoa pods grow best, which would be "10 to 15 degrees on either side of the equator." Also, you might be interested to know how children in cocoa-growing regions like to eat their chocolate: in fruit form. "They'll take a pod and pop a seed in their mouth and suck the mucilage off it, because it's like a fruit," he said.
The company gets the cocoa beans after they've been fermented and dried by farmers. "We work with them in regards to their post-harvest practices. We might want [beans] a little under-fermented, depending on the bean type, or a little over-fermented. Or we might want them dried quickly or more slowly. All of those things affect the flavor," says Gary.
Amy notes consumer enthusiasm for bean-to-bar chocolate swings back and forth between "extreme" flavors and more traditional blends. "There's beauty in the extreme, but also in the balance. We've got flavor labs in Java, Ghana and Ivory Coast that are focused on preserving those heirloom flavor profiles," she said.
Guittard helped to found a nonprofit organization called the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. From the group's website: "Our goal is to not only protect and propagate fine flavor cacao for future generations, but to also improve the livelihoods for cacao-growing families. These efforts will ultimately help farmers scale up and strengthen commercial links to the fine chocolate market."
To celebrate its 150th anniversary, Guittard developed a bar that pays homage to the West Coast style of chocolate founder Etienne Guittard would have made, but which also celebrates the family's enthusiasm for distinctive chocolate that tastes like where it comes from. The chocolate bar, Eureka Works, is made with beans sourced from Pacific trade routes—Indonesia, Hawaii, Ecuador and Brazil. A portion of the proceeds from sales will go to the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund.
How has this company managed to survive the market forces that typically eat up smaller chocolatiers? Gary says Guittard has always kept the pool of investors small and limited to people who care about chocolate. "There's still a lot to learn in this business, so that's a big part of the fun."
Bakers' Notes: For those keen to replicate the salted chocolate chip tahini cookies pictured above, a few key tips:
- use a high-quality tahini imported from the Middle East
- use a high-quality butter
- refrigerate the dough overnight.
The result will be worth the extra effort!