A Brief History of Chocolate in the Golden State

From giant companies with roots in the Gold Rush days to newbies with a focus on fair trade and local cred, California is ground zero for high-end chocolate.

PUBLISHED FEB 9, 2024 11:15 A.M.
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From its factory on the San Francisco Peninsula, Guittard makes chocolates that are used by professional pastry chefs and confectioners, including See’s Candies.

From its factory on the San Francisco Peninsula, Guittard makes chocolates that are used by professional pastry chefs and confectioners, including See’s Candies.   Paige Green Photography   Guittard Chocolate Company

It will surprise exactly no one to point out that February is a chocolate seller’s dream. It’s equally unsurprising that the biggest bite out of those sales—about a third—will be taken by Pennsylvania-based Hershey’s. In fact, just six companies gobble up almost 90 percent of the market. But it’s the remaining silver of the market that produces the most inventive, environmentally sustainable, and healthiest chocolates around—and many of those boutique brands are based in California.

Even before the artisanal chocolate boom, the Golden State was a leader in the industry.

As with many things, chocolate production can be traced to the Gold Rush.

Guittard’s San Francisco factory in 1910.

Domenico Ghirardelli came to California in 1849 via Uruguay, where he sold coffee and chocolate. By 1852 he had opened Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco. The third oldest chocolate brand in the United States, Ghirardelli was acquired by the makers of Lindt chocolates in 1998.

Lured by the promise of gold, French immigrant Étienne Guittard struck paydirt by selling goods to miners instead of digging himself. And the most popular item in his San Francisco store was chocolate. Though the Frenchman’s name isn’t as ubiquitous as his Italian counterpart, the Guittard Chocolate Company has been family owned since 1868 and is a major supplier of couverture chocolate—pre-made chocolate used by chefs and candymakers to create confections. Guittard sources its cocoa beans from around the world, including Madagascar, Ghana, and Ecuador.

But before we move on to boutique chocolatiers, it’s worth remembering another quintessential chapter in California chocolate history. In 1921, Canadian transplant Charles See opened his first chocolate shop in Los Angeles. For the first 40 years of its existence, See’s was very much a California company (and it uses couverture from the aforementioned Guittard). It took 40 years before it crossed the state line into Arizona. In 1972, See’s was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway, and is reputedly still one of Warren Buffett’s favorite investments.

Dandelion Chocolate’s bean room is equipped with a roaster and a cracker to process the cacao beans. Photo by Molly DeCoudreaux

The Bean-to-Bar Boom

It’s clear from the list below that San Francisco is still the promised land when it comes to chocolatiers who want to change the world. But serious artisans can be found around the state, from Eureka to San Diego.

Many are immigrants, infusing their wares with the flavors of their homelands. And most are inspired by the “bean-to-bar” ethos, where the maker is involved in the entire process—from where and how the cacao bean is grown, to how much the farmers are paid, and the techniques used to process the beans. (To learn more, watch Setting the Bar: A Craft Chocolate Origin Story, availble on Vimeo.)

The list below is long, but it doesn’t encompass all of California’s creative chocolatiers. We focused on those businesses that have both online and retail sales—because it’s so much fun to go into an actual store to peer into the display case, filled with anticipation for the endorphin rush to come.

1. North of San Francisco

Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate Adam Dick and Dustin Taylor got into the bean-to-bar biz in 2010 and combined their names to create a brand that has spread far beyond its 500-square-foot space in the northwestern corner of the state. Dick Taylor is known for extracting maximum flavor from minimalist single-origin chocolates, many of which have only two ingredients. And the company is just as well known for its ethical sourcing. Visit the Factory Tasting Room and Café to sample the full line of chocolate, as well as chocolate drinks and treats from the bakery. Open daily. 333 First St, Eureka; (707) 798-6010.

At the Eureka Marina, signs advertise some of the flavors sold Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, which has a retail space in town.

Choquiero Chocolate As close as you can get to guilt-free chocolate. Ingredients are organic, fair trade and vegan, with an emphasis on cacao sourced from seed-propagated trees, in diverse ecosystems, fed by rain and spring water. Chocolates are sweetened with unrefined low-glycemic coconut sugar and made without preservatives, and wrappers are biodegradable and compostable. These delicacies can be found in the Choquiero cafe at 419 Broad St. Suite A, Nevada City; (530) 264-7058.

Fleur Sauvage Chocolates It’ll take a trip to Sonoma County to sample these wares, but the new shop (which opened in December 2021) is equipped with a seating area for nibbling on chocolates and other desserts. Regulars can bring back their chocolate box to be refilled and get $2 off. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 370 Windsor River Rd, Windsor; (707) 892-2162.

Ginger Elizabeth Ginger Elizabeth Hahn came from a family of bakers and she grew up near the Apple Hill area of El Dorado County, which sparked a passion for food. In 2005 she started a wholesale chocolate business and then moved into retail in 2008 with a brick-and-mortar store in Sacramento under the name Ginger Elizabeth. Hahn has an affinity for ingredients from her native state, as seen in such items as Raspberry Rose bonbons, which features raspberries from Saturn Farms, or Wildflower Honey Yogurt, filled with Sola Bee Farm Wildflower and Sierra Nevada Cheese Co. organic yogurt. 2413 J Street, Suite 120, Sacramento; (916) 706-1738, ext. 3.

Kollar Chocolates Chris Kollar is a self-taught chocolatier who earned the Food Network’s Chopped Champion title in 2020. His inspiration is European classic chocolate making. He has traveled Europe extensively, particularly Switzerland, France, and Italy. Among his signature products are a dark chocolate cocoa mix, the 49ers Fan Collection, and passion fruit malt balls. Open daily. 6525 Washington St, Yountville; (707) 738-6750.

Sonoma Chocolatiers and Tea House Since 2008, this Sonoma County purveyor has been drawing people to the dark side. The chocolatier cycles through more than 200 flavors of truffles, caramels, and dairy-free chocolates—and no milk chocolate in the lot. 6988 McKinley St, Sebastopol; (707) 829-1181.

Sweets Handmade Candies Operating in Truckee since 1995, this candy store is fueled by a love of extra-silky Belgian chocolate. Since then Sweets has opened a second location in Reno for its assortment of handmade caramels, toffees, truffles, turtles, fudge and even sugar-free chocolates. 10118 Donner Pass Rd, Suite 1, Truckee; (530) 587-6556.

Woodhouse Chocolate It’s a family affair at Woodhouse. John Anderson and Tracy Wood Anderson worked at S. Anderson Vineyard until John’s family sold it in 2000, and now Tracy and daughter Christina (both California Culinary Academy grads) work in the kitchen while John and daughter Caroline run the business side. A wide variety of treats—boxed chocolates, toffee, caramels, bars, barks, and more—are available daily at their shop. Open daily. 1367 Main St, Saint Helena; (800) 966-3468.

2. San Francisco

Dandelion Chocolate From two simple ingredients—cacao beans and organic sugar—Dandelion Chocolate has built an empire dedicated to ethically sourced single-origin dark chocolate. In 2019 it opened a 30,000-square-foot factory in the Mission District, where fans can take tours, buy chocolates, and visit Bloom, an elegant “tasting salon.” Plus, there are stores on Valencia Street and Fillmore Street, and a small shop at the San Francisco Ferry Building—all of which also have pastries and drinks on the menu.

At Dandelion Chocolate’s factory in the Mission District, visitors can take tours, sample chocolates and snack in the café. Photo by Molly DeCoudreaux

Feve Artisan Chocolatier Founded in San Francisco in 2007, Feve concocts traditional and modern truffles, chocolate-covered nuts, handmade pralines, and flavored milk and dark chocolate bars. It also offers something of note for the lactose intolerant: plant-based chocolates with creamy ganache that’s as smooth as butter, but with coconuts, hazelnuts and pistachios standing in for heavy cream. Chocolate tourists can visit the factory on weekdays at 2222 Palou Ave, San Francisco; (415) 813-6000.

Jade Chocolates Owner and lead chocolatier Mindy Fong draws inspiration both from her years spent working as an architectural designer and the life lessons shared by her immigrant grandfather. Her small-batch chocolates are hand poured into molds and then blended with teas, spices and tropical fruits from Asia and the Pacific Islands. In addition to chocolate sales, her shop also offers a sumptuous afternoon tea menu. Reservations recommended; closed Monday-Tuesday. 607 Grant Ave, San Francisco; (415) 350-3878.

Kokak Chocolates Founder and head chocolatier Carol Gancia drew on her heritage when she launched her company in 2020, naming it after the Filipino word for the noise made by frogs. Hence the design behind her award-winning Artist Palette, shaped like a frog sitting on a lily pad. For her concoctions, Gancia uses an heirloom cacao variety from the Esmeraldas province of Ecuador. Kokak’s boxed chocolates, bars, truffles, and hot chocolate mixes can be purchased online or at the Kokak shop. 3901 18th St, San Francisco; (415) 874-1081.

L’Amourette With a focus on bean to bar, this San Francisco shop highlights cacao from various Latin American farms. Of note is a dark milk chocolate bar with low sugar content and on with 100% cacao. There are also chocolate bars mixed with such flavors as halvah, marzipan, raspberry, plus bonbons, toffees, and pate de fruit. 2412 Fillmore St. San Francisco; info@lamourettechocolat.com; (415) 671-0915.

Recchiuti Confections Michael and Jacky Recchiuti created Recchiuti Confections in 1997, using Valrhona chocolate and creative flavor pairings to make their handmade chocolates irresistible. Tarragon Grapefruit, Lemon Verbena. Currant Cognac and Rose Caramel are just some of the varieties that can be found online or in their San Francisco Ferry Building store, which is open daily. One Ferry Building, Shop #30, San Francisco; (415) 834-9494.

San Francisco–based Socola Chocolatier presents a four-course meal with Vietnamese flavors in its Little Saigon Box.

Socola Chocolatier Chief chocolatier Wendy Lieu co-founded Socala with her sister, Susan Lieu, and this family affair draws on the flavors of their homeland. The Little Saigon Box is their homage to Vietnam, with iconic flavors, presented as a four-course meal complete with Jasmine Tea, Vietnamese Coffee, savory Phở and a side of Sriracha, with Durian, Passion Fruit, Guava, and Lychee for dessert. The retail store is open Monday–Friday. 535 Folsom St, San Francisco; (415) 400-4071.

3. East Bay

Bisou Chocolate Two delicious facts about this East Bay micro manufacturer: Its dark-chocolate bars focus on single origin batches of cacao with specific flavor profiles, and many of its specialty confections are made with California nuts and fruits. Available at the brick-and-mortar shop (2929 Ninth St, Berkeley), at the thrice-weekly San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, or online. bisouchocolate@gmail.com.

Casa de Chocolates Its founders called it the Bay Area’s very first Latin American–inspired chocolate shop when they opened in 2012, and now a new set of owners—Jesus Chavez and Linda Sanchez—have stepped up to carry on the tradition. Unique items include the Mexican Assortment of bonbons (tequila, tamarindo, chipotle, etc) and chocolate bars studded with appropriate ingredients (chile, mango, pepitas, mole). Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. 2629 Ashby Ave. Berkeley; (510) 859-7221.

Michael’s Chocolates California Culinary Academy graduate Michael Benner opened up his shop in the Grand Lake neighborhood of Oakland in 2015, and he’s already picked up a two Good Food Award winners, both available in a combo box: the Lemon Burst bonbon and the Earl Grey ganache with a layer of lemon marzipan. 3352 Grand Ave, Oakland; (510) 817-4777.

TCHO Founded in 2005 by chocolate industry veteran Karl Bittong and tech entrepreneur Timothy Childs, Berkeley-based TCHO was bought by Japanese company Ezaki Glico in 2018, but still maintains its focus on ethical sourcing for its cacao. And in 2021 it announced plans to go fully plant-based, using no milk, butter or other animal products in its recipes. Reservations are necessary to tour the factory.

The Xocolate Bar Since 2006, Malena Lopez-Maggi and Clive Brown have been making “creative chocolates that are as beautiful as they are delicious,” and this description from their website is not hyperbole. The house chocolate is organic and fair trade, and since it’s Berkeley, other ingredients are all natural, with vegan and gluten free options. The “tiny but mighty” factory (1709 Solano Ave, Berkeley; 510-525-9626) is the only place to try the sipping chocolate, but it’s the far larger Xocolate & Confections store, which opened last year, that carries all the treats, plus chocolate-themed merch. 5854 College Ave, Rockridge; (510) 879-7879.

4. Peninsula and South Bay

Deux Cranes French-trained chocolatier Michiko Marron-Kibbey draws inspiration from her Japanese heritage to create a lineup of sweet and sometimes salty creations made with Valrhona chocolate. Flavors at play in her bonbons, shortbreads and caramels include miso, umé, shiso, saké and Japanese shichimi togarashi pepper. Store is closed Sunday and Monday. 15531 Union Ave, Los Gatos; (408) 340-5592.

Mariette Chocolates Old-fashioned is a virtue here, especially when it comes to Mariette’s absolutely adorable family-owned brick-and-mortar shop in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose. Literally, brick lines the exterior; inside, the walls are painted an appealing Tiffany blue with chocolate-colored paint dripping from the trim that lines the white ceiling. It’s just the spot to settle in and mull over what to take home. Closed Mondays. 1268 Lincoln Ave, San Jose; (408) 295-9050.

Shekoh Confections Through two decades in the food business, Shekoh Moossavi worked first as a chef and then a restaurateur before returning to France to study chocolate making at Valrhona. In 2018 she returned back to the Bay Area to create lustrously colorful artisanal chocolates. Build a box online, or visit the store at 2305 El Camino Real, Suite B, Palo Alto; (650) 384-6322.

Snake & Butterfly Chocolate Factory Since 2007, this shop in Campbell has used organic, fair trade cocoa to hand-roasted, hand-pour and hand-wrap bars and confections. The shop also serves gelato and coffee. Using an in-house designer, Snake & Butterfly can also customize confections “for any event, large or small, outlandish or tame.” 1 E Campbell Ave Campbell; (408) 508-4788.

Sweet55 Raised in Switzerland, Ursula Schnyder knows chocolate. Her company works with sustainable Swiss vendors that pay their cacao suppliers above-average prices so that her chocolates can be enjoyed “with a happy heart.” Schnyder pays tribute to her heritage with chocolate bars shaped like a Swiss chalet and an Eiger bonbon created to the precise contour of the face of the real mountain, and she has shops in two cities. Half Moon Bay: 225 Cabrillo Hwy S, Suite 104C. Palo Alto: Town & Country Village, 855 El Camino Real, Suite 123. (650) 440-4330.

Sweet55’s Swiss-inspired treats can be purchased online or at brick-and-mortar shops in Half Moon Bay and Palo Alto.

Timothy Adams Chocolates Everything about this chocolate maker is visually stunning, including the beautiful website—which makes sense, given that one of the partners (Adams Holland) is an interior designer. The other (Timothy Woods) uses couverture chocolate from many sources, including the East Bay’s TCHO to France’s famed Vahlrona, to create 48 distinct truffle flavors. One standout is the Firewater Collection, spiked with cognac, absinthe, nocino and bourbon. 539 Bryant St, Palo Alto; (415) 755-8923.

tinyB Chocolates When Renata Stoica started tinyB in 2016 along with husband Andrei, she brought a taste of her native Brazil to the Bay Area in the form of brigadeiros. These round, bite-sized Brazilian treats can be ordered online for delivery or pickup and come in more than a dozen flavors. 1 S Linden Ave, Unit 5, South San Francisco; (415) 854-0344.

5. Central Coast

Donnelly Fine Chocolates Exquisitely made chocolate has emerged from this storefront in Santa Cruz since 1988. Bars, truffles, ganaches, sea salt caramels, and nut butters are all made fresh in small batches. Most of the treats can be ordered online, but the popular ice cream bars must be purchased in person. 1509 Mission St, Santa Cruz; (831) 458-4214.

It’s fitting that sea salt caramel bars are a best seller at Santa Cruz–based Richard Donnelly Chocolates.

Lula’s Chocolates Fans of See’s classic nuts and chews will also love Lula’s luscious caramels and other classic concoctions. The company’s story is sweet, too: Founder Scott Lund—who moved to Monterey 20 years ago to take advantage of its year-round “chocolate weather”—named Lula’s after his grandmother, a professional chocolatier herself. Visitors can tour the factory (2 Harris Court, Suite B6, Monterey; 831-655-8527) or visit two retail stores.

Twenty-Four Blackbirds Chocolate Cocoa beans from single origin estates, growing co-ops, and plantations are hand-sorted and then roasted to accentuate the flavor characteristics. Ingredients are refined in a stone melangeur, tempered, and molded by hand—always in small batches, and in exquisite packaging. The shop is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, and tours can be booked in advance. 428 E. Haley St, Santa Barbara; (805) 335-9427.

6. Los Angeles County

andSons Chocolatiers When Phil and Marc Covitz took over their mother’s Beverly Hills chocolate shop—known for selling treats from Teuscher, a famed Swiss chocolatier—they modernized its look, feel and taste, bringing in French Laundry alumna Sandy Tran to helm the kitchen. The description of andSons’ Signature Boxes describes the balancing act between the past and the present: “a collection of fine chocolate that spans generations, combining classic European-style ganaches and pralines with modern and inventive hand-painted molded confections.” 9548 Brighton Way, Beverly Hills; (310) 276-2776.

Compartés This veteran chocolate seller opened its doors in the tony Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood back in 1950. But like so many things in L.A., it’s gotten a splashy reboot. Jonathan Grahm, who began working in the shipping department at the age of 15, bought the company when he was 24. “It was a heritage brand that sort of lost its luster but had so much potential. I saw this need to innovate,” Graham told the magazine Iconic Life. The company puts a big emphasis on shipping to consumers, but you can still pick up goodies at the factory. 5735 W Adams Blvd, Los Angeles; (310) 826-3380.

Bar Au Chocolat If surfboard-shaped chocolates and a bar named Polka Dot Bikini weren’t whimsical enough, there’s also the sheer poetry employed by this Manhattan Beach chocolatier in its descriptions of its single-origin bars, cooking chocolate and more. Sample: “What happens next is a little bit mysterious, a little bit romantic, a little bit enchanting.” But the poetry doesn’t end with the product descriptions. The atelier—“a thoughtful and elegant setting”—sounds like a welcoming haven: “Should you spot us at work, please tap on the window to say hello—we would love to greet you with a taste of chocolate.” 326 13th St, Manhattan Beach; (310) 871-9858.

Edelweiss Since 1942, this old-school confectioner has turned out handmade chocolates in a Beverly Hills factory. All treats—nuts, caramels, toffee, marshmallows, truffles, etc.—are made from scratch. Beverly Hills: 444 N Canon Dr; (310) 275-0341. Santa Monica: 225 26th St, Suite 22; (310) 656-0306.

Chokolatta Founders Andrea and Oscar assert that they “created the perfect blend between two cultures by bringing their passions together.” Those passions—Mexican ingredients and Guatemalan coffee—can be enjoyed along with chocolate covered strawberries, Mexican wedding cookies, champagne truffles and more. 5264 Tujunga Ave, North Hollywood; (818) 643-2017.

John Kelly Chocolates In 2004, seasoned entrepreneurs John Kelson and Kelly Green merged their names to create John Kelly Chocolates. As they told Local Food Eater, “that all started when we tasted a friend’s family truffle fudge recipe that was so good we thought we could turn it into a business.” Now they make 19 varieties on the fudge, as well as molded chocolates, salted caramels, chocolate-dipped fruit, and even ruby cacao, a new chocolate variety created by Belgian-Swiss company Barry Callebaut in 2017. Hollywood: 1508 N. Sierra Bonita Ave; (323) 851-3277. Santa Monica: 1111 ½ Montana Ave; (310) 899-0900.

Los Angeles–based John Kelly Chocolate offers its designer bar in dark, milk and ruby cacao chocolate.

Letterpress Chocolate It’s all about bean-to-bar here—dark bars, white chocolate bars, flavored (amaranth, mint, chili and more), and 100% cacao sweetened with monk fruit. Also available for purchase: a gift card to tour the chocolate factory—shaped like a golden ticket, naturally, and with no expiration date. The retail store, open daily except Monday, is at 2835 S Robertson Blvd, Los Angeles; (424) 240-8580.

Milla Chocolates A cosmopolitan past and a background in the visual arts helped chocolatier Christine Sull Sarioz create a sophisticated café in Culver City, rich with gold tones and matte black surfaces, to showcase her chocolates. “I’m Korean, my husband is Turkish, and I’ve lived in Paris, New York and Italy,” she told LA Downtowner, which described her confections as “elaborate works of architecture, layered with flavors.” 9414 Venice Blvd, Culver City; (310) 876-1021.

Valerie Confections Valerie Gordon and Stan Weightman Jr. started Valerie Confections in 2004, selling six flavors of hand-dipped toffee out of their Los Angeles apartment. Now they sell truffles, chocolates, petits fours and more out of a store in the Echo Park neighborhood and a 5,000-square-foot bakery, shipping operation and retail chocolate shop in Glendale. Bakery and Chocolate Shop: 1936 W Glenoaks Blvd, Glendale; (213) 739-8149. Valerie Echo Park: 1665 Echo Park Ave, Los Angeles; (213) 250-9365.

7. San Diego County

The flavor profile of Chuao’s chocolate bars runs the gamut from sweet to savory. Find them at the “joy factory” in Carlsbad.

Chuao Chocolatier Venezuelan chocolatier Michael Antonorsi started off in 2002 with a single boutique in Encinitas selling chocolate bars, bonbons, truffles and drinking chocolate—including the Spicy Maya, a twist on an ancient Mayan recipe with cinnamon, chile and cayenne. Now Chuao bars can often be found in upscale emporia like Whole Foods, or visit Chuao’s shop on weekdays. 2350 Camino Vida Roble, Suite 101, Carlsbad; (760) 814-6200.

Dahllmann Confections Born into a family of Austrian chocolate makers, Isabella Knack moved to San Diego and opened her family’s first retail shop in 2011. Though the pandemic drove Dallmann’s online, the chocolates are still produced locally—including chocolates to pair with wine or beer, and the Mozartkugel, a ball of pistachio marzipan covered in nougat made from pistachios, hazelnuts, and almonds, and then dipped in chocolate. (800) 510-1557.


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