San Francisco: Dandelion Chocolate
Words & Photographs by Joanna Han
We head to the Mission District to visit small-batch chocolate company Dandelion Chocolate.
Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring never dreamed they’d be running a chocolate factory. The Stanford graduates come from computer science backgrounds and spent their initial post-college years working in the tech industry. We ask Todd a few questions about their space, which triples as a coffee shop, chocolate shop and factory in a busy part of popular Valencia Street.
How did Dandelion Chocolate come about?
Originally Cameron and I were just playing around with cocoa beans in a friend’s garage, roasting them up to see what flavors we could get. Within a few months, we shared our creations with friends and family and were overwhelmed by the response. They encouraged us to make more chocolate and share it widely. We started going to local markets and seeing what strangers thought. Again we were blown away by the response and realized we needed to turn this into a company.
What kinds of beverages do you serve?
We serve Four Barrel coffee drinks as well as chocolate specialty drinks like European drinking chocolate, house hot chocolate and the Mission hot chocolate, which is a spicy, foamy hot chocolate with almonds and Mexican spices. It’s very popular and delicious. In fact, they’re all quite delicious. The most unique drink is our cacao smoothie, which is a cold beverage made from the pulp of the cacao plant and we’re probably the only place serving it. It’s refreshing and tastes a little like lychees.
Can you tell us about your pastry menu?
We have a wonderful pastry chef, Lisa Vega, who makes fresh pastries daily for our café. Our current menu includes a brownie flight, each made with one of our current single-origin chocolates. It’s unique and really interesting to taste the distinct chocolate flavors in each brownie. We also offer a dulce de leche bar, a nibby scone, nib toffee brittle, nutella cookie (with homemade nutella), fresh s’mores and a chocolate malt cookie. Lisa also changes the menu seasonally, and currently we’re selling a crème fraîche cheesecake with blood orange gelée and candied kumquats.
Can you briefly go over the chocolate-making process?
Our process starts with finding great tasting cacao and doing as little to it as possible to bring out the best flavors. We lightly roast the beans then crack and winnow them to create nibs. Once we have nibs, we grind them down and put them into a melanger, a spinning bowl with a stone bottom and stone rollers which crushes the cacao, then add sugar. We leave the melangers running for about three days, tasting the chocolate periodically for flavor and consistency. Once the chocolate is ready, we form it into bars using a tempering process to ensure the perfect texture, including the all-important snap of the bar.
Do you make trips to growing regions to source beans yourself? What kind of relationship do you have with the farms at origin?
We strive to visit all of the origins of our beans, and in some cases we start working with the cacao to ensure it is something we are excited for before making the trip there—in other cases, we need to visit a country to find sources of good cacao in the first place. The relationships with the farms vary as much as the farms themselves. Some of our cacao comes from larger farms while others come from co-ops and still others from small businesses that buy freshly picked cacao and ferment and dry it themselves. We’re dedicated to ensuring that each person in the value chain is receiving appropriate compensation, especially the farmers.
How is a bar of chocolate from Dandelion different from chocolate from a larger industrial company?
The difference between a small-batch producer and a large industrial one is mostly a question of priorities. The large guys—and this is how it has been for the past few decades—focus on consistency and low cost. It’s a miracle of industrialization that an industrial bar can be so inexpensive and taste the same everywhere, but that comes from using lower quality beans, roasting them very heavily and adding flavors or flavor maskers. We take the opposite approach: We source some of the best beans, roast and process them very lightly and only add a little bit of sugar. This way we can highlight the individual nuances of each bean.
Do chocolates made with beans from different growing regions taste noticeably different from each other?
Absolutely! There are four main factors that go into the flavor of cacao: genetics, terroir (similarly to wine, the local environment heavily impacts flavor), fermentation (where many of the actual flavors develop) and drying. Each of these can be tuned individually. We’ve tried amazing examples of beans tasting dramatically different (from strong chocolate flavor into sweet fruity flavors) just by a change in the fermentation. We try to create a set of flavors that complement each other and highlight the flavor from the actual bean itself. One of the best compliments we’ve received is when a farmer could identify the chocolate made with the beans they’ve grown—it means we’ve retained much of the original character that made that bean unique.
The layout of your space allows guests to see the whole production process. What other considerations did you take in designing and building the café and factory area?
Since even self-proclaimed chocoholics often don’t know much about chocolate, we wanted our space to also be educational. We’ve put everything on display. You can come in, get a hot chocolate and watch the entire process from bean to bar. We even offer classes about chocolate and trips to origin. We’ve had customers visit us because they like brownies, who have now traveled to Belize with us and have become chocolate experts in their own right.
Your chocolate bars are packaged so nicely that they’re almost too nice to open. What was the inspiration behind the branding and aesthetic of your company? Where does the name Dandelion come from?
We felt like there were many fancy chocolate shops making jewelry store chocolate. We wanted to create a business and space that was warm and approachable, something that was still beautiful and thoughtful, but without any pretension or unnecessary ornamentation. We felt like the name was a nice mix of childhood nostalgia and was beautiful without being fancy and captured our upstart vibe.
What kind of workshops and classes you host?
We offer a monthly Chocolate 101 class, which is an all-around introduction to chocolate. Chocolate 201 is where you can make your own small batch of chocolate. We also have free tours a few times a week at our factory, and events around holidays such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. We have a lot going on. Finally, our Chocolate 301 is a trip to a cacao-growing region. It’s open to the public and our next trip to Belize is sold out!
Why did you decide to open in the Mission District?
We felt like the Mission, and 18th and Valencia in particular, was sort of ground zero for food in the city. We’re surrounded by amazing places including Four Barrel, Craftsman & Wolves, Bi-Rite Market/Creamery, Tartine and Mission Cheese and we feel right at home here.
Anything exciting on the horizon for Dandelion?
We’re getting ready to open up a kiosk in the Ferry Building and are now trying to figure out ways to expand. We’re maxed out on our current production capacity and have a waiting list for chocolate that’s larger than our customer list!
740 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110