Chocolate, The San Francisco Treat
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's go next to San Francisco, a city known for high tech start-ups and chocolate, like Ghirardelli, one of the oldest American chocolates. Couldn't have been long before the two traditions melted together, and reporter Cyrus Farivar has the story of a high-tech chocolate start-up.
CYRUS FARIVAR: There's many legends of tech companies being started in garages. But substitute a San Francisco pier house for a Silicon Valley garage and you've got TCHO. Here lies the company's new, 20,000-square-foot factory on Pier 17.
Mr. TIMOTHY CHILDS (Co-founder, TCHO): So what are we doing?
FARIVAR: Inside, Timothy Childs, one of the company's founders and the chief chocolate officer, shows me around the Flavor Lab. It's a small room with some kitchenware and a touchscreen computer just adjacent to the main factory floor.
Mr. CHILDS: What I'm going to do right now is - I've got this Ronco turkey roaster, I'm going to load some beans into it, I'm going to put it in the roaster right now and shut the door, turn it on, fire it up.
(Soundbite of clanging)
FARIVAR: Got that? He's using a turkey roaster to heat up these cacao beans.
(Soundbite of stirring)
Mr. CHILDS: So that's the sound of about 1.7 kilos of beans going around in this heated roaster.
FARIVAR: Then the beans are shelled and crushed and thrown in this refiner.
(Soundbite of machine)
Mr. CHILDS: Basically two granite wheels going on other granite. And I'm slowly dumping in these nibs. (Unintelligible) running some heat on top of it. So in about, say, in seven or eight minutes, it's going to start breaking out into a nice paste. And that's how we're making a transfer from being a nib into a cocoa paste.
FARIVAR: That grinder is actually a spice grinder, used in Indian cooking. TCHO says by repurposing these kitchen tools, it saves the company a lot of money.
Mr. CHILDS: This is kind of indicative of who we are. We're kind of scrappy. Even though we're not a start-up anymore, we kind of have a start-up mentality, applying it to an old-school system.
FARIVAR: But having a start-up mentality isn't the only tech element to TCHO. Childs also shows me an iPhone application to monitor this very room. Childs himself has a background in tech. He's a former visualization engineer at a nearby NASA facility. He partnered with Louis Rossetto, a founder of Wired magazine, to start TCHO nearly two years ago. Rossetto says they're using technology to help their farmers worldwide to track optimal growing conditions.
Mr. LOUIS ROSSETTO (Co-founder, Wired Magazine): And we do that by actually installing sensory labs in-country. We link those labs via Internet to our own servers back here and our own database. And we track with them the fermentation and drawing.
FARIVAR: Then if they have a good or bad batch of cacao beans, they can look at the data and see what conditions created that result. But for all the high-tech wizardry, the question is: does this more expensive chocolate taste any good?
I met Julia Garcia(ph) and Mark Farrelli(ph) at Ghirardelli Square. They're visiting from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I asked them to pit TCHO's chocolate against Ghirardelli's.
Ms. JULIA GARCIA: Good, smooth - dark, obviously. Not as much bitterness, a little more sweetness to it.
Mr. MARK FARRELLI: About the same, not as much bitter, a little more sweet, but a little more like milk chocolate, as opposed to that's more like dark chocolate.
FARIVAR: It's not exactly a scientific test, but the majority of the taste testers I spoke with on this day rated TCHO higher than Ghirardelli. Still, Ghirardelli's Mona Mayer(ph) says the company isn't worried about the competition.
Ms. MONA MAYER (Ghirardelli Chocolate): I think it's just a different approach to chocolate making. It's really up to the consumer to decide what she loves.
FARIVAR: And soon, TCHO may be competing for another group of consumers. The company is talking about using its product in a chocolate stout beer.
For NPR News, I'm Cyrus Farivar, San Francisco.