Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
[Photo: Aubrie Pick]
One of only two operating chocolate factories located within city limits, Dandelion Chocolate is the bean-to-bar baby of former tech entrepreneurs Cameron Ring and Todd Masonis. Upon opening last November, the all-in-one chocolate shop-factory-café began selling its bars alongside hot chocolate, cacao smoothies, and pastries from a rotating cast of pop-up pastry chefs. In September, the crew acquired a permanent pastry chef, Lisa Vega, to expand the dessert program. Eater recently caught up with Ring and Masonis over hot chocolate to discuss meeting consumer demand while selling out of 10,000 chocolate bars every month, the opening of a new kiosk at the Ferry Building, and their expansion plans for the future.
You're one year into this space, how has it been?
Todd Masonis: For me, I felt like we got really good at making chocolate people enjoy and making the space more lively, and this year was really about getting the café open as well. People want their hot chocolate in a minute, and we had to learn how to work faster and develop recipes. When we built the space, we didn't know if more than a few people were going to come in every day to buy bars and then a few would get hot chocolate. But it turns out that we sell a lot of hot chocolate.
How many hot chocolates do you sell in a day?
Cameron Ring: Across all the different types, we sell about 300.
TM: This year, we sold 40,000 drinks, and most of the time, we weren't even open.
CR: For the first 10 months, we were only open Wednesday-Sunday, and we just recently added Monday and Tuesday and later hours. My favorite thing about this last year has been being able to interact directly with people consuming chocolate. We created this space to put the chocolate-making on display, and to share that with people. It's been amazing to see people try the hot chocolate, say it was really good, and then be confused why our kitchen is so big. And they go on a tour and say, wait, that's a cacao pod, those are cocoa beans? And what are those machines? So, to see people go through the different processes and get excited about it like we are, has definitely been my favorite thing.
You're a small operation. How have you risen to meet that level of demand?
TM: It was difficult.
CR: One of the biggest challenges we have is that we source cocoa beans in small quantities, directly from farmers. And great farmers don't produce that much great cacao. So we're always having to work on the next set of great beans. One of the things we've been working on this year is building enough relationships with farmers that we can always have a great supply of beans. Because if you don't have great beans, there's nothing you can do to make great chocolate.
The second part is, once you have those great beans, how do you turn them into great chocolate? And how do you turn it into great drinks in a timely manner, for the right customer experience? A lot of this year has been about building out the right team that are as passionate about making great chocolate as we are from every step, whether it's bars or ganache or drinks.
Speaking of new people on your team, you recently brought on a new pastry chef with an impressive pedigree. When you first started off the café, you were doing mostly a guest pastry chef series. What made you decide that it was time to have more a complete pastry program?
CR: I think Todd was probably going to die.
TM: [Chuckles.] Well, we always want the pastries and hot chocolates to highlight the chocolate that we make. The hard part was that every week was like starting a new company. It would be Wednesday and we'd be like, okay, you have one hour to get pastries out. It felt like one of those cooking competition shows, like Chopped or something. It was like saying, you have one hour to fill the pastry case, and here's the chocolate, but it doesn't work like normal chocolate. Some people handled it very calmly, and some people freaked out. Every week was totally different. I think the customers really liked it. After a while, though, we decided we wanted to have a more consistent program.
CR: We didn't want people to burn out and have it not be sustainable. The pop-ups were great for exploring different styles of options, from restaurant-style plating to ooey-gooey things you would make at home. But the other big downside to those pop-ups is that you get to throw a lot of darts, but you don't get to improve a lot of things consistently over time. We have some chocolates that have great flavors, but they are more challenging to unlock. So, by building a pastry team, rather than having a new one every week, they can take the time to explore the chocolate and find something that really works.
What made your chocolate so different that pop-ups had trouble working with it?
CR: Since we're just making chocolate with cocoa beans and sugar, and we're not adding any extra fat or emulsifiers that change the viscosity, it has a very different fat profile. In the past, we had beans that came with a lot of fat, which weren't as viscous, but there is always a variability. So there's both the technical aspects of working with the chocolate, tempering point and viscosity, and then there's the flavor profile. Very big, bold flavors may be too much for some people. Or, you can use certain chocolates for the wrong application. If you put Madagascar in a brownie, it may not taste as chocolatey as you want it. Or maybe that fruity acidity is exactly what you're looking for.
I think some people think if you put chocolate into something, you'll get something chocolatey out. But if you make brownies with our chocolate, it could not have enough fat, so you would need to supplement. Or, it could have more fat, because you're used to using chocolate that is artificially lower in viscosity due to the soy lecithin. Ultimately, it's just always a little bit different.
Have has your new pastry chef adapted to your type of chocolate, which is likely quite different from the chocolate she used in fine dining?
CR: I thinks she has been able to learn the different characteristics to the different chocolates we have and adapt recipes by adjusting viscosity and flavor profiles.
TM: She also has some items on the menu like the brownie bite flight, made with three types of chocolate, which are delicious but also educational. That's one of the benefits of having a permanent pastry program. She's able to develop recipes.
What have been some other challenges you've encountered in your first year?
TM: Things break a lot, especially around machines. A lot of the chocolate machinery has been repurposed or built by us, and we push it to its limit because of our unique type of chocolate. So we're constantly fixing machines. And there are other things that break that we never thought would. One day, we had so much chocolate that our pipes solidified with chocolate.
No they didn't.
TM: Yes, we had to shut down the café.
Wow. How did this happen?
TM: We made so much hot chocolate that some didn't get caught in the grease trap. Now we know to maintain these things.
CR: And we have a schedule of when to clean it. But we had to learn the hard way.
TM: And most people aren't making metric tons of hot chocolate. It's kind of funny now…
CR: In retrospect, when the grease trap was open, and I was shoulder-deep in grease, it was a little less funny then.
I noticed you have about three types of chocolate in rotation. In the coming year, do you anticipate having more chocolates available at one time?
CR: Yes, that's something Todd is always pushing for. There are a couple of challenges that go into that. We put a lot of work into developing the flavor profile of each bar. So every time we switch to a new set of beans, we have to redo all the profile stuff. At the same time, we absolutely want to have more bars. We have our three main bars on the shelf, which we try to have for a while, and they're the ones we wholesale. Then, we have our limited edition bars, which we have a limited supply and produce when we have the time, like our 85% bar or our Papua New Guinea Bar.
Todd had mentioned to me before the interview that your current supply level cannot meet the demands of your consumers. Are you working to reconcile that?
CR: It's been a problem for most of the last two years. One of the challenges when we were developing this space is that we didn't know how much demand there would be. We also didn't know how much we could produce here. The current production capacity in this space is pretty maxed out. So if we want to scale up production, we need to find another production facility. We're still trying to figure out how much we want to produce.
Are you currently looking for another space?
TD: We just started looking.
How many bars do you produce a week?
CR: We make about 10,000 bars a month, so about 2,500 bars a week. That's bars that are packaged and ready to go. That doesn't include any of the ground chocolate for pastries and hot chocolate. We make about 1.2 metric tons of chocolate for bars and the café a month.
Where are you sourcing cacao from next?
TD: Liberia is probably the next place. They're on the water now. When the beans actually ship, that is a great accomplishment. We had also been working with some farms in Colombia, trying to get beans for over a year. But a bunch of the elders in the village got run out by the FARC rebels. And that messed up all the shipments, because none of the trucks wanted to go into the village. The elders had ripped up the coca plant to replace with cacao, and that didn't make the rebels very happy. The hope is that we'll still get the beans.
In terms of expanding, are you looking into any outlets?
CR: It's not just production we want to expand. We are going to be opening a kiosk at the Ferry Building, and we're really excited about it. We're hoping to roast a little bit of cacao there, and have some bars and treats, and maybe hot chocolate.
Tell us about the chocolate-making classes you've hosted here.
TM: We view the classes as part of the education. But the education starts when someone walks in the door. When many people walk in, they are very confused. They see chocolate and have no idea what's going on. We view it as an ongoing conversation. If the first time they come in, all they do is eat a brownie, that's awesome. Then, the second time they come in, they try the three types of chocolate, and walk along the bar and ask what's going on. Then, the third time they come in and take a tour, then take chocolate 101 and learn about all kinds of chocolate. At chocolate 201, they learn how to actually make chocolate at home from the bean. Then with 301 and 302, they go to travel and origin. And the classes have been very successful. They pretty much always sell out. A few people have done the whole progression now and know a lot about chocolate.
CR: The goal of the classes was really to share the chocolate story that we fell in love with. And there's really no better way than to physically make it or taste it, or look at different machinery, or go to a farm and taste their chocolate.
Do you find that a lot of people are confused when they walk in the door?
CR: I think that pretty much everyone who walks in the door for the first time is confused. And I think that confusion is actually an opportunity. When someone is walking by, they are categorizing everything they see. When they walk in, they see that it's a chocolate shop, but something is different. It has a smell. There's a bunch of space dedicated to who knows what. And there's the opportunity to share more of what we're doing. It's a chocolate shop. It's a café. It's a chocolate factory.
TM: Early on, it was mostly us asking people to try samples. Now, it's mostly people who know what's going on, bringing their friends, telling them our story and telling them about the machines. So it's fun to see our customers learn more about chocolate, and become evangelists and friends.