Strange Monday sun strikes Liholiho Yacht Club’s former Tendernob space, as Simon Brown molds chocolate into small paintings. Scant light slides onto a long marble table as he packs creams and fruits into chocolate cases. Operating out the restaurant’s cerulean leather-encased private lounge, which has now been converted into a mini chocolate lab, Brown and his best friend Beau Monroe, resident designer and cat painter, make confections that will blow your mind.
Of course everyone says that about the stuff they like — “this new Metallica album will blow your mind.” But Brown and Monroe are on another level when it comes to outlandish treats, pushing flavor and design to an unmatched level. Balsamic jam truffles. Coconut passionfruit chocolate bars that look like blown glass. Scotch and porcini mushroom chocolates designed to evoke a riverbed. As the founders and co-owners of Topogato, a new San Francisco chocolate company, the two are poised to make chocolate history — even if all they want to do is be a modern chocolate company.
Brown, who comes to the Bay by way of his birth city of Albuquerque and spent time in Vermont, is Italian American and learned chocolate-making from some of the best in Europe. Monroe is a Santa Barbara boy.
They’ve been friends since 2007 when they met on the street outside of the apartment building where they both lived. Brown was laid off from steering pastries at Linkedin in March 2020. Monroe, unfortunately, had decided to become a freelance designer that January. “I lost all my clients, all that stuff,” Monroe said. “We were in a quarantine bubble not doing anything. Then we realized we needed to survive.”
In the back of the now-vacant Liholiho space on Sutter (the restaurant having relocated temporarily to the Mission) and down a set of stairs, lies Louie’s Gen-Gen Room, now home to Topogato. Pots and pans stained with sugar litter the floor and topple out of too-full boxes. Two guys, one in a Counter Culture shirt and the other in an Oakland Surf Club tee, stand amidst the beautiful wreck. They joke that they are the bad boys of chocolate. “Everything else just looks like you’d give it to your grandma,” Monroe said.
When it came to naming the business, the two wanted something fancy sounding. “We thought Topogato is fun because it’s like cat and mouse,” Monroe said. “And that’s how we work together.” (Though to see the two finish each other’s sentences and maneuver around their tiny chocolate factory you wouldn’t think the relationship is adversarial.)
They started creating chocolate magic in August 2020. They would toy around in their apartment kitchens, kicking ideas back and forth. And they’d make runs to their comfort spots to refuel: Chili’s lava cake is Monroe’s vice, while Brown has a penchant for Trolli sour gummy worms. Inspirations on the fancy end include Temescal Brewing for design, and French desserts for their sweetness. Somewhere in all of the experimenting — and reminding themselves what fills their cups — they found the confidence to carry on.
In October 2020 they moved into their current space. Brown is a longtime friend and former employee of Liholiho Yacht Club owner Ravi Kapur. The deal was the two could use the space so long as Liholiho could sell the chocolates as to-go items during the pandemic shutdown. In short order, when things began to re-open, Topogato was a feature on the dessert menu. The sales were spectacular enough that the two paid rent for about five months.
That said, they’re not sure what it is that has led them ahead of the pack. Brown credits the marketing and branding, Monroe’s side of the business. Monroe turns it all back to Brown’s product: “People say it is beautiful,” Monroe said. “They’re like ‘This shit looks crazy.’”
The two decided there was a future in Topogato, and set out to raise $10,000 for a chocolate tempering machine. To avoid taking on outside investors, they turned to Kickstarter. They exceeded their goal and raised $55,000, even being featured on the website’s homepage. “I think that’s why we’re still here,” Monroe said. Brown agrees. “To do large-scale chocolate production we needed this machine,” Brown said. “By hand is too small potatoes.”
Monroe does remind Brown that, for the first six months, he was hand tempering the chocolate. Soft-spoken, Brown demures. This is key to their success: the process and outcomes are immaculate. “You can always learn more,” Brown said in reply to all the gas.
Brown, a Sir Francis Drake and Battery Hotel alum, is indeed modest, his arms tattooed in art like that which he creates. His espresso toffee bar straight up goes hard. The strawberry almond chocolate bar – though perhaps flute is a better description since it doesn’t look like a bar – is light and jammy. The pistachio hibiscus truffle is something one might expect the royalty in Dune to enjoy after their fantastical dinner, a lush swirl of pink and green composing a tiny pyramid.
As for the future, the duo isn’t convinced brick-and-mortar is smart anymore. They’ve bought their machines and now the money is back to being month-to-month, so rent isn’t doable. That said they love popups and wish that SF had two more Ferry Buildings. “We’re in this interesting space,” Monroe said. “We want to be a San Francisco company in whatever San Francisco becomes. How do we adapt with the world?”