In 2006, Daniel Korson was experimenting in a tiny San Francisco apartment kitchen above Alamo Square Park. He was fascinated with chocolate and sweets that were stripped down to the essentials: scraped cacao, all organic, just the plants and pods. He had no idea at the time that his tinkering would eventually become Coracao Chocolate, the plant-based chocolate company he still runs today and one of the pioneers of the growing vegan chocolate market in the Bay Area.
More than a decade later, it continues to be a good time for chocolate in the Bay Area. The historic corporate chocolatier Ghirardelli is doubling down on its sugary waterfront fantasia by bringing in the team who constructed the Apple stores to give its shops a facelift. TCHO, a popular Berkley-based chocolate maker, has launched a new line of vegan chocolates, which taste and feel like an Oatly mocha melded into a solid bar. And Brian Wallace, a handsome East Bay entrepreneur who trained with Ecole Chocolat, has gained massive success since he launched Endorfin Chocolates in 2013 out of Oakland, his “chocolate alchemy” now selling in nearly 700 stores throughout the country. (There are three in Canada, too.)
But Korson has been doing the work from way back. He is the Bay Area’s first chocolatier considering confections for everyone, regardless of allergies or dietary restrictions. His chocolate has always been devoid of refined sugar, milk, butter, processed milk powder, soy lecithin, and other common fillers. They’re so popular these days the company has expanded from Oakland to a factory in Richmond.
Korson began his path to chocolate wizardry while traveling in Southeast Asia as a teenager; during his trip, he picked up an intestinal bug that ravaged his body for a few years before any medical professional could name the infection. He’d always been a fan of sweets — the classics: Snickers, Reese’s Pieces — since he was a kid growing up in San Francisco. But when the doctors told him he’d have to give up refined sugar, dairy, and gluten, the on-and-off-again veganism he’d practiced since he was a kid became a more vital part of his routine. “The illness was pretty unpleasant,” Korson says.
But in 2008, while he was working as a pastry chef at Cafe Gratitude in its Mission District commissary kitchen, he encountered the raw cacao pod for the first time. When the company put out a request for pastry chefs across their Bay Area locations (which have now since closed) to launch a chocolate arm of the company, Korson was the first and only person to respond. He and his former business partner, another chef at Gratitude, fell in love with chocolate. “I had this a-ha moment,” Korson says. “Could I make these treats for people who are allergen-sensitive like myself?” The ingredients at Cafe Gratitude were top-notch: Raw coconut, chocolate liquor from origin, and whole vanilla beans that were, at the time, not typical finds in grocery store chocolate. “It was like a test market,” Korson says. “They did really well.”
Gratitude’s chocolates weren’t tempered, though, meaning they would melt if out of the fridge for very long. So when Korson and his co-founder brought home their ideas to that kitchen in the Western Addition, they not only tempered their chocolates, but also found a fan of their work at a pre-Amazon-owned Whole Foods. “We were the first true startup to get a Local Producer loan,” Korson says. Whole Foods would later only give those loans to entrepreneurs already selling in Whole Foods stores. Coracao Chocolate’s loan, however, gave the business the chance to get off the ground without being an established brand first. Korson thanks the regional “Local Forager” at the time, Harvin Singh. “He’s an unsung hero,” Korson says.
In the beginning, they sold the chocolate bars in little candy cases across Whole Foods’ bakery departments in Northern California; the company didn’t even have packaging then. Korson realized after a few years, though, that the placement in the bakery department didn’t make sense as a location for their candies. Using funds they garnered from their Whole Foods venture, they pooled money for packaging, and the rest is history.
“The response has always been positive,” Korson says. “At first people said our chocolate was grainy, but that’s because they were used to processed sweets. That’s changed.” He knew he had made it when he shared one of Coracao’s Coconut Almond Dreams, its take on an Almond Joy, with notable Bay Area-based food expert and author Michael Pollan. The Berkeley food prophet emailed Korson to tell him he loved the riff on Almond Joys.
Korson cites the polarizing nature of labeling items “vegan” as a challenge the business has faced in its growth journey. The company has cycled through different language phases: using “vegan,” “plant-based,” and “dairy-free” at different points and for different reasons. Marketing-wise, Korson says, “plant-based” seems to be the most popular term these days. Oatly is the major example, inspiring a near-avalanche of businesses to make plant-based spins on their best-selling products.
Looking at the chocolate market in the Bay, Korson sees dark chocolate continuing to grow. While Coracao is bringing sweeter chocolates into its lineup — it offered 80 percent or darker for most of its products historically — he notes that Dandelion Chocolate’s most popular bars have always been plant-based by default. The ultra-clean, minimalist candy bar is more popular than ever. “It really resonates with allergen-sensitive people and ethically conscious foodies,” Korson says.