The Bay Area needs no further praise when it comes to recognition for its food innovators, and the region’s chocolate all-stars carry that torch — whether it be the trendy new kids on the block or a Berkeley business that’s been elevating vegan chocolates for more than 15 years. In the Paris of the West itself, there are plenty of options, and San Francisco’s history of chocolate is no less tantalizing.
But there are those who discovered the sweet bug later in life, after a first or second career, and despite the gatekeeping that high-end confectioneries often perpetuate. So take a look at these five chocolatiers on the rise, and get a sense of the chocolate they make, where they’re headed, and the journeys they took before their forays into this sweet scene.
About 15 years ago, Dalia Burde made truffles as holiday gifts for a few friends. But after seeing how much machinery and overhead would be required, Burde put a pin in the idea of roasting her own cacao beans. Then, in 2009, a coworker told her about Ecole Chocolat classes. A year later, Burde decided to get her first melanger, a chocolate bean grinder used to make bars. Getting started wasn’t easy, and, frankly, making chocolate is hard. She’s roasted in her kitchen and winnowed on her Outer Sunset deck, with chocolate husks scattered all over the place. But the fun in the work makes it worthwhile. “I think there’s a reason it was called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and not Charlie and anything else,” Burde says.
Burde’s Little Burde chocolate bars are tiny rectangles, maybe two-thirds the size of a Snickers bar. Her Outer Sunset-made bars are featured at Other Avenues, a co-op grocery store, and the staff there loved them enough to elect them a “worker favorite” item. “Their taking the bar gave me the confidence to try a little more,” Burde says. Her chocolates have since earned space at Bi Rite, The Mill, Andytown Coffee, and Solage, an upscale resort in Calistoga. All that growth, and it’s still just Burde and her colleague, Julia Netzer, who worked at Josey Baker Bread and was an intern at Burde’s first business, a design agency called Avocados and Coconuts. Burde’s chocolate is available at select shops throughout the Bay Area and online.
Kimberly Yang and her phantasmagoric chocolates have been highlighted by the Michelin Guide, Bon Appétit, and, most recently, KTVU. But before all that, she worked as a psychiatrist. Yang came to the Bay from Oklahoma in 2014 to work at Kaiser Permanente. She began making chocolate — her “expensive hobby” — but quickly became obsessed with flavor combinations and designs. She quit her job that year, deciding to either find a new one or start a chocolate company. She ended up doing the latter, launching Formosa in 2018 and garnering praise for her punchy bonbons, made in flavors like honey cinnamon and banana caramel. “You’re only in your 30s once,” Yang says. “It’s a physically demanding profession, so I thought I better try it now.”
She needed to build a website and step up her photography and social media games. Thankfully, she learned that and more — and even enjoyed the process. Her skills in tango, another “great love” of hers, have come into play; her friends and dance classmates pitch in to work at pop-ups as servers with silver platters, making Formosa seem like a ritzy operation. A shop, hopefully, is not too far down the road. In June 2022 she launched her first bars, looking beyond just truffles and bonbons. She works in a warm facility in the East Bay, though, so production is limited to nighttime hours. “If your readers are night owls and want to make chocolate, send them my way,” Yang says, with a laugh. One might encounter her chocolate at events throughout the area, but it’s always available online.
David Upchurch Chocolates
Discovering fine chocolate in Paris at 32 years old, was, for David Upchurch, the beginning of the end of his architecture career. So, once he was let go from his job in January 2009 (thanks to the Great Recession) he went to City College for the pastry and baking program. “It was on a lark,” Upchurch says.
Doors started opening. He apprenticed at Saratoga Springs’ Saratoga Chocolates and spent five years at Recchiuti Confections back in the Bay. In 2017, he launched his eponymous business and, slowly, he learned about sourcing and saw what his creations could do to make a better supply chain. Since then, it’s been fine-grade chocolate only; because of the precision process and competition in specialty chocolate, he still feels there’s a lot for him to learn as far as pricing and business practices.
Now 58, Upchurch shows no signs of slowing down. He’s been hitting the Stonestown farmers market for about two years and has taken to selling inclusion bars, chocolate bars with added flavors or ingredients. He wants to keep creating truffles that demonstrate his point of view and who he is as a person; as a queer man, for example, Upchurch celebrates queer pride through his work. A storefront someday is the dream — he lights up at the idea, which is especially stimulating for his architect brain. “That’s where the fun is,” Upchurch adds. Find him selling chocolate at the Stonestown mall, Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
In March 2022, Mindy Fong opened her chocolate shop and tea lounge, Jade Chocolates, in the oldest building in Chinatown. “Lots of nice surprises when we opened up the walls,” Fong says.
She spent her childhood in the Richmond District and worked as an architect before foraying into chocolate. Her mother’s family is Filipino and her father is Chinese; her paternal grandfather came to San Francisco to open numerous liquor stores and shops. “I feel like I have his spirit in me,” Fong says. “I use chocolate as a medium for my art and to promote my culture.” She got into the game when craft chocolate was still up and coming, about 12 years ago, as Scharffen Berger brought a winemaker’s sensibilities to Bay Area chocolate. She took a trip to Sedona, Arizona, to meditate on her approach: She wanted a flavor profile and name to represent her family and represent her. Mango, tea, and rice all came to mind, as did the name Jade Chocolates. She says she liked the name because jade is an “auspicious symbol for a lot of Asian cultures.” Moreover, her first piece of jewelry was a heart necklace from her grandmother, made entirely of jade. Fong landed on flavor combinations like the Dragon’s Breath bar, with 65 percent bittersweet chocolate, Lapsang souchong tea, and ground red chile, and tiny Buddha heads of peanut butter and mango jam. Try her chocolate at the Chinatown shop, or buy a bar or three online.
Charlotte Walter knew she wanted to live an entrepreneurial life when the company she worked for was acquired twice in the same year. Her husband asked her, “If this isn’t a sign, then what is?” She lives in Santa Clara and was a manufacturing processing engineer for about 12 years before making the turn to confections. In 2016, she got her first taste of the sweet life by starting her chocolate company, Charlotte Truffles, after a number of years making chocolate goodies for friends and family as gifts.
Her Instagram page is a mosaic of TikTok videos and photos of the multicolored chocolate production process (and eating process) — a Gen Z dream come true. As an Indonesian American, she highlights flavors few other companies can; her Putu Bambu bonbon, combining gula jawa and pandan, showcases the street food sensibilities Walter remembers from her childhood. “I wanted to fold our story and our culture into it,” Walter says. “And people just love it.”
Thanks to money from her first career, and clever collaborations with fellow South Bay businesses like Chromatic Coffee, Walter is able to bootstrap most of the business herself. Things are looking good, especially now that she’s completed an accelerator of sorts with the ICA Fund, the money from which allows her to use her first commercial kitchen. “Our vision is to celebrate each individual story,” Walter says. “What better way to do that than with food that connects with them on a deeper level?” Try her chocolates by finding her at the Menlo Park farmers market, Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., or by purchasing online.