Stories of startups that launch out of Silicon Valley garages have become the stuff of legend, particularly in the tech industry. HP. Apple. Google. But when most people think of the proverbial beginnings of Silicon Valley startups, it usually conjures images of circuits, motherboards or Web sites.
What doesn’t spring to mind is chocolate.
And yet that is how Dandelion Chocolate (now located in San Francisco) was born. Dandelion was started in a Palo Alto garage in 2010 by Todd Masonis and Cameron (Cam) Ring, both of whom came from tech backgrounds as the former founders of a company called Proxo, which was sold to Comcast in 2008. Two years later, another alum of the tech industry, Greg D’Alesandre joined Dandelion as a third partner, having come from Google with a similar vision of creating a bean-to-bar chocolate business.
This is his story.
Greg originally became interested in chocolate as a electrical engineering student at Brown when he found a book on truffles on the college bookstore discount rack selling for $1. Greg was one of those students that “didn’t want to spend all of his time doing nothing but engineering,” so cooking became a creative outlet for him. When he realized truffles were far easier to make than they look, he was hooked. Because he had access to lab equipment, he experimented with making liquid nitrogen truffles and, since he was in college, he naturally wanted to put more alcohol in his ganache than recipes called for, he said. Using liquid nitrogen allowed what would have been very goopy ganache for truffles with “extra” alcohol to set properly.
Greg’s chocolate making skills eventually evolved to the point where he not only began making truffles for friends’ weddings, but he also won a “Men Who Cook” competition in his early 20s for a chocolate dessert he made. Since then chocolate has been an integral part of his life, gradually becoming the path he wanted to pursue.
“Buying that book was kind of my gateway into, ‘oh, this is not just something I enjoy, this is something I can do,’” he said.
After college, Greg worked at a series of different jobs within the tech industry, from hardware and electrical engineering to software engineering. He even worked at a company that designed security features for U.S. currency, he said, but eventually found himself in product management at Google.
“But throughout that whole time, I always loved chocolate,” he said.
Greg says he originally considered starting a chocolate business nine years ago. At the time, he was debating whether to stay in tech or leave to pursue his dreams of chocolate making. Instead he joined another Palo Alto startup called Jotspot, which was then acquired by Google. Going to Google ended up being fortuitous, Greg said, because he was then able to save some money rather than start the business in a “starving artist fashion.” But even as he continued in the tech industry, he made it clear to his colleagues and employers he had no intention of staying forever. Lucky for him, he said they understood that people have different passions and didn’t expect that anyone would do something forever.
“A lot of the time I spent in tech, I enjoyed it. This is not to say I was putting up with it just to make money, it was I knew where I was heading, and I knew it was a good way to save up a lot of money to be able to, when I got there, use the resources I’d saved up instead of needing to go get loans and all the other ways people start a business,” he said.
“I was using tech as a way to finance this. And, in fact, every boss I had at Google before I joined them, and even before I joined Jotspot, I told them ‘at some point I’m going to stop doing this and leave and go into chocolate making.’…I would always commit to at least two years, but I was totally upfront with them that this was the long term plan.”
When Greg was ready to move out of the tech industry, he began transitioning by first taking a three-month sabbatical from Google. During that time, he got hooked up with Dandelion through a chocolate tasting they held.
“I’ve gone to a lot of chocolate tastings and I was like, ‘these guys actually know a lot about chocolate.’ A lot of times I would go to chocolate tastings and I’d think ‘this is interesting,’ but I didn’t feel like I was learning a lot. I felt like when I went to the tasting that they did, I thought ‘these guys really have a good understanding of the process and really want to educate people about the process,’ so it was the kind of thing I wanted to be involved in,” he said.
As part of his sabbatical, Greg spent time working at Dandelion. Since he shared a similar vision to what Todd and Cam were doing, the three decided to work together, with Greg buying into the company as a third partner. Following his sabbatical, he went back and wrapped things up with Google and then left to permanently pursue that long-term plan he’d been thinking about for over 15 years.
According to Greg, his transition to an entirely different kind of work has been pretty smooth. For both his work at Google and at Dandelion, he’s traveled extensively. His product and people management skills also translated easily, he said. One noticeable difference, he says, has been the change in tone from the infamously male-dominated Google to being in a workplace that is both more female dominated and where his colleagues are primarily in their 20s. But that has given him the opportunity to do more mentoring, which he finds interesting and satisfying. He says he also finds the environment much more enjoyable because the focus is on what people have to offer the business.
“Managing people at a tech company and managing people at a chocolate factory is the same thing,” he says. “Managing people is managing people.”
But, he says, these changes are far less important than what he feels he’s getting out of doing something that he’s passionate about.
“It feels really great to be doing something that I’m excited to be doing every single day,” he said.
Because the principals at Dandelion all came from the tech industry, they tend to run this business more like how a tech startup is run, rather than a traditional food business. Greg says that many food businesses, restaurants and commercial kitchens in particular, are very hierarchical places where there’s one person in charge telling everyone what to do. “In many ways, we’re trying to run the business more like a tech company where there’s not that rigid hierarchy,” he said. He says that for many of their employees that come from the food industry, Dandelion’s flatter structure is something new to them.
In fact, at this point, he says he would call Dandelion much more of a “startup” than a small business, which he classifies as a business that is somewhat established and that has the goal of optimizing that business. Dandelion’s goal right now, he says, is growth. The company currently has approximately 40 employees, and their main base is their café location on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District, where they both make and sell their chocolate, as well as chocolate based pastries and drinks. They’re also about to open a kiosk in the Ferry Building and a new, much larger factory at 16th and Alabama. Greg says they consider each of these to be separate businesses within the Dandelion family.
There has been a learning curve in making the switch though. For example, Greg says, when they opened the café, none of them had any idea what hours they should be open. So they’ve experimented to figure out what works. But they’ve taken lessons such as AB testing from tech to use in their chocolate making methods so they can test and optimize the product. They’re also planning to take other lessons from tech, such as continuous integration and starting at the endpoints to build out their new factory.
“A lot of those things still apply, even in the food business,” he said. “In the end, you’re still making a product that someone is either going to enjoy or not enjoy. The end result is still very similar.”
What’s been challenging has been figuring out things such as the café hours or navigating the legalities of food businesses or figuring out how healthy the business is and what kind of margins they should have or how to design the space within a café for customer flow.
“So I think it’s been a really interesting journey and sort of hybrid approach between the two,” he said.
“After you’ve run businesses long enough, you kind of know the kind of information you have to have to understand the health of it,” he said.
Over the years, Greg says he had different visions of what he could do in relation to chocolate. Part of his current role is to both source beans but also provide education.
“One of the things about bean-to-bar chocolate and one of the things I love about Dandelion and what we do is, for a long time I felt like making bean-to-bar chocolate was not something that a normal person could just do in their kitchen. So we have a 201 class where we teach people to make bean-to-bar chocolate in their kitchen. I helped develop that class specifically because we want people to know that making chocolate is not this mysterious, industrial process. You can come in and watch us do it. It’s not brain surgery. It’s not hard. Like with anything, with making bread, it’s not brain surgery, but making good bread is hard. With chocolate, it’s the same way,” he says.
Greg says he believes that much of the chocolate industry has perpetuated a myth around the mystery of making chocolate, but that Dandelion is trying to dispel that myth and show that it is something you can make yourself.
All Dandelion chocolate is made of just cacao and cane sugar and each of their bars are made from single origin beans. Unlike many makers, they don’t add cocoa butter or soy lecithin as emulsifiers. They think it tastes better, and they like the idea of going back to a time when people weren’t using additives for industrial reasons. Because of this, they have had to specially design their equipment because most equipment made for chocolate processing is designed to work with chocolate that has some sort of fat in it, therefore Dandelion’s chocolate is thicker and more viscous than chocolate containing fat. Greg says this doesn’t affect the shelf life of the product, but it may bloom (acquire a grey-ish hue) faster than other chocolate.
Less fat also means that the flavors hit the taste buds much faster. With fat, the crystals in the chocolate melt in your mouth much slower, he says. It also means there are no allergens in Dandelion’s chocolate, which allows people with dairy or soy sensitivities or nut allergies to eat it.
It also highlights the quality of the cocoa beans more, Greg says.
“It means that you can put a ton of work into finding amazing cocoa beans and then make amazing chocolate and it’s not because you added bacon or potato chips, it’s because the beans themselves are really great, so you’re really highlighting what the farmers are doing. And I think it really helps you tell the story of the locations where the chocolate’s from and the farmers in those locations or the producers in those locations,” he said.
“Our primary goal is to make great chocolate…but our secondary goal is about having a great experience, and understanding where it comes from and how it’s made,” he says.
But wholesaling chocolate bars is tough, he says. That’s one reason why they’re supporting making the bars through other outlets in the business such as the café and adding an educational element to what they’re doing. They offer not only chocolate making 101 and the bean-to-bar making classes, but also classes for kids and they are starting to lead week long chocolate travel tours to places such as Hawaii and Belize.
Greg does a lot of sourcing for the company and they currently buy beans from countries such as Madagascar, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, Ecuador, Belize, Liberia and the Dominican Republic. He says they will soon be sourcing from Guatemala, as well, and they are working on sourcing from other places. According to Greg, they take a direct trade approach, where they have a direct relationship with the people they source from. He says they also pay above the world market price for their beans. Because chocolate has traditionally been a luxury good made by Europeans by buying beans cheaply. Greg says Dandelion, along with some other chocolate makers such as Theo in Seattle, are trying to change that paradigm to better benefit the farmers who grow the beans.
Creating single-origin bars based on the location the beans are from also highlights the beans. Greg says they look for beans that taste interesting and that have unique, exciting flavors, as well as consistency.
“As one person described it, a Cabernet Sauvignon should taste like a Cabernet Sauvignon. It doesn’t have to taste exactly the same, there’s different harvests, but it should always taste like a Cab. It can’t taste like Merlot. And that’s the same with beans. They’re going to vary, but they can’t vary so much that you can’t recognize what it is any more,” he said.
Although there are a number of chocolate makers in the Bay Area—including Blommers, Callebaut, Ghiradelli, Guittard and TCHO—Dandelion is currently the only company still doing its manufacturing in San Francisco. (TCHO recently moved production to Berkeley.)
“Part of the reason we’re doing in it San Francisco is that we like that there’s manufacturing in San Francisco, that the city doesn’t turn into a bunch of restaurants and a bunch of residences and then a bunch of office space,” he said. It also provides additional types of jobs for people. “You’re creating something in the city, rather than the city is just where people live…that’s not what we’re aiming for,” he says.
And because they’re all approaching things differently, there’s room for more, Greg says.
“There’s such a small number of craft chocolate makers. Not chocolatiers, there’s a ton of chocolatiers, but craft chocolate makers, there’s so few of us that anytime there’s a new one, we’re all really excited about it because it means that things are growing and it means that—a lot of our equipment we make ourselves because nobody makes equipment for chocolate makers our size–the more people there are in businesses your size, the more likely it is that someone will start making equipment for your size business,” he said. “So we’re actually usually pretty excited about new chocolate makers starting and try to encourage them however and wherever we can.”
“We believe the more craft chocolate makers there are, the better it is for all of us,” he said. “We’re still a very small percentage of the chocolate industry.”
In addition to their San Francisco locations, Dandelion Chocolate can be found in various locations throughout the Bay Area, California and the U.S. as well as in countries throughout the world such as Australia, Canada, Japan and the U.K.
What drew you to food?
I feel like food is something that consistently makes people happy, that they enjoy. It’s an experience. I like experiences, I’ve always loved learning new things and experiencing something new, and I think food is a micro-experience every single time you do it, so I’ve always had a love of food.
Of the micro-experiences you can get in food, I think chocolate is one of the most intense that you can get. And I think rarely has someone walked into a chocolate factory who’s unhappy. And there are times when people are like ‘oh, I shouldn’t’ but when it comes down to it, people walk in the door, smell chocolate and you just see their faces light up. There’s just part of me that felt like [when I was at Google] I was impacting more people’s lives, but impacting them in a smaller way. I feel like I’m impacting fewer people’s lives now, but impacting them in a larger, more visceral way.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I have seen numerous other chocolate makers and chocolatiers making beautiful and amazing things. I think some other makers like Taza from Somerville, Mass., I think they’re amazing. They both make great chocolate and know how to run a good business, which I find really inspirational. You can care about the art, but not at the expense of the business. So you can do both simultaneously.
I remember the first time I had a single origin chocolate from Cluizel, Michel Cluizel, a chocolate maker and I was just blown away by the differences in flavors that you can get just from different beans and I wanted to explore that more. I took a trip to Belize where I saw a cacao farm and really decided this is something I want to be a part of.
What’s interesting is a lot of people say they want to build a chocolate factory, but it’s one of those things in the heat of the moment you feel you really want to do.
But it’s great because the people I went to Belize with for the first time, we now buy beans from them and it’s so great that, I remember talking to them years ago and saying I really want to do something in cacao and they said why don’t you just move here and we can work together, and I said I don’t think there’s where my heart lies, so it’s great that I’m still working with them even now.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building the business? What advice would you have for others?
I think the best piece of advice is that any product is a combination of its parts. So, chocolate, for instance, if you focus so heavily on the flavor of the chocolate and don’t care about the packaging, no one’s going to buy it. But if you focus so heavily on the packaging and not the flavor, no one’s going to buy it a second time. So I think all of the parts that go into the product are important and you have to understand the time and attention given to each one. I think that was great advice.
I think the advice I would share is as much as you can love a business, it’s still a business. And the 40 people we employ here, if we don’t run it like a business, won’t have jobs. So you can and should do some things because you love it but it’s not a bad thing to treat something like a business. Caring about how much money you make doesn’t make is not a negative, it’s a positive. And I think a lot of people shy away from treating something like a business because it feels impure, but I think you’re doing yourself and your employees a disservice if you don’t. Or at least that’s what I tell myself!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
For a long time, there were so many unknown unknowns that it was hard to figure out how we were doing as a business, how were we doing in comparison to other businesses, was it appropriate to grow, or would growing mean sinking more money in. As you’re growing a business, it’s hard to understand, are you healthy or not because you are putting more money in than you’re making, but you need to do that intentionally and we put an enormous amount of effort into understanding the financial position of the business and what we were doing and I think it was timed well because now I feel like we have a lot more confidence in what we’re doing to make sure that growth is a good thing. That we’re not just putting good money after bad money.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I get to eat chocolate every single day! I used to eat chocolate every day but it wasn’t chocolate I made.
And I get to visit cacao farms and work with people in other countries. You can actually really make an impact on a number of peoples’ lives across the world, not just the people who eat chocolate, but people growing cacao that they’re selling to you and countries that could grow cacao but just need some help in getting started. There’s just so much that you can do, and it’s about coming back to chocolate, this thing that people really love and puts a smile on people’s faces. It makes people happy. I like being in an industry that makes people happy. And I like chocolate. I just really enjoy chocolate.
What’s your favorite Dandelion chocolate?
I still think our Papua New Guinea bar is probably my favorite. I think it’s just got so much character and distinctive quality and is unlike what most people do. And the other reason I like it is, the very first time we tried roasting the beans, they tasted like barbeque chicken because there was this smokiness combined with this pineappliness. Papua New Guinea beans are dried using fire-based driers, which gives it this smoky quality and because of that there’s a little smoke to it. So after roasting it a couple different ways, we came up with this flavor that didn’t taste like barbeque chicken but had a more balanced kind of raisin-y, currant-y silky flavor. But I just love that the beans—they just hold so much potential. We’re treating them one way and they taste one way and we can treat them in a totally different way and they would taste totally different, and I love that. I love this sort of unknown potential that people are eating. And it just tastes really good.
What other local food artisans do you admire and why?
Oh, tons. Chocolatier-wise, Feve, who we work with, he makes amazing things. There’s Kai [from Nosh This], who actually rented out our old space, who makes bacon crack and almond crack, which are like chocolate covered bacon or almond based snacks. Even outside of the chocolate industry, there are local people making honey, there’s some really interesting local beekeepers that make interesting flavored local honeys. I think Magnolia Brewing—I love that they’ve been in San Francisco for so long and they’re expanding and I love their product. I really like St. George [Spirits], I think they’re really interesting and really cool and I like the products that they make and what they’re doing. The cheese makers around here blow my mind. It’s great being next door to Mission Cheese because you get to try all sorts of cool and interesting cheeses that people do.
Workhorse Rye – I’m really excited about what he’s doing and excited to work with him. Four Barrel Coffee goes without saying. And The Mill—how did I forget The Mill? Josey [Baker] bread? Hands down the best bread I’ve ever tasted, ever, and I’m addicted to it. But I also like that Four Barrel, when they expanded, didn’t just do another coffee shop, totally worth going to. 100 percent worth going to, and I like their concept of they didn’t just duplicate what they were doing, they wanted to expand, and I really love that.
And one of the things I like about being in the craft food business is most people who work here [at Dandelion] there seems to be people who just love making stuff, and eating stuff and love enjoying these things because it’s great when people bring stuff in and we can enjoy these things. I brought chocolate in from Omnom, which is an Icelandic chocolate maker, and everyone here was super excited about new chocolate and wants to try it. We don’t hire anyone who’d like ‘meh, it’s just a job.’ Everyone we hire, not just enjoys chocolate, but enjoys food, and the experience around food. And I think that’s a really important part of having a healthy company because it’s hard—there are times when it’s not going to be easy, but what gets you through is what I’m making is really worthwhile. And I think you have to believe in it. Especially when you’re 40 people, it’s important that everyone here really believes in what we’re trying to do.
If you had to choose your last chocolate, what would it be?
My last chocolate? Single chocolate?
Depending on how much time I had left, I’d want to harvest my own beans and ferment and dry them myself to make chocolate out of them. I’d probably want to use beans from, I’d probably want to do this in Belize, I really like the quality of beans in Belize, so what I’d do is find a farmer who would like me harvest and crack my own pods and ferment and dry those beans and then make a bar out of those beans. That would be the final bar I would want to eat as my last bar. I’d want to do the whole thing, nothing but me. I don’t think it would be very good—I’m no expert on fermentation! I know a lot, but I don’t spend a lot of time doing it.
Favorite Bay Area food/chef/resto?
My favorite restaurant is called Minako—it’s a Japanese place, and it’s my happy place. The food is amazing, the chef and the owner are both lovely, wonderful people and it’s where I go when I just want some great food. They have sushi, but they don’t focus on sushi, it’s not all they do, so it’s hands down my favorite restaurant.
Photos courtesy of Dandelion Chocolate, Laurie Finkel Photography and Molly DeCoudreaux Photography.