Louis and the Chocolate Factory

Meet Berkeley’s Louis Rossetto. First, he created Wired magazine. Now, he’s revolutionizing artisan chocolate.


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All images Courtesy of Tcho ChocolateBefore taking me on a tour of his state-of-the-art factory, Tcho CEO Louis Rossetto insists that I sample some of his product.

I don’t have a problem with that.

As I bite into a square of Tcho’s “nutty” dark chocolate, I catch Rossetto watching for my reaction. My “mmmmm” elicits a sly smile from the longtime Berkeley resident, and I’m reminded of Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, watching Charlie Bucket taste his first Everlasting Gobstopper.

But as 50-something Rossetto begins my tour of Tcho’s 30,000-square-foot factory at Pier 17—the only bean-to-bar chocolate plant in San Francisco—comparisons to Wonka’s wild fun house of invention go out the window. There are no Oompa Loompas or chocolate rivers. Instead, Tcho’s setup is an antiseptic, precisely planned operation—a hybrid of old-school confectioner and high-tech Silicon Valley start-up.

Which makes sense, since Rossetto and his partner, Jane Metcalfe, come from the high-tech world. In 1993, they launched Wired, the tech magazine once dubbed the coolest magazine on the planet by the New York Times. They also launched the first magazine website, Wired.com. They sold Wired to Conde Nast in 1998 and the website to Lycos in 1999. In 2005, they partnered with a former NASA techie to start Tcho. Cofounder Timothy Childs developed vision systems for the Space Shuttle, before getting into the chocolate biz.

“We have all the passion for chocolate at Tcho that we had at Wired for technology and publishing,” says Rossetto. “Chocolate is an ancient food but also a modern food. We feel chocolate can be reinvented the way media was in the 1990s.”

Leading me into Tcho’s small “flavor” laboratory, Rossetto points out his company’s mixture of technological invention and chocolate making. Metal tubes, grinders, and a small oven allow Tcho’s technicians to roast cacao beans at temperatures ranging from 250 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, for 30 minutes to two hours. Different roasting times and temperatures elicit different flavors in the beans—fruity, nutty, citrus, floral, earthy, and chocolaty—as displayed on a wheel graph on the wall.

“We created this system piece by piece, much like what you would see in a Silicon Valley start-up,” Rossetto says. “We can monitor the beans with extreme precision to bring out exact flavor characteristics.”

Even better, the system has been reproduced for less than $10,000 in cacao bean–producing countries near the equator. “The beauty of this is that we can affordably transfer this technology directly to the growers,” says Rossetto. “We have a partnership with our growers; we want them to go from being commodity producers to premium producers. It’s a win-win situation for them and for us.

“This is still business, not charity. But we have a higher purpose—to take business to another level,” Rossetto explains. “That incentive is what makes us a 21st-century company: We want to make the world a better place while making the best possible chocolate.”

Rossetto leads me into the production room and walks me through the chocolate-making process. Most of Tcho’s beans are fermented, dried, and roasted in their country of origin, then are converted into cacao mass or liquor, before being shipped to San Francisco. The cacao mass is refined and mixed with cane sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla beans, and lecithin, and is tempered to a desired smoothness and flavor.

Like the roasting system, the factory has been assembled piece by piece, with vintage European machines connected to brand-new refiners and computerized temperature gauges and grinders. The chocolate moves from station to station until it is revealed in enormous molded squares and bars. Finally, it is wrapped in packaging. 

This whole choco-making contraption is tucked inside Pier 17, with dramatic views of the Bay. “This pier was built around 1930, originally used for the off-loading of cacao beans for Ghirardelli chocolates,” says Rossetto.

After creating its first bars in 2008, Tcho sold its chocolate exclusively online. Last spring, it started selling in Whole Foods Markets and specialty grocers. The buzz on the brand has been building steadily ever since: Martha Stewart Living did a blind tasting of dark chocolates in the February issue and declared Tcho “the hands-down star.”

Rossetto feels that the product’s quality is a result of his company’s passion for raising the bar on the chocolate experience, from bean to mouth. “The best work you do is when you are passionate—or even obsessed,” says Rossetto. “I’ve always followed my obsessions, be they women, or technology, or chocolate.”

As our tour winds to a close, Rossetto gives me a vacuum-sealed bag of dark chocolate chips. Tcho manufactures the chips in large quantities for restaurants and commercial confectioners. “We’re just about to release these for home chefs as well,” he says. “They’re really for baking, but they are so delicious, I like to nibble on them during the afternoon.”

Outside the factory, I crack open the bag and bite into a chip.

Mmmmm.

Want to tour Tcho’s chocolate factory? CLICK HERE to enter a contest to win a special tour. Tcho chocolate can be purchased locally at Draeger’s in Danville, Diablo Foods in Lafayette, the Berkeley Bowl, and Whole Foods and Starbucks. For information about Tcho’s products, go to tcho.com.

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