It was 2016 and Dandelion Chocolate, a small bean-to-bar chocolate maker in San Francisco, was strapped for product. The company was sitting on a 500-vendor-deep waitlist for its artisan chocolate bars, but work on the company’s colossal 34,000-square-foot Mission District chocolate factory — originally scheduled to open in 2015 — had stalled due to permitting and construction delays. Meanwhile, the company had just opened its first store in Japan and had a second on the way. Production couldn’t meet the demand. The wholesale department manager started referring to herself as the “customer disappointment manager,” because the job involved turning so many people away and the walls at the shop were looking increasingly bare.
“We literally were running out of chocolate at our own stores,” recalls Dandelion co-founder Todd Masonis. “We’d ration it.”
Dandelion needed to find a way to pick up the pace on its expansion, but scaling up isn’t simple. In order to get bigger and also maintain — and maybe even improve — the quality of the chocolate, Dandelion had built a research and development facility in a small warehouse. The space was designed to test equipment and work out systems for the new factory, but with the bigger facility so far from opening, Dandelion needed to convert the R&D space into a temporary production space where it could simply make some chocolate.
Enter Annie Kamin. The 29-year-old chocolatier and 2019 Eater Young Gun joined the Dandelion team in August 2014, first landing a job as an assistant cafe manager. “I wanted to look for something that was still in the world of chocolate, but maybe not necessarily in the hands-on part of things,” she says. “I wanted to learn a new skill set.”
Most of Kamin’s experience in chocolate was making confections, not chocolate from cacao and organic cane sugar; however, she’d worked as a high-volume chocolatier in Barcelona and upstate New York, which made her a perfect candidate to take charge of Dandelion’s production, increase its output, and make sure the chocolate was consistent. “I was tasked with ramping that facility up to produce about 20,000 bars of chocolate a month,” she says. Kamin estimates that it took around eight months to get the temporary facility cranking out bars at the rate the company needed while also diagnosing and curing its chocolate tempering issues.
Afterward, she was immediately handed an even bigger responsibility: As the chief of staff at Dandelion, she was tasked with jumpstarting and shepherding the new factory — already several years into development — through construction. “The thing that really had been holding us back” until now, says Masonis, was the lack of a factory that “can actually make the chocolate and make it a high quality” at scale. Kamin’s work helped make that a reality.
Dandelion Chocolate was started by Masonis and Cameron Ring, hobbyists who, like many other new-wave bean-to-bar chocolate makers, were inspired by mid-1990s chocolate producers like Berkeley, California-based Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. Unlike chocolatiers that melt down pre-made chocolate, known as couverture, to create confections or mass-produced chocolate, Masonis and Ring were interested in sourcing. They focused on using only cacao beans and sugar to bring out the terroir of the main ingredient.
Both Masonis and Ring came from the tech world, where in 2002 they co-founded an online address book service, Plaxo, with partner and former president of Facebook Sean Parker. By 2008, the company sold to Comcast for an estimated $150 million, and Masonis and Ring were free to do pretty much whatever they wanted. Recalling a promising, but somewhat rocky, experiment making chocolate in his home kitchen in the early 2000s, Masonis chose to pursue chocolate. Along with his wife, Elaine, he visited chocolate salons and chocolate companies in France and around the U.S. to learn about the chocolate-making process.
Soon, Masonis had convinced Ring to join him in sorting, roasting, and grinding cacao beans for homemade chocolate bars inside a friend’s garage. “We realized that the world of chocolate [was] changing and that what happened to coffee or craft beer was happening in chocolate,” Masonis says. Their food laboratory set the groundwork for what would eventually become Dandelion Chocolate.
By the time Kamin joined Dandelion Chocolate in 2014, the company had been making its products in a small cafe and production facility on Valencia Street for about two years. Kamin trained at the Culinary Institute of America, where she learned about making small-batch chocolate from Fruition Chocolate Works founder Bryan Graham, who helped start a small bean-to-bar program at the school. After graduation, she worked as a chocolatier in Barcelona, where she became skilled at making chocolate bars and confections on a larger scale, and then transitioned into a position as lead production manager at Francisco Migoya’s Hudson Chocolates. In 2014, Migoya closed Hudson Chocolates, and Kamin also took the opportunity to head west. Over the next two years, she gradually moved up through a variety of different roles at Dandelion.
Then, “for two years, her job [was] literally get this factory done,” Masonis says. That meant meeting with architects, calling plumbers, ordering equipment, and interviewing job applicants for a project with an enormous budget and high stakes. “Everything in this factory is super custom,” Kamin says. “It’s not like a normal factory where everything is super white and sterile and there’s pipes coming from one machine to another.” Her role was to not only project manage construction, but also to create systems that functioned well and fit the aesthetic of a facility where customers would take tours. “We needed to design the rest of the process to do justice to the actual overall design of the factory,” she says. “The mantra was, ‘No metro shelves.’”
Before receiving the new title, Kamin knew virtually nothing about construction. Now, she’ll gladly tell you the difference between 120-volt and 208-volt outlets and how to read millwork drawings. She notes that her experience working in the restaurant industry helped when communicating with a mostly male staff of building crews. As the project approached completion, Kamin developed plans to make sure that Dandelion’s office workers made a seamless transition to the new building and assisted with hiring new employees. “It was honestly 12 hours a day of [being] kind of like a cartoon character, going at warp speed,” she says.
Dandelion unveiled its Mission District chocolate factory in April. Kamin felt nothing short of elation at seeing the project completed. “I felt like a kid who just wanted their ice cream... and no one was giving it to me. And, finally, I got at the point where we were able to open, and I got the ice cream,” she says. “It was the best feeling in the entire world.”
The site, a 107-year-old former mattress and printing factory, was designed by international architecture and design firm Gensler and features sleek, modern furniture accented with black and gold. Glass walls tie each piece together all the way to the production floor, where visitors have a view of all the roasting and grinding from a catwalk and bleacher-style seats. In a to-go cafe and retail space, customers can order beverages, pick up cookies, and purchase chocolate bars made with up to 100 percent cacao, or immerse themselves in a tour or a chocolate class in the complex’s education space.
The design’s final piece is a chocolate salon called Bloom that’s inspired by Angelina, a famous Parisian tea house where Masonis and his wife enjoy sipping hot chocolate and eating sweets during their visits to France. At Bloom, the environment is more relaxed and refined than in the Dandelion cafes. Here, customers can taste Dandelion chocolate in decadent pastries and cakes and sip different styles of hot and cold chocolate. In the afternoon, the salon offers a chocolate and tea service paired with a tasting menu of sweet and savory items highlighting different parts of the cacao plant. There’s also a three-course chocolate ice cream tasting menu. Masonis says the goal is to “try to redefine what it means to hang out and experience chocolate.”
The space looks beautiful and clean, due in part to Kamin’s attention to detail. “This project had been going on for so long that there was a lot of pressure to get it done quickly, but an equal amount of pressure to get it done well and perfectly,” Kamin says. “I was the gatekeeper.” One of Kamin’s favorite parts of the opening was moving the kitchen staff from their 250-square-foot kitchen into the factory’s new, 1,200-square-foot commissary with all the equipment they had requested. “Because I have a pastry background, I know what [it] feels like to have a kitchen. It’s like your second home,” she says. “You spend so much time there. It has to be a nice place, a comfortable place, and so we were able to do that for them.”
With its new facility in place, Dandelion has the potential to produce up to 1.5 million bars per year, supplying locations not just in San Francisco but around the world. The company currently has five stores in Japan as well as a pop-up in Los Angeles, and it recently announced plans to open a cafe in Las Vegas. And fresh off a two-month-long sabbatical, Kamin will help plan Dandelion’s growth.
Masonis sees that expansion as an opportunity to introduce more people to pure, quality chocolate. “We feel like we are following this really rich history of chocolate companies and factories that have come before us,” Masonis says. “And so we’re really happy to pick up the torch and help bring chocolate into this next phase.”
Seeing the new Mission District chocolate factory that she helped build, Kamin can’t help but remember what it was like working as a cafe manager back on Valencia Street during a month when Dandelion had no bars on its shelves. Back then, she spent her days trying to explain to customers how a chocolate brand could run out of chocolate, and how she’d turn away wholesale accounts due to shortages.
“It was so hard to keep saying ‘No,’” she says. “But equally as satisfying when we were able to produce enough chocolate to be able to start saying ‘Yes.’”