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Making Chocolate History

by Gloria Lenhart

San Francisco is the birthplace of two of the oldest chocolate makers in America: Ghirardelli and Guittard. Both have their roots in the Gold Rush. Both their companies still make their chocolate in the Bay Area today. Here are the stories of these two pioneer companies and their founders.

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Domingo Ghirardelli, 1817 - 1894 Photo: San Francisco Public Library


The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is the oldest chocolate company in America. Domingo Ghirardelli was born in Italy, near Genoa, the son of an importer of exotic food. At age 20, Domingo went to South America to work in the coffee and spice trade. He opened a store in Lima, Peru selling coffee, cocoa powder and spices.

Domingo’s neighbor in Lima was James Lick, a piano and cabinet maker from Pennsylvania. In 1848, Lick sailed to San Francisco to invest in land speculation. It’s said that he arrived with $3,000 in gold coins sewn into his suit and 600 pounds of Ghiradelli’s chocolate. He quickly sold all Domingo’s chocolate and wrote to his friend to come to San Francisco and bring more.

Domingo arrived in California in 1849. First he went up to the gold fields to try his hand at mining. Soon he found it more profitable to open a store in Stockton, selling liquor, coffee, spices and his chocolate to other miners. He quickly opened a second store in San Francisco. In 1851, both stores burned down within days of each other, and Domingo was forced to start over.

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The Pioneer Woolen Mill, now Ghirardelli Square Photo: San Francisco Public Library

In 1852, Ghirardelli opened a confectionary on Portsmouth Square at the corner of Washington and Kearny Streets selling cocoa and other treats. In 1893,Domingo Ghirardelli moved the company to the waterfront, taking over the old Pioneer Woolen Mill. Ghirardelli died the next year, but his sons continued on. Over time, they expanded the complex, adding housing for workers and additional warehouse space.

The Ghirardelli complex was undamaged by the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Chocolate-making continued here until the early 1960s when the company was bought by Golden Grain, makers of Rice-a-Roni, “the San Francisco treat.” They moved the company across the Bay to San Leandro, just south of Oakland. Ghirardelli Chocolate is still produced there, but today the company is owned by the Swiss company Lindt, makers of Lindor Truffles and other luxury confections.

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Etienne Guittard, 1838 - 1899 Photo: Guittard Chocolate Company


Guittard Chocolate, started on Sansome Street in 1868, is the oldest continuously family-run chocolate company in the country.

Etienne Guittard came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, hoping to trade chocolate from his uncle’s factory in Tournus, France, for mining supplies. Finding that selling chocolate was more profitable than mining, he sailed back to France to master the art of chocolate making. He returned to San Francisco in 1868 and opened his first shop selling chocolate, as well as coffee, tea and spices. By 1900, Guittard was well known for his popular cocoa drink served at the Cliff House.

The Sansome Street store burned during the earthquake and fire in 1906, and afterward Etienne’s son Horace moved the business to Main St. with the help of the Brandenstein family of MJB Coffee. In the 1950s, displaced by the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway, the company moved to its current location in Burlingame.

The fourth generation entered the business in the 1970s, including current company president Gary Guittard. He joined the family business after working as a food broker and doing marketing and sales for a bakery supply company. Today the fourth and fifth generations of the Guittard family work together, alongside many life-long employees. They provide chocolate for consumers, bakers and some famous candy makers, including See’s Candy.

Guittard is always thinking of new ways to dish up deliciousness, whether it’s working with pastry chefs and confectioners, coming up with a new blend, or simply serving up “liquid chocolate bars” at the 2013 Outside Lands festival. In 1978, Real Semisweet Chocolate Chips debuted in their distinctive gold bag. In 2000, using journal entries written by founder Etienne, Guittard introduced Collection Etienne, an artisan line of chocolate for baking and eating.

In addition to their Burlingame headquarters, and another facility in Fairfield, they opened the Guittard Chocolate Studio in Los Angeles. It’s a showcase for their products and their Guest Chef Series featuring intensive hands-on workshops with prominent chefs, chocolatiers and bakers. Their website has more information on the company as well as an excellent description of the process of making chocolate at

A Short History of Chocolate

1400s Aztecs drink bitter chocolate during religious ceremonies and use cacao beans as money.

1500s The Spanish conquer the Aztecs and bring chocolate back to Europe. They add sugar.

1700s Sweetened chocolate powder for drinks and baking sweeps Europe, but only the very wealthy can indulge.

1847 The first commercial chocolate bar is made by Joseph S. Fry & Sons in Bristol, England. Fry later merges with Cadbury.

Copyright Used with permission.

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