When Tracey Britton and Eli Curtis were working as bike messengers in San Francisco, they both became obsessed with making chocolate. Britton was baking at home at the time, but she didn’t like the chocolate that was available to her. She thought it was too sweet. The couple decided to solve that problem by starting to make their own chocolate. At first, it was just for their personal use. And then they got carried away.
“When we first started in 2006, Tracey was making amazing truffles,” Curtis recalled. “Everyone—our friends and family—wanted to be a [taste] tester.” Curtis grew up making truffles and desserts at Christmas time with his mother. “We’d make ganache and roll it in cocoa powder,” he said. After building out a commercial kitchen in Berkeley, they began to sell truffles under the name Bisou Chocolate at Bay Area farmers’ markets. Last July, Bisou opened its first retail space in Berkeley. But their grinding machines are still on 7th Street, where the cocoa beans and nibs are processed into chocolate.
“We had customers in those days who were having flashbacks to bars they ate in the late 1950s and early 1960s because they had so much flavor,” Curtis said. After that golden era of candy bars, Curtis explained, the production of chocolate became industrialized and the flavor deteriorated. “In the 1980s in Europe, a few small manufacturers turned the industry around and started making really high-end chocolates,” he noted.
Over the years, Curtis and Britton have noticed that customers have stated a preference for darker chocolate. “They’re interested in a higher percentage of cacao,” Curtis said. “What we do with our chocolate is express the flavors of the cocoa bean.” In his primary role as a chocolate maker, he sources cocoa beans, roasts them and turns them into chocolate.
“Tracey is a gifted chocolatier,” Curtis said, with both affection and admiration in his voice. As a chocolatier, Britton melts, tempers and creates truffles, caramels and bars out of the chocolate they make in-house. In addition to their being dipped in a thin shell of dark chocolate, Britton’s truffles are vegan and gluten-free. And the flavors change every week.
“Campari asked us to do a truffle for Negroni Week,” Britton said. “We did a Boulevardier truffle with bourbon, which was better suited to chocolate.” After one customer tried it, they asked if Britton could make a truffle to pair with a Manhattan. “Those are very popular,” she said. As are coffee truffles. “I make a latte or just a coffee. For the holidays, I make a cardamom coffee.”
Customers are slowly taking notice of their new retail space on 9th Street, a few doors down from Berkeley Bowl West. “We get foodies who are shopping there, and people who live in the neighborhood walk or bike through here,” Britton said.
But Bisou didn’t expand into the new space to increase their output. “The whole [chocolate-making] process is so time-consuming and laborious that we can’t grow very quickly,” Curtis said. “We can’t sell wholesale until we can hire enough people to produce more of the product. We wouldn’t be able to meet the demand.”
Like Bisou Chocolate, The Xocolate Bar recently expanded into new digs. After 15 years on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, Malena Lopez-Maggi and Clive Brown opened a second location on College Avenue in Oakland in September. Frankie Fernandez, the general manager of the new store, gave me a tour. The larger space is divided into sections that feature a wide variety of sweets such as house-made bonbons, toffee and caramels, and hard and chewy candies. I felt like every dazzled kid entering Willie Wonka’s factory for the first time.
Fernandez directed my attention to different shelves of candy bars. The first thing I reached out for was an “omg bar” ($9.99) made with dark chocolate, roasted almonds and salted caramel. When I tasted it later that day, the chocolate coating was so rich I knew I’d have to pace myself. This was a candy bar meant for savoring rather than greedily inhaling.
I noticed a section in the store with a sign that read, “Better than a…”. One company named Mayana Chocolate makes more elevated versions of familiar American candy bars. Mayana’s “Better than a Sn*ckers” ($9.99) is made with salted peanut caramel, peanut butter nougat and 66% dark chocolate.
In a phone interview, Lopez-Maggi told me why The Xocolate Bar stocks products made by other brands in addition to their own. “We can’t make enough chocolate to stock an entire shop, let alone two shops,” she explained. She believes that carrying other brands is a collaboration and said, “If they sell a lot, we both benefit from that.” And there’s always going to be a customer who’ll want to order something that they don’t make.
After 15 years in business, it was clear that there wasn’t enough space in the Solano Avenue kitchen and retail space for a staff of 15 to work together. “The kitchen can already produce more chocolate than we had space for at our shop,” Lopez-Maggi said. Rockridge was an ideal location for a number of reasons. Market Hall had been carrying The Xocolate Bar’s products for years, so customers in the neighborhood were already familiar with the brand.
Lopez-Maggi and her team also decided to move into the College Avenue space because foot traffic is higher there than it is on Solano Avenue. They didn’t know that Love + Chocolate was going to open a couple of blocks away. But, she said, “That’s fine. Everybody there has something different to offer.”
Brown used to be the principal chocolatier. While he does represent the company at events, as well as returning from time to time to make seasonal chocolates, his primary role is as a stay-at-home dad for the couple. When Brown and Lopez-Maggi started The Xocolate Bar in 2006, she was 25 years old. “I had nothing to lose,” she said. “We watched the movies Chocolat, Like Water for Chocolate and Willy Wonka, and we were like, alright, let’s do it!”
They spent the first two years “making basically every flavor under the sun and really dialing in our product line,” Lopez-Maggi recalled. What they didn’t realize is how physically taxing kitchen work is. “With chocolate, there’s so much repetitive strain and heavy lifting and time on your feet,” she said. “It’s not that glamorous.”
Every aspect of the chocolate-making process has to be controlled, from the humidity to the temperature. There are many opportunities for everything to go wrong. “In the beginning, it often would because we were still learning,” she said. Running a chocolate shop turned out to be much more challenging than it looked in the movies.
The Xocolate Bar continues to experiment with flavors. Based on one of Lopez-Maggi’s favorite cookies, they’re introducing a chocolate with a mint Oreo on the inside in the shape of a zodiac sign. And her latest recipe is called Hazelnut Heaven. It’s made with whole roasted hazelnuts, a hazelnut gelée and caramelized puffed rice.
Bisou Chocolate, open Wed to Fri 12pm-6pm, 2929 9th St., Berkeley. 415.515.8241. bisouchocolate.com.
The Xocolate Bar, open every day 11am-6pm, 5854 College Ave., Oakland. 510.879.7879. thexocolatebar.com.