How sweet it is

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It’s Thursday — flower day — at Joseph Schmidt Confections, which means any minute Joseph Schmidt himself will stroll through his company’s Mission District headquarters, handing out bouquets to all female employees.

The man can’t help himself. Schmidt just likes making people happy, something he’s been doing for years with his fabulously yummy chocolate creations.

Schmidt is the Kandinsky of cacao. In addition to his regular treats (the factory cranks out up to 75,000 of his signature chocolate truffles daily), the Israeli-born Schmidt also has sculpted life-sized chocolate replicas of everything from saw-and-hammer sets to ornate Louis XIV tables, all edible, all high calorie, all delicious.

For one exhibition in San Francisco, in fact, Schmidt’s handcrafted creations included a 6-foot chocolate menorah. All told, he required 40,000 pounds of the stuff to fill the 14,000-square-foot lobby with his incredible edible art.

“We are like an art gallery,” he says proudly of his 21-year-old company. “We took chocolate to a new level.”

But, adds the impish Schmidt, “I’m still not a businessman. I’m a monkey-businessman.”

Like Schmidt, Robert Steinberg, co-founder of Scharffen Berger, one of the fastest-growing chocolate companies in America, is Jewish. So is author/consultant Alice Medrich, founder of Cocolat (the popular Bay Area chocolate and dessert shops she sold a few years back). And Pete Slosberg, founder of Campbell-based Cocoa Pete’s.

Collectively, those chocolatiers not only helped make the Bay Area the center of the chocolate universe, they have also kept alive a centuries-old tradition of Jewish involvement in the chocolate trade.

Schmidt’s main factory floor resembles one of those cavernous high-tech headquarters in a James Bond film (usually in the scene when the bad guy gives 007 a tour and explains his plans to take over the world).

Dozens of hair-netted employees operate the heavy machinery of chocolate making: mixers, melters and molders. Others stand at whirring conveyor belts, sorting and boxing relentless regiments of candies, many resembling tiny Fabergé eggs.

As the holidays approached, Schmidt geared up to produce his special line of Chanukah treats, which included chocolate dreidels and menorahs, as well as blue-and-white boxed collections of truffles. All certified kosher, of course.

Making the rounds in his factory, Schmidt is the proverbial kid in a candy shop. He knows most of his 150 employees by name and, bouncing from station to station, he cannot resist the steady sampling of his own wares.

“It’s good for my heart,” he says, downing a dark egg-shaped truffle from a tray. “It’s a reward. Chocolate may not be part of the four food groups, but it is its own group.”

Schmidt will get an “amen” on that from Steinberg. A physician by training, he co-founded Sharffen Berger a few years after a cancer diagnosis in 1988. That brush with mortality caused him to drop his medical practice and explore other creative outlets. A two-week workshop at a French chocolate factory inspired him to develop his own gourmet product. “I got interested in the science of it,” he says. “I got obsessed.”

In 1996, Steinberg teamed up with his friend, former sparkling wine entrepreneur John Scharffenberger, and in less than 10 years, the two grew their company into a world-class chocolate maker. They now employ 45 people and, in addition to a retail outlet in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, they just opened a store in Manhattan.

Headquartered in a restored brick building in the Berkeley flats, Scharffen Berger is positively Fourth Street in look and appeal. Café Cacao, the new in-house eatery there, offers all manner of chocolate treats (including the best hot cocoa in the history of Western civilization). The gift shop sells the de rigueur Scharffen Berger gear (polo shirts, caps, posters, aprons) and, of course, chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate.

Scharffen Berger actually roasts its own cacao beans imported from around the equatorial world. The heavenly aroma in the roasting room fills the building and may cause serious swooning in all confirmed and amateur chocoholics.

Of the local enterprises, the company is the only actual chocolate maker (the others import), running its cacao beans through a gauntlet of machines with names like winnower, melangeur and conche.

Scharffen Berger pushes the cocoa content of its products to extreme levels, with their extra-dark chocolate product weighing in at a whopping 82 percent.

“The flavor was influenced by the chocolate I helped make in France,” says Steinberg. “A fruity quality, intensity of flavor, marked by an acidity in the finish, like a good wine.”

Steinberg is the company’s head bean counter, but not in an accounting sense. He is chief buyer, sampling cacao from around the world in search of beans that meet the Scharffen Berger standard.

The Massachusetts native calls himself a “secular Jew,” adding, “I’m very Jewish in terms of my ethnic identity. What I associate ideally with being Jewish is compassion for other people, social consciousness and intellectual curiosity. But I’m not a religious person.”

Still, all Scharffen Berger products are certified kosher.

Dessert chef/author Alice Medrich mirrors Steinberg’s gourmet approach. Though she grew up on M&Ms and Hershey bars, as a young woman, Medrich spent time in France studying cooking. Once back in the Bay Area, she joined the local food revolution begun in the 1970s, creating her own high-end desserts. Soon after, she opened her first Cocolat store in Berkeley.

Though proudly Jewish, she discounts any link between her ethnicity and her facility with chocolate.

“My story has nothing to do with being Jewish,” she says. “It’s coincidental. But if you talk with old-timers, you find a lot of Jews in the candy business.”

The connections go back further than that, back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. Jews from those nations had settled in the Caribbean and South America, mastered the art of chocolate making and brought it back from the New World.

Jewish chocolatiers then made their way to France, in particular Bayonne in the southwestern part of the country. Though faced with discrimination, they prospered, and by the mid-17th century, Bayonne led the world in chocolate production.

Not surprisingly, envious non-Jewish tradesmen bonded together to form a chocolate-making guild that excluded or restricted Jews. By the 19th century, Jewish involvement with French chocolate making had declined, but by then the art had spread around the world, eventually making it back to the New World.

The first chocolate factory in the American colonies opened in 1755. It is said a Dutch Jew named Uriah Hendrix was the man who brought it here (but Googling his name only brings frustrating links to Uriah Heep or Jimi Hendrix).

Since then, Americans have been cuckoo for cocoa. According to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, chocolate sales hit $14 billion in 2002, with the premium segment (like Schmidt and Scharffen Berger) topping $1.5 billion.

Yet American-made chocolates, exemplified by Hersheys, have suffered a reputation for inferiority when compared with fancier European brands.

That’s where Pete Slosberg comes in. Best known for founding and developing Pete’s Wicked Ale, Slosberg is a Bay Area entrepreneur with a feel for the specialty food market. Most recently he felt the need for a homegrown gourmet chocolate.

“Let’s dispel the myth,” says the former engineer. “We can do it as good if not better.”

Cocoa Pete’s uses its own custom blend of domestic chocolates and currently produces several varieties of molded chocolate pieces in an individual box, with such titles as Caramel Knowledge and Nuts so Serious.

“Most people believe chocolate in a box is for gifting, and a bar is for self-consumption,” he says. “We wanted to say it’s OK to have great chocolate every day, so we ended up with a molded bar in a box.”

Slosberg has been active in the Jewish community over the years, having served as the president of the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, where he is currently a member of Congregation Etz Chayim.

Ask him how he is, and he always has the same one-word response: “Sweet.”

Schmidt usually feels the same way. A former dessert chef, he, along with partner Audrey Ryan, launched his company in 1983 when he was 44. In the beginning he sold candies out of the trunk of his car, but those days are over. Schmidt Confections is now a multimillion-dollar enterprise with growth averaging 15 to 20 percent a year, he says.

But he refuses to play the mogul role. He is as friendly and approachable as any wealthy entrepreneur can be. He still travels back to Israel every year to see his mother in Netanya (“She wants cash,” he says of his visits, “not chocolate”).

Like his colleagues, he considers himself a secular Jew, but he readily accepts responsibility to practice tzedakah. He donates hundreds of pounds of his product to charity and food banks every year, and he does treat his employees like family. Schmidt promotes from within, and points to several highly skilled highly paid staff artisans who were once poor immigrants sweeping up.

Since chocolate is one of those feel-good products, it is perhaps no surprise that the local Jewish chocolatiers see each other more as colleagues than as competitors (though each thinks he/she makes the best chocolate). Medrich once served on the Scharffen Berger board, and is good friends with Schmidt and Steinberg.

“We’re a great group,” she says. “We’re very supportive and friendly. Joseph has told me if he hadn’t seen what I’d done [with Cocolat], he wouldn’t have gone off on his own.”

Back on the floor of his factory, Schmidt is just about done handing out bouquets. Sweet smelling as they are, the flowers can’t compete with the aroma of Belgian chocolate that fills every corner of the plant.

Just one more fringe benefit to working there. And though his confections are for everyone, Schmidt does concede his product might especially appeal to Jews because they “like to enjoy themselves and be happy. At least I do. I’m doing something I love and I’m good at it. Life is perfect.”

And with one more mini-truffle down the hatch, he adds, “That’s why I’m healthy.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.