man crouched on floor next to large kitchen machines
Nate Saal with various prototypes of his CocoTerra chocolate-making machine.

DIY premium chocolate; best Middle Eastern places; etc.

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

The Saal name is well-known on the Peninsula, where the family has been very involved in the Jewish community. But Nate Saal is hoping to be recognized for something else: inventing the first bean-to-bar chocolate machine for home consumers.

The CocoTerra machine is in production for a release early next year, and is open now for preorders, but the idea for this venture was cooked up in 2013.

The proverbial “aha moment” came while Saal was doing a chocolate tasting years ago with his brother-in-law, who is in the coffee business. They started discussing how much chocolate and coffee had in common — both start out as beans and, at least early on, were used for beverages (solid chocolate came later). And both require processing before they can be consumed.

Saal, a Palo Alto resident, has a background in science and tech, not food. However, he has long enjoyed making his own olive oil and wine and raising bees for honey, and his family collects eggs from their six chickens.

He jumped into educating himself about chocolate. “It’s very complicated to make your own chocolate, and it has a steep learning curve,” he said. So he challenged himself to do better. “You can make bad chocolate easily, but the question is, how do you make good chocolate in an efficient way?”

He spent years in research and development, working on a prototype for the home machine, which went through five iterations. At 13 inches tall and 10 inches in diameter, it’s now small enough to sit on a kitchen counter — quite a feat, since it started out the size of an office chair.

The beans are transformed into customized chocolate bars in two hours, with very little active time needed. All of the ingredients are sold through CocoTerra, although they don’t have to be bought through the company, and consumers can fine-tune the bars to whatever flavor profiles and health concerns they have, whether they need to be sugar-free, lactose-free, nut-free or keto-friendly.

The machine is $799 currently, although Saal hopes that eventually the cost will drop and the product will be widely available at specialty kitchen stores. For now, it can be purchased through the CocoTerra website, with preorders for shipment in early 2022.

“There’s no reason why this shouldn’t sit next to your espresso machine, pasta machine or juicer,” said Saal.

In November in this column, we shared the news that Town’s End Restaurant and Bakery, the Embarcadero restaurant run by David and Mary Sperber, was closing after 30 years, a victim of the pandemic.

We recently heard from David Sperber that it has reopened with new owners. In March, the Sperbers sold the business to Jennifer and Nimer Massis, the owners of several local taquerias. The restaurant at 2 Townsend is now a shared space, serving both Mexican fare and some favorites from the Towns’ End menu. While the Sperbers are involved once again as chefs, they are no longer owners.

“We are working closely with the new owners to reestablish the site as a neighborhood asset,” David Sperber said in an email. “It’s now a cross–cultural Jewish/Palestinian/Latinx team, and brisket and latkes are still on the menu.”

Tony Gemignani, who has a veritable pizza empire (too many accolades to list here), is getting into the bagel game with a line called Dago Bagel, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. His bagels are available at his new bakery, Toscano Brothers, at 728 Vallejo St.

San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho put out a list of best Middle Eastern restaurants, and both Hummus Bodega in San Francisco and Pomella in Oakland made the list.

hummus, olive oil, chickpeas
Hummus from Hummus Bodega. (Photo/Courtesy Hummus Bodega)

20th Century Café announced it will be closing soon. While not a Jewish place, the café in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley became known for its Eastern European cakes, including a multilayered honey cake (that, quite frankly, is much more sophisticated than Jewish honey cake) and was loved by many. Many were fans of its bagels, too. Owner and pastry chef Michelle Polzine told Eater that even before the pandemic, it wasn’t very profitable but was a labor of love.

In my last column I wrote that Israeli kosher bakery Frena had closed its downtown S.F. storefront and was now doing deliveries only, but since then it’s opened back up a few days a week. The hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.

One Market, the San Francisco restaurant that’s been offering a Jewish deli pop-up during the pandemic, reopened this month and announced it’s keeping the Jewish deli items on the menu.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."