Only in San Francisco could a former NASA space-shuttle technologist hook-up with a confectionary industry veteran and the founder of Wired magazine to launch an organic, anti-slavery chocolate. ‘Silicon Valley start-up meets San Francisco foodie culture’, as its website tells us self-consciously. TCHO (Technology CHOcolate) which launched its first variety to ‘beta testers’ (in the tradition of testing new software) in 2005, is the result of the kind of personal obsessions that come from people who have been very successful and want an amusing retirement project. The website, where you can upload a photo of yourself and your ‘honey’ for Valentine’s, or follow the founders’ blog, seems to back this up. But behind the homespun veneer, the company means business and looks set to change the way we think about chocolate, in the way that Californian winemakers transformed the classification of wine with the introduction of American Viticultural Areas in
TCHO founders Louis Rossetto, who established Wired magazine, engineer Timothy Childs, and chocolate expert Karl Bittong, are also very serious about the design of the identity and packaging. As former creative director of Wired, Susanna Dulkinys was already involved in advising her old friend Rossetto about the design approach to TCHO. With her husband Erik Spiekermann – the type designer and Blueprint columnist – Dulkinys spends part of the year in San Francisco and the rest in London and Berlin. Soon after the launch, Dulkinys and Spiekermann were not just advising, but investing in the business. The challenge, according to Dulkinys, became ‘not just how to design a bar of chocolate, but how to build a brand.’
The first step was the logotype, which bridges the initial ‘beta’ packaging of brown paper bags with the precious, gold-printed packaging that was recently launched. As the brand was being built in the background, the company was optimizing the formulation/ process and taking-in peoples’ feedback about the flavours.
Meanwhile, the logo was intended to be simple and strong – ‘as if it could be stenciled on to the side of a tanker,’ says Dulkinys. TCHO, it turns out, uses letters that are the least interesting characters in the alphabet. Dulkinys therefore decided to twist and chamfer the letters to give them personality. The letter ‘T’ stayed simple – the fewest strokes it takes to create a letter. But the other letters were adapted, as if carved out of chunks of chocolate. The length of the logotype is contained within two squares. The square forms the basic unit of the smallest five-gram bar of chocolate, 32sq mm. The largest bar, 1kg, consisting of 15 squares, but this is intended for cooking with. This modular system, which stems from the production process, is the building-block for all elements of the packaging and other forms of communication.
When the packaging for TCHO’s 1.0 chocolate was launched, Dulkinys’s idea for the brand really came into play: her starting point was the fact that in Mayan and Aztec culture chocolate, or more accurately the cacao bean, was a form of currency. Setting out to make packaging that looked valuable, Dulkinys began looking at the design of European bank notes, which she describes as ‘colourful but incredibly disciplined’. Taking the complex geometric patterns from the notes, designed to be universal, but very hard to copy, she developed six different patterns, one for each of the six flavours. The patterns, printed in gold on smooth card, take their cue from the flavours: for Nutty, the design is the abstracted shape of a peanut shell; Chocolatey is like a flow of liquid chocolate; Earthy is based on crop circles, while Fruity is based on the cross section of an orange slice. The algorithmic guilloche patterns also appear on the chocolate itself.
In the early days, as if it was new software, the chocolate was ‘beta tested’. Each bar was given a number and consumers could go to a very simple website and grade the chocolate ‘as a way of practising in public’, explains Dulkinys. TCHO was keen to move away from the percentage approach to defining chocolate, so instead of categorising each type by its cacao content, it is graded according to the flavour and the origin of the beans. TCHO only makes dark chocolate and flavours come from the inherent taste of the beans rather than added ingredients. A flavour wheel represents the six types which each originate from cacao beans around the world. For example, according to TCHO, Citrus is made from beans sourced from a ‘certified organic estate in the Sambirano Valley of Madagascar, one of the world’s hotbeds of tropical biodiversity.’
San Francisco has a history of chocolate manufacturing, the most famous ‘bean to bar’ company being Ghirardelli, established in 1852. But despite this great tradition, TCHO claims it is the only company actually manufacturing chocolate within the city. Building on the growing interest in food sourcing, process and ingredients, the company located its factory on pier 17 of the Embarcadero between the tourist area around pier 39, and the Ferry building, which was converted into a food market in 1993 and is a magnate for San Francisco foodies.
The factory and factory shop are designed by local architect Holey Associates with Nik Hafermaas of UeBersee. The shop is still small – you can pick up a coffee and bar of chocolate – but eventually TCHO will open an enlarged visitor centre with factory tours, multi-media presentations and a ‘taste taxonomy’, plus of course, a vast shop selling the dark stuff.
If all this sounds over the top, it helps to remember that the TCHO founders’ slogan is ‘be obsessed, be very obsessed’, and one of their aims is not to produce a snack to be eaten mid-afternoon with a cup of coffee, but to ‘change the world.’