On Market Street in San Francisco’s financial district, a yellow sign outside Fog City News proclaims, “Yes really: 200 amazing chocolate bars to choose from!” Beneath it, a clipart finger points into the store. Follow it and you’ll find yourself in another world.
“We’re like a wine store for chocolate. Our selection right now is about 215 bars and it varies seasonally—there are some limited-edition bars that are only available at the holidays,” says Adam Smith, Fog City News’s chocolate buyer and educator. His shop reflects what he and his staff consider the very best of bean-to-bar chocolate (made directly from the cacao bean), inclusion bars (flavored, for example, with salt, coconut, or bacon), and confections (truffles, bonbons, and the like).
Smith’s sole criterion? Flavor. “[At Fog City News,] we don’t care about the packaging. We don’t care about the price, even. If the flavor’s not there, we’re not carrying it.”
Smith didn’t set out to be a chocolate buyer. After all, the shop is called Fog City News, not Fog City Chocolate. Opened in 1999 as a newsstand, by the end of 2000 the shop began to dabble in fine chocolate. Since then, fine chocolate has expanded outside of specialty shops and into the grocery aisle. That’s not surprising given the growing cachet of food, not to mention frequent studies reminding us of chocolate’s health benefits. But as anyone who has gotten cozy with their local butcher, fish-, or cheesemonger has learned, it pays to shop with the experts.
Robert Cabeca owns Cocova in Washington, DC. He bought the shop in 2011 from then-owner Biagio Abatiello and changed the shop’s name from Biagio Chocolate. Cabeca carries “over 1000 chocolates from more than 100 vendors from around the world…the majority are what we consider small-batch producers.”
He believes there are three main reasons to buy from specialty chocolate shops: selection, sampling, and education. Cabeca gives people “the opportunity to taste chocolates before they buy… We don’t make decisions for them; we don’t sell them chocolate they don’t want.” Similarly, at Fog City News, I’ve yet to enter the shop without the front-counter staff proffering multiple morsels.
Cabeca teaches chocolate tasting classes to help customers develop their palates. His students can expect to “compare different chocolates, one to another, to get a better idea of differences of variety and cocoa content.” (He also teaches a “very popular” truffle-making class.)
The chocolate education that Cabeca, Smith, and their compatriots offer help their customers learn more about chocolate and find chocolate they’ll like. It’s also a key benefit that they can offer their suppliers, many of which are small business with limited time and miniscule marketing budgets.
Take, for example, Colin Gasko. He’s the owner, chocolate maker, and one of two full-time employees at Rogue Chocolatier, a bean-to-bar company based in Three Rivers, Massachusetts. “If it wasn’t for [specialty chocolate] stores, the [fine chocolate] market wouldn’t be where it is today. They…explain the real merit of our products, express how complex it is to manufacture chocolate, and address misunderstandings,” he explains. “There’s a lot of value there.”
That creates a mutually beneficial relationship. Says Gasko, “I talk to my stores a lot…and they’ll contact me and ask questions.” That inside track equips retailers like Smith and Cabeca to better answer questions and help customers try new things.
At Fog City News, Smith has a membership program where customers who buy 10 bars get their 11th free, with a catch—they have to be 10 different bars. It’s his way of encouraging people to expand their chocolate comfort zone. While he admits that some of his customers buy the same bar repeatedly, there are others who are “stimulated by new and different things.”
To wit, Fog City News’s century club heralds those who have purchased 100 different bars. “You’d be amazed at how it motivates people,” says Smith. “They want their name on the wall.” Currently, 14 people are part of the century club, and four people, who have purchased more than 200 different bars, belong to the double century club.
But you don’t need to be a century club member to get Smith’s attention. He focuses on each person individually. “Customers always want to know my favorite or what’s the best selling. That has nothing to do with that they’re going to like.” Cabeca concurs: “No one has the same palate. You can be descriptive, but…no two people taste the same way.”
The solution? Ample samples and conversation. Says Smith, “Come on by! Tell me about the chocolates you like…and let’s talk about flavor.”
Here are some specialty chocolate shops worth checking out, in pseudo-geographic order:
- Xoxolat (Vancouver, BC, Canada)
- Chocolopolis (Seattle, WA)
- Cacao (Portland, OR)
- The Meadow (Portland, OR and New York City, NY)
- Fog City News (San Francisco, CA)
- The Chocolate Garage (Palo Alto, CA)
- 2Beans (New York City, NY)
- Cocova (Washington, DC)