South Bay chocolatiers do their part to support the local economy and satisfy our cravings.
Brian Mundy of Schurra's prepares to cut a sheet of caramel into 1,200 gooey pieces.
Photographs by Kyle Chesser
Only five years old and nestled in downtown Saratoga’s cozy ambience, Saratoga Chocolates is doing their share to sustain the Bay Area economy by creating artfully decadent chocolates with almost exclusively local ingredients. Not far down the road is Schurra’s Fine Confections on The Alameda, a company old enough to be Saratoga Chocolates’ great grandparent, and one that has been seducing the Bay Area with confectionary delicacies since 1912.
While the two companies may be comparable opposites in the highly competitive world of chocolate, one commonality is that both shops place a high priority on serving and supporting the local community.
Saratoga Chocolates’ owner and chocolatier Mary Loomas always loved chocolate. She started making it as a hobby, and after enjoying a successful 20-year career in the high-tech industry, she made a 180-degree life change and enrolled in Valrohna’s Ecole Grand Chocolat in France. To turn her passion into a profession, she utilized her MBA background to write a business plan, then opened her chocolate shop in downtown Saratoga in November of 2005. Now Loomas spends much of her time combing the Bay Area for the finest ingredients to incorporate into her chocolates.
Loomas buys much of her base chocolate from the venerable Guittard Chocolate Company in Burlingame. All of the cream, butter, and nuts she uses are purchased locally, as well as a selection of fruits—typically raspberries, apricots, and strawberries. Loomas also frequents nearby farmers’ markets to find fresh and organic produce to purée at the height of harvest season, then freezes the purées so she has access to quality ingredients year-round. “We’re very lucky to be in California because we have some of the best produce in the world. It just makes sense to buy it here,” she says.
When she attends local farmers’ markets, Loomas says she finds plenty of great organic produce, although choosing organic isn’t her biggest priority in chocolate-making. Whereas some chefs prefer organic ingredients no matter where they come from, Loomas believes it’s important to support small, local companies, whether they are organic or not.
“It keeps our carbon footprint smaller because our ingredients aren’t being shipped from the other side of the globe,” she says. “Besides, there isn’t a company in California that makes enough organic chocolate to supply a chocolatier.”
Loomas says what separates her small-batch chocolates from those made by larger companies is that she “tries to keep everything all-natural and very fresh.” While some chocolate manufacturers add un-necessary amounts of sugar to give their products a longer shelf life, Saratoga Chocolates does not.
Buying local and insisting on the highest quality ingredients has proved to be a successful formula for Loomas. In September of 2009, she opened a second Saratoga Chocolates shop in San Francisco, taking over the retail space of one of the great chocolate legends, Joseph Schmidt. Schmidt operated his shop at 16th Street near Market Street for 25 years. Not long after he sold his company to Hershey’s Chocolates in August 2005, the corporate giant retired the Schmidt brand.
“When I found out [Schmidt’s] store was being closed, I didn’t want a location that has such a long history of chocolate
to go without another chocolate store,” Loomas says.
Although Saratoga Chocolates’ products now cover the shelves of the renowned San Francisco chocolate shop, patrons find that one Joseph Schmidt tradition remains. In a nod to the chocolate maestro, Loomas has reintroduced the chocolate “sculptures” that made Schmidt famous, including the chocolate vases, bowls, and tulips that were often displayed as edible centerpieces at high-end San Francisco dinner parties and wedding receptions.
While sculpting these elaborate chocolate creations may be best left to the experts, chocolate lovers who want to learn how to create simpler confections can attend one of Loomas’s truffle-making classes. The hands-on sessions cover everything you need to know about how to handle chocolate. Classes are held on a regular basis in her Saratoga shop, or Loomas is offering a workshop at Draeger’s Cooking School in Menlo Park on February 24. And yes, you get to eat your assignments.
Saratoga Chocolates, 14572 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, , and 3489 16th Street, San Francisco, , saratogachocolates.com.
During the last century in the Santa Clara Valley, the business landscape has changed dramatically. Farming and ranching have been replaced by high-tech. Mom-and-pop shops have been made obsolete by big-box stores and online retailers. Corporate coffee shops are a dominant theme on almost every city block. But at a small retail store on The Alameda, 100 years’ worth of tradition is not just surviving, but thriving.
Schurra’s Fine Confections has been on The Alameda in San Jose since 1937. French-born Albert Schurra opened his first candy factory in Stockton in 1912. By the 1920s, he owned five shops around the Sacramento area and shipped candy to customers all over the West Coast. In 1937, when the Great Depression hit, he downsized to one store, located on The Alameda. When Schurra reached retirement age, Hank and Gayle Viehweger bought and ran the shop, learning the candy-making business directly from Schurra himself. Nearly 40 years later, when the Viehwegers retired, they passed on Schurra’s much-loved recipes and techniques to Bill Mundy, who bought the shop 26 years ago. Today his son, Brian Mundy, runs it.
Nearly a century after the store first opened, Schurra’s chocolate still tastes the same, partly because of the heritage recipes, and partly because the candy-making machinery that was used in the early days is still churning out chocolates today. If you like your sweets with a dose of nostalgia, Schurra’s is the place to indulge.
Stepping into Schurra’s, the scintillating aroma of melting cocoa takes your breath away. In the rear of the shop, where the confections are made, stands a drop-down mixer standing six feet tall, a row of marble tables, huge copper kettles, and a cream beater. All are original to the company, says Mundy. One of the mixers was originally on a Navy ship in World War II and was purchased as surplus after the war. Some of the machines are so old that if there is a breakdown, Mundy has to fashion his own replacement parts.
Along with continuing to use historical candy-making methods, Mundy says he always tries to buy local ingredients. “It’s not really a green initiative, it’s just what we’ve been doing for 26 years,” he says. Mundy gets his dried fruit from a company that used to be in San Jose and is now located in Madera. His chocolate comes from Union City. Schurra’s packaging boxes are made in Hayward.
Mundy says he also works hard to produce candy that customers can’t purchase anywhere else. The company still makes the peppermint chews that have been a store staple since Albert Schurra opened shop in 1912. But they create new products, too. One of the more recent confections is a port-soaked French prune, made by “taking prunes that are locally grown and dried, soaking them in port, and covering them in our chocolate,” Mundy says. “You’re not going to find this anywhere else. I guarantee it.”
Schurra’s Fine Confections, 840 The Alameda, San Jose, , schurrasfineconfections.com.
South Bay Chocolatiers Think Outside the Box
Chocolate Dream Box
Holly Westbrook started off selling imported Belgian confections, but now offers only her own handcrafted chocolates. Hopelessly addicted fans cry out for “passion”—passion fruit purée and smooth, dark chocolate ganache in a white chocolate shell. 710 Blossom Hill Rd., Los Gatos, chocolatedreambox.com, .
Fleur de Cocoa
Pascal Janvier and his wife, Nicola, offer chocolates, pastries, cakes, and tartes, as well as a café menu. Chocolate croissants, Chocolate Royal cake, and the signature “fleur de cocoa” with extra-dark chocolate ganache draw raves. Janvier typically uses very dark chocolate in the 68 to 70 percent range. Not for the timid. 39 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, fleurdecocoa.com, .
Audrey Vaggione grows many of the ingredients she uses in her creations. Depending on the season, the selection includes lemon verbena, mint, and raspberry flavored chocolates. These are grown-up chocolates for the sophisticated palate. 18828 Cox Ave., Saratoga, dolcebellachocolates.com, .
Go To Chocolate
Based in San Carlos, Michael Hohenthal sells his chocolates online and at farmers’ markets, including Saturdays at the College of San Mateo market. Go To Chocolate offers chocolate bars, toffee, a line of vegan chocolates, and seasonal flavors like roasted persimmon chipotle truffle. Broaden your horizons. gotochocolate.com, .
Snake and Butterfly
Producers of “organic live” chocolate, Snake and Butterfly sells its chocolate bars, truffles, and signature chocolate-dipped flavored marshmallows online. Legions of devoted fans hunt them down at two Santa Cruz farmers’ markets and the downtown Campbell farmers’ market. Hand-poured bars include flavors like “cherry and chili.” snakeandbutterfly.com, . —Sue McAllister