Cocoa beans ready to be processed
Americas USA

Chatting with the Ex-Googler who Travels the World for Chocolate

November 1, 2018

This post is about chocolate. I’m already excited! Continuing on with my little series interviewing people with fascinating ventures from around the world, I recently had the opportunity to chat with Greg D’Alesandre from Dandelion Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate factory and café in San Francisco, started by two Stanford grads. Greg, an ex-Googler himself, and one of the owners at Dandelion, has the best job in the world – he travels to chocolate farms across the globe to source cocoa beans. His business card literally says “Bean Sourcer”. Here are some snippets from our conversation, where we discussed chocolate, travel and everything in between.

Tell us a little about Dandelion Chocolate.

Dandelion is a bean-to-bar chocolate factory, which means we roast, crack, sort, winnow, grind, conch, and temper the cocoa beans, and package each chocolate bar by hand. When Dandelion started in 2010 in San Francisco, there were only about 10-15 bean-to-bar manufacturers in the US. Now there’s over 200! In fact, we recently opened a factory in Japan. Our chocolates only contain cacao and sugar – which means we’ve got nothing masking the flavor of our chocolate, so our beans have to be exceptional in flavor!

The interiors of the Dandelion Chocolate Factory and Cafe in San Francisco

Hot chocolate at Dandelion

Bean to bar

The Dandelion Chocolate Factory in San Francisco

The Dandelion Chocolate Factory and Cafe are located in the same spot, so you can watch how chocolate is made while eating some!

So, what does chocolate sourcing entail? Where do you travel to?

We have 13 producers in 12 countries around the world, including Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Brazil, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Belize, Tanzania and recently, India. I travel for a few different purposes – either to check out a potential new producer we could work with, or to maintain relationships with existing farms. The idea is to learn about our producers’ best practices, share challenges, and make sure that we maintain high standards of quality and sustainability.

FYI – globally, the production of cocoa beans is at 4.5 million tons. The Ivory Coast, Ecuador, Ghana and Indonesia produce 80% of the world’s cocoa!

Melting chocolate at Dandelion's factory

Delicious pastries at the Dandelion Cafe

Some of the delicious pastries at Dandelion

Super cool! So, what actually happens on a chocolate farm?

There are actually three different models of cocoa production in the world. You’ve got small holder farmers, who have about 1-2 hectares of land. They grow the trees, harvest the pods, ferment and dry them on their own. 90% of the world’s cocoa production actually comes from small holder farmers!

The second type are single-estate farmers, who own about 100-400 hectares of land. They have the financial resources to build better fermentation facilities, and distribute the beans themselves. As a result, they develop a brand name.

Finally, you’ve got the centralized processing model. These are full-fledged businesses! Someone builds a fermentery, and buys beans from several different farmers. This is the best of both worlds – farmers sell their beans to a third party, but you get high quality fermentation at a large scale.

The turning process at a chocolate farm in Venezuela

At a chocolate farm in Venezuela

Wait, let’s back up a bit. How is cocoa grown?

So, cocoa trees actually take 3-5 years from the time they’ve been planted to the time they’re actually producing pods. But the average life cycle of pod production is 6 months. The pods are broken open and fermented in boxes. The fermentation is what changes the texture and flavor of the beans. But – oxygen is the key element of a good fermentation process. As the beans are fermented, they turn into a heavy clumped mass at the bottom of the box. It’s important to break this mass up to ensure that oxygen continues to penetrate through. So farmers do what’s called “turning” – this is actually really hard work. You have to turn the beans around every day!

Inside the cocoa beans and pods

The inside of the pods!

Very cool! Tell us more about your trips. Can regular people accompany you?

Absolutely! So there are three types of trips I take. There are the sourcing and exploratory trips that I mentioned earlier, to visit existing or potential farmers. And I lead customer trips! Thrice a year, we bring our customers to visit the farms we source from. We travel to Belize, Dominican Republic and Tanzania, and the trips are a combination of history, culture and (of course) chocolate! For example, in the Dominican Republic, we stay on a bird sanctuary. In Tanzania, we go on a safari! The idea is to give our customers a flavor of the local culture, while also learning a little something about where their favorite chocolate comes from.

Dandelion Customer trip in Belize in 2014

Customer trip in Belize in 2014

Greg D'alesandre, co-owner of Dandelion Chocolate

That’s Greg!

What’s the best part about traveling to chocolate farms? What drives you?

For me, it’s about respect. I’m not going to sit around in San Francisco, and have the farmers do all the hard work, and just ask them to send over their beans. I need to put in just as much time, effort and money to visit them, and learn from them.

Most of the farmers we work with don’t travel the world, so it’s also exciting to help these people understand the differences, learn what’s happening in another part of the world, and connect the producers. For example, one of our producers in the Honduras has to transport his beans across a river, which takes two full days. It’s such a challenging process. We’ve connected him with a few of our other producers around the world, to exchange notes! Bridging this gap, understanding these differences and making global connections is really motivating. That’s why I take almost 12-14 trips a year!

Dandelion chocolate making process at the chocolate farm

Dandelion chocolate bars on cocoa beans

The finished product!

Dandelion chocolate desserts from around the world

Dandelion cafe boasts of some delicious desserts, made with Dandelion chocolate from around the world!

What are some of the coolest experiences you’ve had on these trips?

So many! The best part about these trips is that they expose me to things I wouldn’t otherwise do. In the Honduras, I’ve been canoeing and camping. I’ve partied with the farmers in the Dominican Republic. In fact, the producers use my visit as an excuse to do things they like doing and don’t otherwise get the time to do 🙂

What’s next – for you, for Dandelion and for the chocolate industry?

I’m super excited about partnering with more producers in different parts of the world, and bringing different flavors of chocolate to the forefront. We’ve just started conversations with producers in Vietnam, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

As for the bean-to-bar industry – it’s really growing. When we opened shop in Japan in 2015, there were only 6 bean-to-bar producers in the country. Now there are 100! There’s some in the Czech Republic too – check out Herufek, a small family-run bean-to-bar manufactory located in a gorgeous vineyard setting, if you’re ever in the area.

The thing I love most is that anywhere in the world – someone is either producing chocolate, or making and selling chocolate (or both). We’re all universally excited about chocolate!

Dandelion chocolate wall display

My love for chocolate took me to Dandelion, while I was visiting San Francisco. I was just there to catch up with a friend over hot chocolate. But since the café and factory are located in the same location, I got a glimpse into the amazing backstory of the chocolate I was consuming. I knew this was a story I had to share. When I chatted with folks at Dandelion, they told me Greg would be the best person to speak with. Someone who combines travel and chocolate – how could I not write about this? 🙂 Fun fact – Dandelion also buys carbon credits when they buy beans in the Dominican Republic. They use this money to pay farmers to grow trees locally!

Thanks to Dandelion for the photos!