How an Italian chocolatier created the sweetest San Francisco icon
By J.C. Thomas
Ghirardelli, the third-oldest chocolatier in the United States, is today a beloved international brand. Contemporary consumers can’t get enough of the company’s filled chocolate squares, brownie mix and many other chocolate products. In San Francisco, Ghirardelli holds iconic status as a company, as a place and as a person – the Italian-born immigrant Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli. The story behind the name spans three centuries and three continents, some Gold Rush-era ups and downs, and even a savior story involving some high-society San Franciscans. Of course, that delicious chocolate is the one constant, and the true star of the story.
Who Was Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli?
Domenico Ghirardelli was born in 1817 in Rapallo, Italy, as the son of a spice merchant. Ghirardelli started his working life in his teens as a chocolatier’s apprentice. As a young adult he moved to South America to become a coffee and chocolate merchant, first landing in Uruguay in 1838 and continuing shortly after to Peru. Here, Domenico started going by “Domingo,” the Spanish version of his name.
Ghirardelli’s business in Peru was next door to one owned by James Lick, a real estate investor who went on to become the wealthiest man in California at the time of his death. In 1848, Lick traveled to San Francisco in anticipation of the Gold Rush, bringing with him 600 pounds Ghirardelli’s chocolate. It sold out so quickly among the luxury-deprived miners that Lick strongly encouraged Domingo to come to California, and to bring his chocolate business with him.
Ghirardelli and the Gold Rush
Upon the advice of James Lick, Domingo Ghirardelli traveled to San Francisco in 1849. He dabbled in gold mining but soon recognized the more prudent prospects were in selling chocolate and other goods. Ghirardelli opened his first general store in Stockton, followed by two more stores in San Francisco and Mariposa County.
Ghirardelli’s Gold Era fortunes had ups and downs. The year of 1851 saw a major slump, with Ghirardelli’s San Francisco store destroyed by fire, and his Stockton store meeting the same fate just days later. A new venture in San Francisco, the Cairo Coffee House, would also be short lived.
Ghirardelli (Eventually) Strikes it Rich in San Francisco
Domingo Ghirardelli pursued his California dream once again with a new San Francisco store named Ghirardely & Girard. The store on the corner of Washington and Kearney streets was successful enough that Ghirardelli was able to bring his wife and children from Peru to San Francisco.
The Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was incorporated in 1852. In addition to chocolate, the company sold coffee, mustard, spices and other goods all around the globe. It saw a significant, steady rise in demand through the next few decades. This required a series of moves to newer, larger spaces throughout San Francisco. In 1893, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory took over the Pioneer Woolen Mill on North Point Street, a space covering an entire city block.
A notable achievement for the company occurred in 1865 when a factory worker invented the “Broma process.” The worker observed that when cacao beans are hung in a warm room, cocoa butter will separate and drip down, leaving dry beans behind. Those dry beans were easily ground into powder. This method for producing cocoa powder became standard across the entire chocolate industry.
Ghirardelli in the 20th Century
Domingo Ghirardelli retired in 1892, leaving his company in the hands of his three sons. Domingo died during a visit to Rapallo, Italy, in 1894 at the age of 77.
In the early 1900s, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company sold its coffee and spices divisions to focus only on chocolate and mustard. The landmark factory survived the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 unscathed. The company added its own power house, an apartment building and striking clock tower to the factory, and in 1923 erected its famous illuminated-letter marquee. Ships sailing into the bay would see “Ghirardelli” lit up over the shore as they approached San Francisco.
In the 1960s, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was bought by the Golden Grain Macaroni Company, makers of Rice-a-Roni, “the San Francisco Treat.” The new parent company moved Ghirardelli’s operations across the bay to San Leandro and put the old factory up for sale.
In 1998, Ghirardelli became a subsidiary of the Swiss chocolate company Lindt & Sprungli. Ghirardelli now has retail stores nationwide and is a household name. The company launched its signature filled squares in 1999, and celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2002.
Ghirardelli Square as a San Francisco Landmark
When the Rice-a-Roni folks put the old Ghirardelli factory up for sale in the 1960s, it was in imminent danger of demolition. The site was saved by prominent San Francisco residents William M. Roth and his mother, the shipping heiress and philanthropist Lurline Matson Roth. They purchased the factory and – making sure to preserve its brick architecture and stately clock tower – transformed it into a very pleasant retail and dining complex.
The City of San Francisco declared Ghirardelli Square an official city landmark in 1965, and in 1982 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ghirardelli Square remains one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations. The 15-foot letters crowning the square in homage to the Ghirardelli name were taken down for restoration earlier this year. For months there was a noticeable Ghirardelli-shaped gap in the city skyline. The letters were put back up in late September, looking just like the originals but with new, color-changing LEDs.
Ghirardelli, an icon of San Francisco, is back and better than ever. The chocolate never went away.