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‘Bean to bar’

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Neuman Hotel Group photo Scharffen Berger donated chocolate for provisions boxes featured in this year’s virtual Oregon Chocolate Festival.
Neuman Hotel Group photo Scharffen Berger chocolate, recently relocated to Ashland, is featured in desserts at Larks restaurant in the Ashland Springs Hotel.
Neuman Hotel Group photo Scharffen Berger chocolate, recently relocated to Ashland, is featured in desserts at Larks restaurant in the Ashland Springs Hotel.
Prestigious chocolate maker Scharffen Berger has moved into the former Dagoba plant in Ashland and has big plans

The artisan food scene in Southern Oregon is sweeter since the recent arrival of a prestigious chocolate maker.

Scharffen Berger moved its headquarters into the former Dagoba plant on Ashland’s Benson Way, which sat idle for the past two years as a Hershey Co. asset. Both Scharffen Berger and Dagoba were Hershey holdings until a year ago, when the former bought itself back from the chocolate giant and acquired the latter in the process, says Chief Financial Officer Chris Spirko.

“It felt right to bring back chocolate to the Ashland area,” says Spirko, adding that Scharffen Berger is “embracing the founder mentality.”

Founded in San Francisco 25 years ago, Scharffen Berger characterizes itself as the country’s original craft chocolate. Conceived from the beginning as a “bean-to-bar” product, Scharffen Berger was born from the passion of California winemaker John Scharffenberger and chocolate connoisseur Robert Steinberg. The partnership focused on expressing the true flavor of cacao, rather than subduing it with sugar and other additives, eventually becoming the first American brand to specify cacao content as a percentage on its labels.

“We’ve made this state-of-the-art facility,” says Spirko of investing $4 million in equipment for Scharffen Berger’s 20,000 square feet of factory and warehouse.

Including a granite melanger from Europe, the machinery will be ready for production in July, says Spirko. Roasting raw cacao beans, grinding the nibs, refining the resulting chocolate liquor, tempering chocolate and mixing it with other ingredients are all steps that Scharffen Berger performs in house, compared with the industry prevalence of purchasing chocolate liquor from large cacao processors.

“We’re gonna be full bean-to-bar production,” says Spirko, adding that he believes Scharffen Berger’s factory will be the best of its size in the United States.

Local talent also is a key piece of Scharffen Berger’s strategy, says Spirko, acknowledging the region’s renown for fine chocolates, among other specialty foods. His company, says Spirko, is poised to immediately add 25 employees to its team of 10 and possibly hire as many as 40 people already based in Southern Oregon.

“We want to be an employer of choice in the Ashland area,” says Spirko. “There’s roots of chocolate-making in this area.”

And Scharffen Berger’s potential for growth locally is “huge,” says Karolina Wyszynska Lavagnino, director of sales and marketing for Neuman Hotel Group.

Partnerships between Scharffen Berger and Neuman’s Larks restaurant and Luna Cafe — not to mention numerous special events — are in the works, says Lavagnino. Chief among the chocolate maker’s local commitments is the Oregon Chocolate Festival, which received Scharffen Berger donations for this year’s Chocolate Maker’s Sweet & Savory Provision Boxes, which encouraged participants to bake at home while enjoying virtual programs and festivities.

Next year’s festival at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites, says Lavagnino, likely will be a bigger draw because of Scharffen Berger’s expertise and the chance for visits to its factory.

“I’m just thrilled!” exclaims Lavagnino, who has toured the facility four times.

Also encouraging partnerships with local wineries, Lavagnino foreshadowed a Scharffen Berger presence at August’s Oregon Wine Experience in Jacksonville. The chocolate maker already has been featured alongside Belle Fiore for the label’s wine club release, says Spirko. Such collaborations extend the influence that Scharffen Berger enjoyed among California wineries and culinary destinations, he adds.

“We’re in a perfect area to partner with great wines.”

While Dagoba used to hold some of that distinction in Southern Oregon, there is no timeline for reinstating the brand in the near future, says Spirko, formerly of M&M Mars. Scharffen Berger’s leadership, including Chief Executive Officer Paul Cherrie, experts from Hershey and Scharffenberger, himself, are immersed in ensuring that brand’s integrity.

A champion of eco-conscious and sustainable farming, Scharffen Berger sources cacao exclusively from growers certified by Rainforest Alliance, an international nonprofit organization working to conserve biodiversity and promote the rights and wellbeing of workers, their families and communities. Scharffen Berger touts its routine visits to farms growing its cacao in Madagascar, Indonesia, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Tanzania, Venezuela, Brazil, Panama, Vietnam, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, Bali, Ghana and Peru.

Known for its organic certification, hand-poured methods and even recipes with medicinal herbs, Dagoba cost Hershey $17 million for its 2006 purchase from founder Frederick Schilling. Yet Dagoba was never a bean-to-bar operation like Scharffen Berger, notes Spirko.

The company has not disclosed what it paid Hershey last year, but value remains in the Dagoba name.

“Dagoba holds a special place in the hearts of Oregonians,” says Spirko.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.