A strange Monday sun hits the former Tendernob space of the Liholiho Yacht Club, as Simon Brown molds chocolate into small paintings. Dim light glides across a long marble table as he packs creams and fruit into chocolate cases. In the restaurant’s private cerulean leather-covered living room, which has now been converted into a mini chocolate lab, Brown and his best friend Beau Monroe, resident designer and cat painter, craft confections that will blow your mind.
Of course everyone says that about the stuff they love – “this new Metallica album is going to blow your mind”. But Brown and Monroe are on another level when it comes to extravagant treats, pushing flavor and design to a whole new level. Balsamic jam truffles. Chocolate bars with coconut and passion fruit that look like blown glass. Scottish chocolates and porcini mushrooms designed to evoke the bed of a river. As founders and co-owners of Topogato, a new chocolate company from San Francisco, the two are set to make chocolate history, although all they want to do is be a modern chocolate company.
Brown, who comes to the bay via his hometown of Albuquerque and spent time in Vermont, is Italian-American and learned chocolate-making from some of the best in Europe. Monroe is a boy from Santa Barbara.
They have been friends since 2007, when they met on the street outside the apartment building where they both lived. Brown was fired from the baking director at Linkedin in March 2020. Monroe, sadly, had decided to become a freelance designer in January. “I lost all of my clients, all of that stuff,” Monroe said. “We were in a quarantine bubble doing nothing. Then we realized we had to survive.
At the back of the now vacant Liholiho space on Sutter (the restaurant that has temporarily moved to the Mission) and down a staircase, is Louie’s Gen-Gen Room, which today houses Topogato. Sugar-stained pots and pans litter the ground and over-full boxes fall. Two guys, one dressed in a Counter Culture shirt and the other in an Oakland Surf Club T-shirt, stand in the middle of the beautiful wreck. They joke that they are the bad boys of chocolate. “Everything else is just like what you would give your grandma,” Monroe said.
When it came to naming the company, both wanted something fancy. “We thought Topogato was fun because it’s like the cat and the mouse,” Monroe said. “And that’s how we work together. (While seeing the two finish their sentences and maneuver around their little chocolate factory, you wouldn’t think the relationship was confrontational.)
They started creating chocolate magic in August 2020. They were playing in their apartment kitchen, exchanging ideas. And they were running to their cozy places to refuel: Chili lava cake is Monroe’s vice, while Brown has a penchant for sour trolli gummy worms. Sophisticated inspirations include Temescal Brewing for design and French desserts for their sweetness. Somewhere in all of the experimentation – and remembering what fills their cups – they found the confidence to keep going.
In October 2020, they moved into their current space. Brown is a longtime friend and former employee of Liholiho Yacht Club owner Ravi Kapur. The deal was that the two could use the space as long as Liholiho could sell the chocolates as take-out items during the pandemic shutdown. Before long when things started to reopen, Topogato was a feature of the dessert menu. The sales were spectacular enough that the two men paid rent for about five months.
That said, they’re not sure what got them to the top of the pack. Brown attributes marketing and branding to the Monroe side of the business. Monroe brings it all back to Brown’s product: “People say it’s beautiful,” Monroe said. “They’re like ‘This shit looks crazy.'”
The two decided there was a future in Topogato and set out to raise $ 10,000 for a chocolate tempering machine. To avoid hiring outside investors, they turned to Kickstarter. They exceeded their goal and raised $ 55,000, even appearing on the homepage of the website. “I think that’s why we’re still here,” Monroe said. Brown agrees. “To produce chocolate on a large scale, we needed this machine,” Brown said. “By hand, it’s too small potatoes.”
Monroe reminds Brown that for the first six months he was hand tempering chocolate. Softly spoken, wise Brown. This is the key to their success: the process and the results are impeccable. “You can always find out more,” Brown said in response to All Gas.
Brown, a former Sir Francis Drake and Battery Hotel alumnus, is indeed modest, his arms tattooed in art like the one he creates. Its espresso caramel bar gets tough. The strawberry and almond chocolate bar – although the flute is perhaps a better description because it doesn’t look like a bar – is light and jammy. The pistachio and hibiscus truffle is something one would expect Dune royalty to enjoy after their fantastic dinner, a lush swirl of pink and green making up a tiny pyramid.
As for the future, the duo are no longer convinced that brick and mortar are smart. They bought their machines and now the money has come back monthly, so the rent is not feasible. That said, they love popups and wish SF had two more Ferry Buildings. “We’re in this interesting space,” Monroe said. “We want to be a San Francisco company in whatever San Francisco becomes. How to adapt to the world?