Artisan chocolate makers get techie

At Tcho's new high-tech chocolate factory in San Francisco, there's a taste of Silicon Valley's sensibility in every bite of the company's epicurean treats.

What does former space shuttle technologist Timothy Childs have in common with Wired magazine co-founder Louis Rossetto? Chocolate.

The two have linked up to make chocolate that both foodies and techies can appreciate. "Tcho means where technology meets chocolate," says Childs, the company's chocolate guru, referring to the company's name.

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A few years ago, before they were partners, Rossetto ran into Childs at an event in Berkeley, Calif. "He told me he was making chocolate," says Rossetto. "That was such a departure because I had known him as a video technologist."

Childs gave Rossetto a box of his chocolate, and Rossetto says it was the best chocolate he'd ever had. "So, I started buying chocolate from him like he was my own private dealer," Rossetto says. So enthralled with the chocolate, Rossetto told Childs that if he ever got serious, to let him know because he'd like to invest. Well, Childs got serious.

Now, four years later, they own a 20,000 square-foot factory on Pier 17 in San Francisco. Although Tcho officially launched in 2007, the new factory just started operating this month. What makes this chocolate factory special is the tech background that both Childs and Rossetto bring to the chocolate making process.

"We're trying to reinvent stuff like we did when we were in the Valley," said Rossetto. On top of its shiny chrome machinery and the constant lilting waft of chocolate, this state-of-the-art factory is wired with virtual and remote technology that can be controlled through an iPhone and a 3D virtual platform.

With live video capabilities connected to the Internet in every corner of the factory, the chocolate machinery can be remotely operated from halfway across the world (if necessary). Although they're still hammering out the bugs in the system, Childs and Rossetto are hoping to eventually be able to control what's going on with the chocolate all the way down to the molecular level. "It's the backbone of the augmented reality experience we're going to have," said Childs.

They are also bringing technology to the rural farmers who grow Tcho's cacao beans. Childs traveled to Peru and worked with farmers using "tech-whiz-bang stuff to not only help them learn how to make beans better," he said, "but use modern techniques." Tcho takes a percentage of its sales and reinvests it in cacao infrastructure for those communities.

In a sense, it's using technology in every step of the process: from farm, to lab, to factory. "Given where the two of us came from, I think it was second nature to apply technology to whatever we were doing," says Rossetto. "Technology is part of the life blood of who we are."

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About the author

Dara Kerr is a staff writer for CNET focused on the sharing economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado where she developed an affinity for collecting fool's gold and spirit animals.

 

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