Photos: Tcho, where Willy Wonka meets technology

At this chocolate factory, Oompa Loompas have been replaced by iPhones and some tasks are done virtually.


Dara Kerr

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Tcho factory

Willy Wonka meets Silicon Valley at the Tcho chocolate factory on Pier 17 in San Francisco. Wired with virtual and remote technology, this factory is more than just an epicurean experiment.

Founded by former space shuttle technologist-cum-chocolate guru Timothy Childs and led by CEO Louis Rossetto, co-founder of Wired magazine, Tcho mixes state-of-the-art technology with artisan chocolate making to produce pure dark chocolate.

The 20,000 square-foot factory went into operation earlier this month and can produce up to 4,000 metric tons of chocolate per year (enough to fill 200 20-foot shipping containers). It is one of only a few chocolate factories in the U.S. that controls every step in the manufacturing process, from cacao pod to consumer's mouth.

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Cacao beans

"We went to the heart of chocolate," said Rossetto, "which is cacao." Tcho hand-picks cacao beans from Peru, Ghana, and Madagascar and works in their flavor lab to home in on the inherent flavors of each kind of bean.
Tcho has mapped out six different flavors on a flavor wheel: chocolatey, citrus, nutty, earthy, fruity, and floral. None of their chocolate has added flavors; it all comes from the bean. "We're making that one flavor the hero of the chocolate we're making," says Rossetto.
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Bean samples

Bean samples are taken to make sure each bean is perfectly fermented and dried. Once those beans pass the test, they are roasted, cracked, and separated into nibs, then ground with sugar.
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iPhone in use

At Tcho's chocolate factory, the iPhone is the company's modern-day Oompa Loompa. Childs worked with FX Palo Alto Laboratory, a high-tech research lab in Silicon Valley, to develop an iPhone application to control the factory's and lab's machines.
The mixers and grinders can be switched on and off and temperatures can be adjusted with a simple flick of the finger on the iPhone. This way, the factory can run any time of day and remotely.
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When making chocolate, temperature is extremely important. At the Tcho factory, temperature control boxes are hooked up to the Internet so the temperature can be monitored and set remotely and with an iPhone.
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Sticky notes/MacBook

"We're scrappy but not crappy," said Childs, who likes to mix off-the-shelf components, like sticky note labeling systems, with elite technology, such as his MacBook Pro loaded with a custom database to keep track of recipe formulations.
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Virtual factory

"Given where the two of us came from," said Rossetto, "I think it was second nature to apply technology to whatever we were doing."

FX Palo Alto Laboratory also developed a virtual platform where Tcho can use real-time data in a virtual world.

The factory was modeled in 3D in this cyberworld, so machine operators can virtually walk up to any piece of equipment and get information about it. Some of the machines will have interior cameras, which will be able to zoom in so close that operators will see down to the molecular level what is happening with the chocolate as it's mixed and heated.

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Wash basin

Not everything at the Tcho factory is extremely high-tech; in this case a regular wash basin does the trick.
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After the chocolate is refined, pumped into tanks, and squirted into molds, it's layered on tablets ready to be packed.
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Wrapping machine

These may not be Willy Wonka's golden tickets, but they're sure to make many epicureans happy. Much of the machinery at Tcho is vintage chocolate-making equipment from a castle in Germany that has been stripped and refurbished.
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Boxed and ready to go

Once the chocolate is wrapped, it's boxed and ready to go.
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Chocolate pieces

"The chocolate we make is the chocolate we want to eat," says Rossetto. Besides chocolate bars, Tcho also makes chocolate pieces that can be eaten plain or used for cooking in chocolate-based desserts.
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Chocolate-covered confections

Tcho also makes chocolate-covered cashews, mango pieces, macadamias, and roasted cacao nibs.
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Stacked boxes

The 20,000 square-foot factory has plenty of space to store the boxes of chocolate.
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Pier 17 in San Francisco not only is home to the Tcho factory, but also a small storefront where customers can buy chocolate and sit and drink some coffee.

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