From her tiny “chocolate lab” in a historic San Francisco building, co-founder Lan Phan manufactures single-origin bean-to-bar chocolate in small batches with big flavor.
Before founding 9th and Larkin with her husband, Brian, Phan worked as an analyst. “There was one project where I interacted with lots of people in manufacturing startup companies in the San Francisco Bay Area,” she recalls. “They were making all sorts of things from electric skateboards to personal devices. They were all excited about what they were doing and always full of energy. The idea of making something tangible is really inspiring, and I wanted to make something by myself with my hands.”
She decided to put those hands to work learning to make chocolate from scratch. “I love eating, and I love eating chocolate,” Phan says. “We started experimenting in our home kitchen soon after. In 2016, I traded my day job for a bag of cacao beans, and I have been full-time making chocolate since.”
Neither Phan nor her husband had experience in the food industry, but they were eventually able to find a 700-square foot space where they could build a commercial kitchen — which they call their chocolate lab — and “pass multiple inspections from the building department, fire department, and health department before we could officially move in and start making chocolate,” she continues. “It really was starting from scratch for us. When I go to the grocery stores and see all those products on the shelves, I admire them as I now know how much effort [went] into it, especially in the hand crafted, small batch category.”
Phan focuses on manufacturing single origin dark chocolate with between 70 percent and 74 percent cacao. “At the moment, we’re working with cacao beans from seven different origins,” she says. These include Vietnam, Tanzania, Honduras, Dominical Republic, Fiji, and Madagascar. “Our sugar is organic cane sugar that is usually from Brazil,” she adds, “and our organic cocoa butter is usually from the Dominican Republic.”
Keeping additional ingredients minimal means the cacao beans themselves remain the star of every bar of chocolate crafted at 9th and Larkin. “Cacao grown in different parts of the world produces beans that have different flavor profiles because the soil, amount of rainfall, and sunlight is different from one region to another,” Phan explains. “Terroir may sound like an abstract thing, but it is tangible when you can taste the landscape where those cacao trees are cultivated.”
The manufacturing process is almost entirely by hand, and Phan doesn’t have plans to automate in the future due to limited space and love for the special attention she can pay to each step of the manual process.
“We sort beans by hand,” she says, “roast them in a tiny batch of just about seven pounds, and sort again after roasting. Depending on the beans, we often spend hours winnowing — picking out husks that got into the nibs bin. Our cacao nibs are then stone-ground with organic cane sugar and cocoa butter until they become smooth chocolate. I still pour one bar at a time when tempering, foil wrap each bar, put on the outer wrapper, apply labels by hand, and write the batch number and best-by date by hand, one bar at a time.”
Phan’s customers purchase her chocolate bars from the company’s online store — which ships to all 50 U.S. states — as well as from a number of specialty stores in the Bay Area, New York, New Jersey, and Oregon. The company’s most popular product is the Monthly Chocolate Club subscription. “We ship three bars of chocolate to our club members every month,” she says. “Two bars are from our main collection and one micro-batch that is usually available to our club members only.”
If she had to name a favorite among all the bars she has crafted, Phan says it would be the Tien Giang Vietnam 70 Percent Cacao. “Cacao beans grown in Mekong Delta areas usually have a very complex profile of dried fruits, nuts, molasses, and spices,” she says. “In addition to that, I am from Vietnam, so I am very fond of Vietnamese cacao beans. Getting to work with these beans makes me feel close to home.”
Phan notes that 9th and Larkin is a “very small chocolate maker compared to other bean-to-bar chocolate companies out there. We want to stay crafted and stay mindful. For us, it’s not about making a lot of chocolate. It’s about making chocolate in small batches with care. I’d like to think of each bar of the chocolates we make as a representation of us. We want to make something that we are proud to put out there, and we want to make people feel special when they enjoy [it].”
Challenges: “Being a small business is tough,” says Phan. “Being a small business that is making food by hand is even tougher. There aren’t many [chocolate] manufacturing companies in San Francisco, so it is quite cool to be able to say our product [is made here.] But it also comes with challenges like very limited space, high rent, many restrictions — as we are located in a historic building — and the cost to do anything is much higher than almost anywhere else.”
Opportunities: Phan says more consumers are learning about 9th and Larkin’s artisan chocolate thanks to the favorable press the company has received. “We were featured in an article about chocolate by the Bay in Wine Spectator magazine,” she continues. “America’s Test Kitchen recently reviewed our products, and the review was published in Cooks Illustrated magazine, so people started to know about us. We are very grateful, as we rely on word of mouth.”
Needs: Phan says the company has a lot of needs currently, “but they are the chicken and eggs kind.” She explains, “We need this to do that, but we need that before we can do this… so, we would like to keep them to ourselves for the moment.”