Meet Jack From Chocolate Covered
| Written by: Tiny House Chocolate
Hidden gem in SF has one of the widest varieties of craft chocolates in North America and you’ve got to meet its owner: Jack Epstein.
You are about to read the unique story of Chocolate Covered, the sweetest tourist spot in San Francisco, which opened in 1994. With over a thousand artisan chocolate bars from around the world today, Tiny House’s single-origin collection included, the chocolate boutique became the cradle of the Bean to Bar movement. We can’t talk about the store without mentioning its founder, Jack Epstein, an entrepreneur who sold clothes in festivals in Venice Beach in the ’80s before moving to San Francisco. He serves each customer personally in this cozy hidden gem in Noe Valley.
During a visit to the amazing store, Epstein explained how the business started and how he learned to make the iconic tins hanging on the wall. He also revealed what are his favorite bars among all the 1,248 different ones, and what makes him sell exotic chocolates with fish, mushrooms, and cheese; how Chocolate Covered is surviving the pandemic, and how he misses having people over. Be our guest:
TH: How did you become interested in the bean-to-bar chocolate world, and how did you come up with the idea to start Chocolate Covered?
I didn’t have a great personal relationship with chocolate, but my original business, which started on Venice Beach, in 1979, with my partner Marilyn, was clothing. We sold clothes that we made and sold on the beach, and arts and crafts show around the country. In 1983, we decided that there were more craft shows in Northern California, and that was what brought us to San Francisco. So we moved here in 1983 and the clothing business supported us for about 15 years, but at some point, I saw the handwriting on the wall that it wasn’t gonna be enough, and since retail was all that I was familiar with, all I thought I could make a living at. My partner and her mother loved chocolate, and I was getting them gifts all the time. Back in 1984, there was a space for rental, a small basement store on the next block, and I said “Well, I’ll take it. What should I do with it?” And I decided to sell chocolate since there was none in the neighborhood. In 1994, in a basement store of 200 square feet, I started Chocolate Covered, and it was always going to be a boutique. I never claimed to make chocolate myself, I mean, coming out of a clothing boutique my concept was to make a chocolate boutique.
In 1997, a small street-level store, three doors over, opened up, and I was able to move up, and out of the basement. That was when Scharffen Berger walked in and all the others, Taza, and Theo, and all the early people, Black Mountain Chocolate, Oakland Chocolate Company. Several of them came out of the UC Davis chocolate program, and I embraced them immediately, cause I was a boutique, and I wanted what was new, and what was new was Bean to Bar chocolate. So, any Bean to Bar chocolate company I heard of I bought blind. Anybody who heard about me came to see me, and over the course of now 26 years, before the pandemic started, we had 1,248 different chocolate bars in here, from over 28 countries, from more than 125 different companies. But it started very slow, very organic, and the store was considered the cradle of the Bean to Bar movement. I have been buying it from the beginning and supporting chocolatiers, that is what supported me, that is what created a different store, and that is why what was created wasn’t anywhere else.
Then, after 9 and a half years in that small store, my partner Marilyn was running the clothing store, and at some point, we realized that the chocolate store, the baby, had become bigger than the parent, and so we switched places, one block apart. For the last 14 years, the chocolate store has been in this spot and had grown every year until the pandemic started. It was getting better every year. It was great, it was fun. Nothing more fun than buying chocolate. New chocolate from everywhere in the world.
TH: Do the chocolate makers come to visit you and showcase their products?
If you want to sell it to a chocolate boutique, you want me to sell your stuff. And I was telling people honestly, I’m not gonna be the biggest account you have, because I carry so much and I don’t buy a lot of one person, I buy a little bit of a lot of people. But you wanna be in this store because you get seen by people in the industry, you get seen by other stores, you get seen by an educated group of people who love chocolate, and I pay my bills. Is not a lot, is a place you wanna be seen. So chocolatiers come to try to sell me or they just come to visit and ask what is new and see it, and I love people visiting. Not only do the chocolatiers come and think, they are in their home, but people who love chocolate come here. This place is amazing and I am trying to keep it that way. And it’s intimate.
TH: It feels like the store is your personal library, with chocolates instead of books.
Many people use that expression. A library is definitely a place where you can come and curate any flavor combination you want. You want orange, I’ll show you 10 things with orange. You want coffee, you want fish, I have mushroom bars, fish bars, cheese bars. I love outside the box thinking, if it is well done, I’m willing to try it. If it finds them a group of people who want it, I will carry it forever.
TH: Do the customers ask what is your personal favorite?
All the time. If you don’t come with a clear idea of what you want, the next question is “What should I buy? What do you like?” and I would say I’m honest 98% of the time. Sometimes I like to move an item or two, that’s good, is not bad, may not be my favorite. My tastes are more focused than what the store is. The store buys with the widest palates. I have my own personal taste, but I’m not a gourmet. There are a lot of things that are great here that I am not interested in personally eating. I buy it when there are other things that are great from them if they are well respected within the craft chocolate community and other people speak well of them if they won awards from various salons. I’m just open to trying stuff and letting the customers decide whether it stays here or if it is one and done.
TH: But really, what is your personal favorite?
I like chocolate a lot, mostly dark, but I love the world of dark milk chocolate, and I even like sweet milk chocolate if it is with almonds and stuff, but usually, I am more of a high 60% to 85%. I love selling the 100% [cacao], but it’s not what I like. Right now, the 100% market is one of the biggest markets, dark milk chocolate is one of the biggest markets, exotic combinations that are well done, and of course the basics, caramels and toffee and nuts.
TH: In your opinion, what is the best pairing for chocolate?
I don’t know how to pair. People say any good red wine goes with any good dark chocolate. I think our red chili pistachio goes great with wine. I love the spicy nutty chocolate and nice red wine. That’s it. I’m not a gourmet, I’m more of a meat and potatoes guy.
TH: Do you ever get tired of chocolate?
No. I don’t need a tone, I eat some every day. Everybody is different, some people have to have it all the time. My eating cravings are more towards savory than sweet, which is fortunate because an alcoholic can’t run a bar and somebody who can’t control themselves around chocolate shouldn’t be running a chocolate store. I love it, I appreciate it on various levels, but it is not like I have to eat chocolate all the time. I need to sell it all the time.
TH: What is it like to maintain a chocolate store in Covid-19 times? How can people buy from Chocolate Covered during the pandemic?
On one level, I feel very lucky that as a food vendor, I‘ve been allowed to be open this whole time, although, as an older heavier person, I have not let people in because I want to stay alive. We have enough support from the neighborhood and from those people who have been calling and emailing. Although I don’t sell online, I have shipped out a lot of chocolate around the country to customers who are out of the area or who wanted to send gifts to people out of the area. Between the walk-up to the door business and phone and email business, we are solving it. We are not soaring, we are not sinking, we are treading water very nicely, and we intend to be here when the pandemic is over. That is why I am playing it safe with contact with people because if I go down, the business goes down. And I don’t wanna have long-term health issues, so I’m happy to do less business, as long as I do enough. The tricky part is things that normally would have cycled out are not cycling out.
TH: Your tin boxes are very iconic and they pop to our eyes when we come into the store. How do you create them?
It wasn’t part of the original plan. I was always buying gifts to go with the chocolates, but at some point, I got attracted to handmade art paper and started making little boxes for the store from the art paper. One day I saw some friends from the craft shows I used to do who also sold clothing, and they used to do this photographic process called cyanotype of some printing on fabric and making clothing. And one day I said: “Can I do it on paper?”, and they said “Yes”, and showed me how. So now I make custom photographed prints in a blue and white photographed art form on paper and glue them to the boxes and then coat them with a protective finish. Hanging on the wall of the store are over 5,000 boxes, all 90% of them are images of San Francisco streets, parks, bars, bookstores, and coffee shops. And I do this also custom from people’s own photos. What is more basic than a box of chocolate? People can come and just get a box or chocolate. Obviously, I love it when they will fill the box with chocolate. It’s a nice set and is meaningful.
TH: Have you always enjoyed doing arts and crafts?
I’ve been making it for 40 years. First, we made clothing, and now I make boxes. I like some creativity, I get a lot of pleasure out of it. I loved when people loved the clothing we made, and I love when people love the boxes we make. It is a connection with humans that you only get through creativity.
TH: Who usually takes the pictures?
I’ve taken all the pictures. People can always bring me a photo that I haven’t done, of a street, a school, a park or a business, and I’ll use their photo, but I’ve taken 95% of them. It is a photo safari, just walk around the city with a camera, taking pictures of signs, images of the city. And you can do that any time. I’m not out there with a light meter or tripod. Snapshots, photo safari.
TH: Any funny story or something unusual that happened here at the store?
There have been a couple of proposals here. I had somebody bring me their engagement ring to hide among some samples. When he brought his girlfriend in, I was to offer them the samples and the ring, and she saw the ring and looked at me real weird, and then it finally dawned upon her and she looked at him. That happened. I also had customers that ordered custom boxes with their personal images on them and asked me to put them on the wall, so they could come in and discover them. I wish I could remember it all. That’s what I miss about not having people in here, cause there is always something funny going on. People ask me how we are doing (during Covid-19), I go: “We are doing fine, we are just not having as much fun”.
TH: What does San Francisco mean to you today?
It’s been my home for 37 years, and I have no intention of leaving it. It’s always been hard to live here, because of the cost of living, but I can’t think of anywhere else. I grew up in Manhattan, I lived in Venice Beach, and I went to school in Boston. I would live on either coast, but I’m not used to the middle of the country for various reasons. I’m sure it is very nice, but I’m staying here in San Francisco.