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TCHO New American Chocolate

Give one get one

I met Nicholas Negroponte in 1988 when he was the head of the MIT Media Lab he founded and I was editing an obscure technology magazine called Electric Word. We met in Amsterdam, where the ever-peripatetic Professor agreed to an interview at the Hotel de l’Europe. We followed that up with another interview in Cambridge, and the result was an Electric Word cover story on his optimistic vision and unrelenting drive, and an enduring friendship.

That friendship was cemented by Nicholas agreeing to be the first investor in Jane Metcalfe and my Wired start up in 1992. This is how it happened: Jane and I had spent a year trying to raise money after we repatriated after Amsterdam, with a notable lack of success. We got rejected by publishers, investment bankers, VCs; the no’s were probably north of 300. We had been trying to talk to Nicholas, not because we thought he would invest—he was a university employee, after all—but because he might have some insights where we might find investors. He had, of course, almost singlehandedly raised the funding for the Media Lab and its $50M I.M. Pei building from corporations in the media and consumer electronics industries around the world.

But it was devilishly hard to actually talk to him, he was continually in motion, caroming around the planet giving lectures, meeting patrons, attending confabs, hanging out at the World Economic Forum. His travel schedule was the stuff of legend, one being that he traveled with nothing more than a brief case filled with a laptop, a modem, and extra batteries, with clean white shirts and underwear being Fedexed to him along his route.

But finally, Jane and I were able to connect with him at Ricky Wurman’s TED 3 in Monterey. By this time, a year out of Amsterdam and our savings accounts running on empty, Jane and I were pretty desperate. During a coffee break, the three of us sat in the empty, darkened auditorium while he methodically and silently flipped each and every page of the 120-page live text and art prototype we had laboriously constructed. At the end, he closed the book, paused a second, and then said simply, “I’m in; how much do you need?”

From that point on, Nicholas was our patron, muse, and indefatigable collaborator. He helped us raise investment money. He agreed to write the back page column giving us instant credibility, and accepted more stock in exchange for payment because we didn’t have cash. I thought he would do that at best for a year; he persisted beyond the five years I was editor-in-chief of Wired, until he had passed fifty columns. The first few years were collected in Being Digital, his worldwide bestseller on the Digital Revolution.

I’m reminded of the genesis of Jane and my friendship with Nicholas because we just met up with him at Michael Hawley’s Entertainment Gathering in Monterey in December. In many ways, EG is the successor to the original TEDs (Wurman was in attendance, telling the audience that the pupil Hawley and now become the master)—but that’s another story. This story is about Nicholas’s current incarnation.

Nicholas was there to report on the latest news about his One Laptop Per Child project. Since leaving the Media Lab, Nicholas has been pursuing his largest vision ever—to create laptops cheap and rugged enough to give one to every child on the planet, to connect them to education and each other, help lift the world out of poverty, and bring about universal peace. Nicholas was never the one to have small dreams or ambitions.

You may have heard about or even been following Nicholas recently, primarily through news stories about the attempt by Microsoft and Intel to kill his project. Since the OLPC is Open Source and cheap, it threatens Microsoft’s operating system and software monopolies, as well as Intel’s hardware hegemony (the processor is from AMD). Their reaction to OLPC has been vicious. Nicholas and his team would go to a country, talk to the president, prime minister, education ministers et al, conclude a deal to supply hundreds of thousands of XO laptops—only to have Microsoft and Intel execs sweep in behind him on their private jets to raise questions about the “lack of standards” (read it’s not Windows) of the OLPC. Deals vanished. The press smelled a juicy controversy. The story became not bringing education to the neediest around the world, but Nicholas’s struggles to overcome his Wintel antagonists.

What Nicholas reported this year at EG was that the OLPC concept was alive and well, even if the prospects for the ultimate commercial success of his project were less clear. What was clear was that his OLPC spec—a low powered, small laptop—was precisely what the market needed. The new Netbooks, introduced in the last year and spec’ed close to the OLPC—are going to form the majority of laptop sales in 2009, for example.

But that doesn’t mean that they are OLPCs. Conspicuously, they are not rugged, they are not mesh-network enabled, they have no programs to integrate them into a child’s education in a village without electricity. Meanwhile, Nicholas has delivered over 1 million OLPCs to dozens of countries around the world. That’s a million kids who had access to education and the Web who didn’t before.

Nicholas showed three videos. They’re pretty cool.



Then Nicholas showed us where he’d been recently: in Colombia, traveling on Colombia Army helicopter to deliver OLPCs to a village recently liberated from FARC narco-terrorists. And he related that in the next few weeks he was on his way to the West Bank and Afghanistan to also distribute OLPC laptops.

One theme I keep coming back to in my blog entries is taking direct responsibility for making positive change in the world. Electing politicians is not taking direct responsibility. Even signing a petition or marching in a protest is not direct action. Direct action is working directly with the people who need the help, working in concrete ways to make their lives better. We try to walk that walk with our TCHOSource program, to create win-win outcomes with the farmers in Peru we directly work with. But we are pikers compared to what Nicholas is doing.

President-elect Obama has made much of the need to replace military power with soft power—working to improve conditions so that the seeds of terrorism don’t take root. Nicholas points out that giving a laptop to every child in Afghanistan, along with the infrastructure to deliver internet access as well as teacher training would cost $1B, a fraction of the billions spent on military action in the country. Regardless of whether we approve of that military action, I think we can agree that helping to provide education to children in a country where 70 percent of girls don’t attend school is a good thing.

Meanwhile, we all have an opportunity to make a difference.


The three year pregnancy

What I love about a start up is building something from scratch. The last time I did it with Wired, we had the advantage of essentially building software (media is software that ships on time). In the end, whether writing, editing, designing, laying out books, making TV shows, or building websites, it was about pushing pixels around a screen.

Chocolate is different. Chocolate is atoms, and is made with atoms (great big tons of atoms), and atoms are definitely not pixels. They can’t be pushed around, and they obey immutable laws that are barely susceptible to human will. My father was a mechanical engineer, and every day I walk into the factory, I develop new respect for him and his challenges.

It’s taken three years of nonstop effort, lots of sweat, tears, and even blood moving those atoms into position to get to this moment –- and I suppose I’m feeling lucky right now that it’s only taken three years.

There are no words to express the relief and joy and sense of accomplishment that this picture (thanks Johnny Grace) represents: our first 1.0 chocolate formulation (“Chocolatey”), hot off the TCHO-refurbished (by Doug in grey tee shirt) Bosch SIG wrapping machine, in our final 1.0 packaging, in our first POP (point-of-purchase) display.

Tom calls it going external. I call it giving birth. After a three year pregnancy. Phew.


Robert Steinberg—Friend, Mentor, Pioneer

Robert Steinberg at TCHO in July, two months before his passing.

Everyone making fine chocolate in the United States today, and a great many consumers that enjoy the great artisanal chocolates being made owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Steinberg, co-founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate.  Robert passed away last month and yesterday was a memorial service in his honor.  I missed this service, busy as Robert often was, celebrating life.

Robert was unrelenting in his search for great cacao beans and while doing so never minced words and was passionate about getting it right.  I first came into contact with Robert and his co-founder, John Scharffenberger, in 1998 soon after Scharffen Berger Chocolate released their groundbreaking 70% bar which has been a standard bearer in our industry.  That bar rocked the chocolate and chocoholics world!  I treasure having met Robert back then when they were working out of a small industrial space in South San Francisco and to have worked together as their company grew.

As a broker of specialty cacao, Robert pushed me to understand that great chocolate can only be made from great cacao, seems obvious, but the lesson behind the lesson is that it is possible….  It is possible to find really great cacao by working directly and closely with your suppliers.  And it is possible to make really great chocolate, not just o.k. chocolate because that is what you could make out of the raw materials available or what lesser chocolates could afford.

Whenever you lose someone close, someone you respect, we always wish we had spent more time together.  TCHO had the privilege of having Robert over to our factory a few months ago. It was great to see Robert and hear of his continued commitment and adventures, working with an NGO and cacao farmers in Honduras starting from genetic selection to help regenerate the cacao industry in that country.

Having moved to San Francisco to join TCHO, I know I am following in Robert’s footsteps, helping to start a chocolate company and make great chocolate based on great cacao by supporting the farmers, cooperatives and exporters that make it possible.


Product Revolution

Carl Nolte’s recently wrote an article titled “Some things are better now than in the ‘good old days.’” In the article, he sites Peet’s coffee, Boudin’s bread and Anchor Steam beer as examples of products that started a product quality revolution so that now, grocery aisles are filled with great bread, great coffee can be had on almost every street corner and better beer can be had in every bar.

According to Nolte, Narsai David, a regional food expert, credits “the young people who demanded better products. We had a whole generation of kids who had it good all their lives. They created a taste and a demand for better stuff.” So the Bay Area can now claim great coffee, great bread and great beer.

We at TCHO believe that this demanding generation of kids, the Millennials, is now creating a taste and demand for better chocolate. Just as Peet’s, Boudin’s and Anchor Steam created their own product revolutions, so will TCHO.


TCHO Web 1.0

Whew, it was a long time in development, but TCHO Web 1.0 is finally live and kickin!

This was a gargantuan effort that spanned many talents and many hands.  First selecting a state-of-the-art e-Commerce platform that would be completely open-source and meet our growing needs, then on to the designers to create the look and feel that reflects who we are.

Then, who to build it?  Who better than the team that produced Magento in the first place, Varien?  We worked with Varien over the course of several weeks to get the design built and the back-end all put together.

Of course, they were tapped mainly to get the store and the overall site framework built.  The rest of the content, including our killer homepage carousel, and moving the existing content from our TCHO Beta site, fell upon the inimitable Ari Salomon, several of our illustrious interns, and myself.  I would say the bulk of the heavy lifting has gone to Ari, and I can’t stress how great he is as a creative thinker, designer, and in overall website production.  Please let us know what you think!


Person, Place, or Thing—Ann Arbor!

So, on my way back from New York I stopped to visit my dad in Ann Arbor. When I’m in Ann Arbor the first thing I do is head to Zingerman’s

to stock up on some of the best cheeses

this planet has to offer and some of their delicious bread.

A little later on, like maybe the next day, I head back to Zingerman’s for the thing that put them on the culinary map: their sandwiches. My favorite happens to be the #1 Who’s Greenberg Anyway?  A corned beef and chopped liver fantasy.

People waiting in line for their sandwiches or maybe smoked white fish.

Surveying the world of olive oils with an ever helpful Zingerman’s staff member.

Zingerman’s even introduced Ann Arbor to Rhode Island’s state drink: coffee milk! They make it themselves rather than using the bottled stuff. Fantastic!



I was at my desk the other day and I heard my voice coming from across the room. It took me a second to recognize it because I don’t hear my own voice recorded often. Louis was watching a video on Wired of me in the lab talking about some of the steps of how we make chocolate.



What it means to be CEO

Don’t know where I read it, but someone in Legacy Media once asked Michael Dell and Steve Jobs their takes on what it means to be CEO. This was back when Michael Dell was king of the computer hill and his company could do no wrong, famously telling Steve Jobs, who had recently taken over the ailing Apple, that he should do his shareholders a favor and just liquidate the business.

Perhaps the reason that Apple is now worth three times Dell can be found in the answers the two CEOs gave.

Dell, who pioneered web sales and just-in-time manufacture, gave a very B-school answer: His job, he said, was to empower his managers, providing them whatever they needed so that they could do the best job they were able to.

Jobs’s answer? He said his job was to inspire his staff to achieve what they had previously thought was impossible.

Don’t know that there’s a right answer.

What I do know is what Hopper said:


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