21 February 2018

Domenico Ghirardelli – chocolatier

Built famous US business with skills learned in Genoa

The chocolatier Domenico Ghirardelli, founder of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco, was born on this day in 1817 in a village just outside Rapallo in Liguria.

The Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop in Ghirardelli Square on San Francisco's northern waterfront
The Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop in Ghirardelli Square
on San Francisco's northern waterfront
Also known as Domingo, Ghirardelli arrived in San Francisco in 1849 during the rapid expansion years of the Gold Rush, having spent the previous 10 years or so in Peru, where he had run a successful confectionery business.

After making money as a merchant, initially ferrying supplies to prospectors in the gold fields, he set up his first chocolate factory in 1852, drawing on the skills he acquired as an apprentice in Genoa.

By the end of the century, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was one of the city’s most successful businesses, with a prestige headquarters on North Point Street, a short distance from Fisherman’s Wharf, in a group of buildings that became known as Ghirardelli Square.

The son of a spice importer, Ghirardelli was born in the village of Santa Anna, just outside Rapallo, about 25km (16 miles) along the Ligurian coast from Genoa, in the direction of La Spezia to the southeast.

His father wanted him to have a trade and once he had reached his teens sent him to be an apprentice at Romanengo’s, an important confectioner in Genoa, with a view to setting himself up in business.

Domenico Ghirardelli arrived in San Francisco from Peru in 1849
Domenico Ghirardelli arrived in San
Francisco from Peru in 1849
However, having been forced to give up its status as an independent republic and become part of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia as part of the settlement following the Napoleonic Wars, Genoa was a volatile city prone to riots and to brutal repression by the military and in 1837 Ghirardelli decided, in common with many Italians, to leave in search of a better life in the New World.

At the age of only 20 and newly married, he arrived first in Montevideo in Uruguay, moving on a year later to Lima in Peru, a prosperous city where there was already an established Italian community.

He set up a confectionery shop on Calle de los Mercaderes, the city’s main shopping street, which he modelled on Romanengo’s store in Genoa.  After the death of his wife, he married for a second time, to a Peruvian widow, and would have stayed in Lima had his former neighbour, an American from Pennsylvania who had moved to San Francisco, not written to him urging him to follow.

The neighbour, James Lick, who would go on to become the richest man in California, had set himself up on the proceeds of 600lb (272kg) of chocolate Ghirardelli had given him to sell. With San Francisco on the brink of an economic boom after the discovery of gold in 1848, it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Trading first in general merchandise, Ghirardelli rapidly expanded from running a delivery service to owning grocery stores in San Francisco and Stockton, plus a soda fountain, a coffee house and a part-interest in a hotel.  Within two years, he had amassed wealth of $25,000, which then had the buying power of around $750,000 (€610,000) today.

The Ghirardelli factory was established just back from the San Francisco waterfront
The Ghirardelli factory was established just back from
the San Francisco waterfront
He opened his first chocolate factory in 1852 in the Verandah Building on Portsmouth Square, living above the premises, before moving to Jackson Street, building a separate family home in Oakland.  The business grew even more after the accidental discovery of cocoa powder, the result of some bags of chocolate paste being left unattended in a warm room.

The butterfat in the paste melted, dripping out on to the floor, leaving behind in the bags a greaseless residue that could be ground into a powder, which Ghirardelli patented and sold under the name of Broma, to be used as a cake ingredient or for making a hot cocoa drink.

The recession of the 1870s brought a massive scaling back, with many of the company’s assets, including the house in Oakland and several stores, being auctioned off to keep the factory going.

Yet, despite competition from others keen to exploit chocolate’s continuing popularity, the business recovered, with Ghirardelli’s sons increasingly involved.  Broma, rebranded as Ghirardelli’s Chocolate Powder, continued to be a big seller.  By the late 1880s, the company was producing and selling one million pounds (453,000kg) of the powder each year.

Ghirardelli retired in 1889, handing control to his sons.  In 1892, needing to expand, the company acquired a large woollen mill near the city’s northern waterfront at what his now Ghirardelli Square.

He died in 1894, contracting influenza during an extended visit to Rapallo, where he had gone in order to rediscover his roots. His body was returned to San Francisco, to be buried in the family mausoleum in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

Production continued at Ghirardelli Square until the 1960s, when the business was sold and the manufacturing operation moved to San Leandro.  Today, while still trading under the family name as the third oldest chocolate manufacturer in the United States, the business is a subsidiary of the Swiss company, Lindt and Sprüngli. There is still a Ghirardelli shop in the Ghirardelli Square shopping and restaurant complex

A quaint 16th century castle guards Rapallo's harbour
A quaint 16th century castle guards Rapallo's harbour
Travel tip:

Rapallo, larger and a little cheaper than its exclusive neighbour Portofino, is an attractive seaside town of the eastern Italian Riviera, known as the Riviera di Levante. The town developed around a harbour guarded by a small castle – Il Castello sul Mare – built in 1551, which sits right on the water’s edge.  Behind the harbour is a network of narrow streets. There are boat service to Portofino, as well as Santa Margherita Ligure and Camogli, while the main Genoa to Pisa railway line passes through the town.

The ornate interior of the Romanengo store in Genoa
The ornate interior of the Romanengo store in Genoa
Travel tip:

Romanengo’s confectionery store in Via Soziglia in Genoa has become a tourist attraction in itself, a wonderfully ornate emporium barely changed since it was refurbished lavishly in the mid-19th century, having opened for business for the first time in 1814.  Modelled on Parisian confectioners’ shops, it has a marble floor, a frescoed ceiling, elegant chandeliers and beautiful inlaid rosewood shelving and counters, with endless dishes of brightly coloured confectionery in glass cases. The company logo of a dove carrying an olive branch symbolised peace at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

More reading:

Michele Ferrero - the man who invented Nutella

Humble beginnings of chocolate giant Ferrero

The entrepreneur behind Perugina chocolates

Also on this day:

1513: Death of Pope Julius II

(Picture credits: Ghirardelli store by PictorialEvidence; San Francisco waterfront by Saopaulo1; Rapallo Castle by RegentsPark; all via Wikimedia Commons; Romanengo store from www.romanengo.com

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