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The Dangers of Ghirardelli’s Sensationalized Story: How Ghirardelli Avoids Chocolate Production Scrutiny

Ghirardelli Square is open to the public from 9 am to midnight

Unbeknownst to many chocolate consumers, Ghirardelli, the second oldest American chocolate maker, has called San Francisco home for over one hundred fifty years (Lawrence 90). Since its mid-nineteenth century beginnings, Ghirardelli has secured worldwide partnerships, opened twenty-three shops across the United States, and established its reputation as a delectable square chocolate treat and outstanding baking ingredient. Ghirardelli has even left its mark in public spaces. Most notably, the company worked with San Francisco leadership to open Ghirardelli Square, a living and breathing landmark, in the heart of San Francisco’s Marina District.

Flip through any San Francisco travel guide and you’re bound to stumble upon Ghirardelli Square as a must see destination. With reviews raving about the Square’s incredible view of the Pacific Bay, majestic marquee lights, and fun shops and restaurants for both tourists and non tourists, it has become an iconic part of the San Francisco map. However, Ghirardelli’s influence in San Francisco doesn’t end with this monumental Square. With three Ghirardelli stores flourishing in San Francisco, including Ghirardelli on the Go at Westfield Shopping Center, and a elaborate food booth at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, Ghirardelli continues to imprint its sentimental value in the hearts and minds of San Francisco residents.

Due to its long history in San Francisco, Ghirardelli’s name evokes two meanings. On one hand, Ghirardelli’s brand elicits an image of a regional, premium, and specialty chocolate business rather what it truly is: a company owned by chocolate conglomerate Lindt & Sprüngli. On the other hand, the Ghirardelli refers to places and rituals including its landmark Square in San Francisco, the company’s small factory experiences scattered across the country, and the numerous company events promoting their chocolate, such as the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival. These two evocations of the Ghirardelli name allow the company to champion their status as a community driven, morally righteous, high-quality chocolate company, and unfairly avoid the scrutiny that “Big 5” chocolate companies receive.

Domenico Ghirardelli

In order to understand how people perceive Ghirardelli today, it is important to contextualize the company’s long history. Born in the early nineteenth century, Domenico Ghirardelli, the founder of Ghirardelli, grew up surrounded by Italian culture and cuisine naturally due to his dad’s spice trader job in Genoa, Italy. When his interest in food peaked during his teenage years, Domenico apprenticed at luxury chocolate store Romanengo where he learned to craft and sell chocolate, candies, and chocolate paste that melts into boiling water (Lawrence 90). Equipped with immense knowledge about the chocolate industry and in search of new beginnings away from home, Domenico moved from Genoa to Uruguay to Lima, Peru, all within the span of one year (Lawrence 91).

Domenico finally settled in Lima for its compatible Latin culture; the similar language and the friendly patrons reminded him of his Italian home. As Ghirardelli prepared to establish his own confectionary and spice business in Lima, he changed his name to Domingo to appeal to Peru’s Spanish speaking clientele (Lawrence 92). His chocolate shop, located in the heart of the city’s central square, attracted flocks of customers waiting to sample candies he modeled from his lessons at Romanengo. Settled in Lima, Domingo prospered as a confectionary shop keeper by churning out daily chocolate and candy recipes. But his newfound permanence, a sense of belonging in the Lima community, did not last long.

James Lick, a piano and cabinet shop keeper next to Ghirardelli, followed the immigration movement to America, and more specifically San Francisco. As he set sail, he loaded up about 600 pounds of Ghirardelli’s hand pressed chocolate, promising Ghirardelli he would sell every last pound (Lawrence 92). While Ghirardelli was comfortable operating in Lima, Lick and Ghirardelli’s forged friendship and the temptation of a fresh start in a new country compelled Ghirardelli to follow Lick to America in 1849 (Lawrence 92).

Ghirardelli advertisement from the late 19th century

As Ghirardelli immigrated to San Francisco, the city was facing its own set of monumental events. 1849 signaled the the Gold Rush where 300,000 hopeful miners flocked to San Francisco to strike rich. Sensing a lucrative business model, Ghirardelli opened several grocery stores in Stockton, California to market his chocolate and sweets to hungry Gold Rush miners (Lawrence 92). Since his shop was the second chocolate maker in the United States, many customers savored their first bite of chocolate in his store, and praise for his chocolates quickly spread. Despite his shops being open for only a few years, he became known as one of San Francisco’s “Money Men,” a title reserved for people making close to $25,000 or more (Lawrence 92). This prominence jumpstarted his career as an American chocolate maker and gave him the confidence to open his first operation and sales confectionary shop at the Verandah building in Portsmouth Square (Lawrence 92).

After several more years of perfecting the chocolate formula, establishing connections to cocoa bean farmers, and cementing its business as a household name in San Francisco, Ghirardelli Square, which once housed Ghirardelli’s factory and businesses, opened as a public landmark on 1964 (Lawrence 114). This triumphant opening came after many months of fighting group of real estate developers who wanted to demolish and purchase the property. To further ensure the Square’s future prospects, the Ghirardelli Square owners applied for and received National Historic Register status in 1982 (Ghirardelli). Nowadays, the Square rents out space to local businesses such as The Cheese School of San Francisco and San Francisco gift shop Jackson & Polk.

Ghirardelli’s present-day logo

Ghirardelli’s elaborate journey from Italy to San Francisco and the story behind the locally cemented chocolate empire feels heartwarming, which makes it such an effective marketing tool. The company emphasizes the story’s significance on their website, in academic journals, and in Ghirardelli Chocolate’s cookbooks. The company’s logo even features a flying eagle and banners with its the founding date (1852) and location (San Francisco), which creates an image of a craft chocolate bar company.

Unlike other cheaper chocolate bars placed at the cash register, Ghirardelli’s shiny packages sit on the shelf next to local confectioners and fair trade chocolate bars such as Cambridge, Massachusetts’s Taza chocolate. Furthermore, Ghirardelli’s price point is similar to many premium chocolate bars, which may give customers the impression that Ghirardelli serves fancy and ethical chocolate. According to Amazon, Ghirardelli’s most popular package with fourteen squares costs twenty-six dollars, which is much more than any of the popular chocolate bars manufactured by the “Big 5” Chocolate companies (Amazon). Because of Ghirardelli products’ placement in grocery stores, Ghirardelli can assume close relationships with ethical and fair trade chocolate companies without much questioning.

The company’s chocolate packaging also lists the percentage of pure cacao in each square, whether that be Dark 60% or 72%, which makes it appear as if the company is transparent about the product’s ingredients. Packaging features luxurious images of fillings such as mint, caramel, and raspberry. Furthermore, many reputable baking websites such as Epicurious cite Ghirardelli chocolate chips as the best products on the market (Sevier). By employing specific marketing strategies on their packaging and seizing its notable reputation in the online recipe world, Ghirardelli comes across as an ethical and high quality company that cares about its consumers.

People make videos trying San Francisco Chocolate

While consumers often come away with a positive image of Ghirardelli, there are more ambiguous, and potentially nefarious, production details in the background. In the many accounts of Ghirardelli’s story, the company never discloses how its beans are sourced or never divulges their commitment to fair trade ingredients. Only by searching online, readers will find out that Ghirardelli is owned by major chocolate conglomerate Lindt & Sprüngli (Lawrence 115). Lindt & Sprüngli, headquartered in Switzerland and most known for their Lindor chocolate truffles, takes in around four billion dollars in revenue each fiscal year (Lindt & Sprüngli). Ghirardelli controls all aspects of the bean to bar production process, but like Lindt & Sprüngli, does not source fair trade ingredients (Nieburg).

Ghirardelli’s cocoa bean production webpage proudly mentions that “over 85% of Ghirardelli cocoa beans are sourced through the Lindt & Sprüngli farming program” (Ghirardelli) While this initially seems like a promising percentage, the sourcing behind the other 15% of beans never comes up, which ultimately discredits this bold statement. Additionally, Lindt & Sprüngli claim to source 100% of their West African cocoa beans from Ghana “because of the high quality of the cocoa beans in the region” (Ghirardelli). Lindt & Sprüngli also underscores the quality training they provide to Ghana farmers and their genuine investments in West African villages resource centers, a point further emphasized by pictures of smiling West African farmers. While Ghirardelli wants to associate themselves with sustainable farming practices, they do not succeed. They use vague language to describe the stories behind the ingredients and continue to source ingredients from the West African region, known for its questionable labor practices (Ghirardelli).

The Good Shopping Guide, which rates chocolate companies on a variety ethical factors including their environmental report, political donations, and animal welfare, does not list Ghirardelli’s name. The company’s owner, Lindt & Sprüngli, is given a C grade (Good Shopping Guide). This suggests that the company’s seemingly genuine transparency does not provide the whole story for the labor and sourcing. Since Ghirardelli can substitute their company name with Lindt & Sprüngli when talking about cocoa production, their name becomes less attached to questionable sourcing methods.

One Ghirardelli account positively portrays Ghirardelli’s impact: “Italian yet American, immigrant yet old-line, and authentically San Franciscan throughout, it has given California a captivating, emblematic lens through which to reflect on it” (Lawrence 115). This account, written in 2002 after its merging with Lindt & Sprüngli, fails to disclose the company’s worldwide association with the chocolate conglomerate. While Ghirardelli remains anchored to San Francisco communities, it has adopted many business practices from Lindt such as cocoa bean sourcing, as evidenced from their website. Overall, Ghirardelli fails to provide consumers with a clear and comprehensive picture of their sourcing methods.

Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival Highlights from 2012

In addition to Ghirardelli’s clever marketing that distances their company from questionable cocoa harvesting conditions and their relationship with Lindt & Sprüngli, Ghirardelli hosts a variety of San Francisco events to craft their image of local company rather than exacerbate their connections to a large corporation. Every year, Ghirardelli hosts the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival, reminiscent of the Classical Period Mayan chocolate rituals, in the middle of Ghirardelli Square. Featuring 50 local vendors, chocolate purveyors, and local celebrity chef speakers, the Chocolate Festival celebrates the diverse ways chefs introduce and adapt chocolate into their recipes. At ancient Mayan festivals, diners feasted on meticulously prepared “tamales, relleno negro, tortillas, atole, boiled chicken, roasted pigs, chocolate, and rum” (LeCount 943). Mayans even concocted a mix of maize and chocolate, called chilate, for diners to sample (Kufer 83). This parallels how Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival attendees can sample rums, beers, Bay Area wines, and other local specialties from the Ghirardelli Chocolate lounge. The similarities do not stop there. In what mirrors the barrier to entry for elite hosted Maya rituals, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival is not open to the public, and requires that participants buy entrance tickets. While the Festival seemingly promotes chocolate and its magical qualities, the branded Festival title along with its location in Ghirardelli Square turn the Festival into a marketing ploy targeting San Francisco residents and tourists than an attempt to seriously engage with and address issues in the problematic chocolate industry.

The iconic Ghirardelli name has achieved even more fame through its portrayal in popular culture, distancing the brand further and further from its chocolate company status. When San Francisco hosted the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the Ghirardelli company claimed a prime location opposite Fillmore Street entrance where they served Ghirardelli’s famous Ground Chocolate (The International Confectioner). In a similar extravagant display, the San Francisco musical Beach Blanket Babylon featured a character named Val Diamond wearing a star studded hat with the company’s giant marquee lights in Ghirardelli Square (Lawrence 113). As San Francisco’s reputation continued to grow during the twentieth century, Ghirardelli’s landmark similarly gained West Coast fame and subsequently worldwide fame.

Ghirardelli’s presence in San Francisco landmarks, shops, and restaurant menus has cemented a positive and nostalgic image in the people’s minds. People from all over the world flock to San Francisco to tour Ghirardelli Square and try Ghirardelli hot fudge sundaes in booths. While many San Francisco residents cherish the name Ghirardelli and swear by Ghirardelli chocolate ingredients, people have ignored the company’s more questionable business practices for too long. Ultimately, while it is possible to enjoy Ghirardelli sweets and support the local spirit in Ghirardelli Square, consumers, especially San Francisco residents, must push Ghirardelli to do become more transparent about their company practices and rituals.

Works Cited

  1. Amazon. (2019). Shop Ghirardelli Chocolate Squares, Dark Chocolate, 5.25 oz., (Pack of 6). Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Ghirardelli-Chocolate-Squares-Dark-5-25/dp/B001G0MG0K/ref=asc_df_B001G0MG0K/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=241977055433&hvpos=1o1&hvnetw=g&hvrand=6768309403911426287&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9001999&hvtargid=pla-571287736743&psc=1
  2. At the Exposition. (1915, May). The International Confectioner, Inc. Vol. 24. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=-9xOAAAAYAAJ&lpg=RA4-PA58&ots=2TF9acIzes&dq=ghirardelli%20Panama-Pacific%20International%20Exposition&pg=RA4-PA58#v=onepage&q=ghirardelli%20Panama-Pacific%20International%20Exposition&f=false
  3. Ethical Table. Adapted From the Good Shopping Guide, The Ethical Company Organisation.
  4. Ghirardelli. (2019). Sustainable Cocoa Production. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from https://www.ghirardelli.com/sustainable-cocoa-production.
  5. Ghirardelli (2019). The History of Ghirardelli Square. Retrieved May 1, 2019 from https://www.ghirardellisq.com/history.
  6. Lindt & Sprüngli. (2017).  Lindt & Sprüngli Annual Report 2017.  KILCHBERG, SWITZERLAND: Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Sprüngli AG.
  7. Kufer, J., Grube, N., and Heinrich, M. “Chocolate III: RITUAL, ART AND MEMORY.” Artes de México. No. 110 (2013): 72-96.
  8. Lawrence, Sidney. “The Ghirardelli Story.” California History. Vol. 81, No. 2 (2002): 90-115.
  9. LeCount, Lisa J. “Like Water for Chocolate: Feasting and Political Ritual among the Late Classic Maya at Xunantunich, Belize.” American Anthropologist, Vol. 103, No. 4 (Dec., 2001): 935-953. Print.
  10. Nieburg, Oliver. “Going Its ‘Own Way’: Lindt Invests $14m in Sustainable Cocoa in Last Eight Years.” Confectionerynews.com, William Reed Business Media Ltd., 13 Mar. 2017, www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2017/03/13/Lindt-sustainable-cocoa-program-Analysis.
  11. Sevier, Joe. “Taste Test: Chocolate Chips.” Epicurious, Epicurious, 4 Sept. 2018, http://www.epicurious.com/ingredients/the-best-chocolate-chips-for-baking-cookies-and-more-article.

Media Citations

  1. “Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival 2012 Highlights.” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Oct. 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFI92iaxeZQ.
  2. “Irish People Try San Francisco Chocolate.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Jan. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxRJ3Kaa9-Y.
  3. Ghirardelli Square. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghirardelli_Square.jpg#filehistory.
  4. Domenico Ghirardelli. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Domenico_Ghirardelli.jpg.
  5. The 1864 California Miner’s Almanac – Ghirardelli Chocolate. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_California_Miner%27s_Almanac_-_1864_-_Ghirardelli_Chocolate.jpg.
  6. Ghirardelli Chocolate Company Logo. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 1, 2019, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghirardelli_Chocolate_Company_Logo.svg.

Deceptive Chocolate: Tracing Counterfeit Cacao Culture from Aztec Currency to Modern Production

Paying with a one hundred dollar bill in any store will prompt cashiers to raise their eyebrows. Yet, their skepticism is not unfounded. According to the United States Department of Treasury, approximately $70 million counterfeit dollars currently circulate the market (Wilber). While people remain hyperaware about the current proliferation of counterfeit currency, this practice is not new. One form of imitation currency evolved during the Post Classic Period (1300-1500) in Mesoamerica, a reign known as the Aztec empire. During this time, the Aztecs witnessed the spread of counterfeit currency — their highly prized cacao beans.

The number of cacao beans a person possessed during the Aztec empire determined their social status. People used cacao to purchase commodities such as turkey hens, pay employees wages, and host social climbing parties (Coe 99). Since cacao became a difficult commodity to obtain in large amounts and grow quickly, Aztec cacao distributors began faking cacao beans (Coe 100). As cacao galvanized followers across the world over time, major cacao production companies started faking all aspects of cacao from chocolate bar filler ingredients to brand labels.

Despite public denouncement of counterfeit culture throughout history, cacao counterfeit culture has never truly gone away. The idea of counterfeit cacao, which has evolved into counterfeit chocolate, has prevailed in society due to scanty regulation and created more consumer health risks.

The Beginnings of Deception in the Aztec Empire


Cacao was used to trade for various commodities such as food products and animal parts

Pre-Conquest Mesoamericans exalted huge amounts of cacao beans. Instead of calculating cacao value by weight or bulk, merchants assessed cacao value by counting beans (Coe 81). Key leaders such as Texcoco’s Nezahualcoyotl and Tenochtitlan’s Motecuhuzoma adopted this mindset when they stashed millions of beans in their vaults and graves to preserve their wealth (Coe 82). Due to the overwhelming potential of of commodities, the Aztecs began creating and refining fake cacao bean production.

Anthropologist Joel Palka, who investigated archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala, unearthed the widespread use of clay cacao beans. (Garthwaite). In an interview with The Smithsonian, Palka suggests that these beans may have passed through the market as a real currency or even substituted for cacao during rituals. As the Aztec’s main currency, billions of cacao beans circulated the market. Most certainly, cacao counterfeit currency reached the wealthy who possessed millions of beans. Since it would be impossible for the wealthy to throw out all fakes among millions of cacao beans, this suggests counterfeit cacao culture existed and proliferated.

Creating a Fake Currency


In a mountain of cacao beans, it becomes difficult to discern real beans from their fake counterparts

Even with billions of cacao beans exchanges, Aztec cacao sellers took great measures to disguise their fake cacao. According to Bernard Sahagun, a Spaniard documenting Aztec lives, cacao sellers processed fakes using hot ashes, chalk, and a generous coating of amaranth dough, wax, or avocado pits (Coe 100). To further camouflage their counterfeit cacao, sellers mixed the fake cacao with pure Theobroma cacao beans. Other cacao deception experts exploited empty shells by filling the insides with mud (De Maré).

The many methods used to deceive buyers presented risks, such as exposure and banishment, but documentation of this practice makes counterfeiting seem universal at the time and for the most part, unchallenged by leadership (De Maré). While people no longer use cacao as a currency, the same counterfeiting ethos has not been lost in society. In fact, this cynical practice of counterfeiting still pervades the chocolate market and can drastically affect consumers’ health. This is now chocolate adulteration.

Counterfeit Cacao Becomes Adulterated Chocolate

In Europe, it is common to see adulteration in the production phase. Since nineteenth century France, producers have replaced cocoa butter with egg yolks or mutton and added alkali to artificially darken chocolate (Coe 243). More recently, the 2005 European government allowed chocolate producers to add any sugar to chocolate along with 40% chocolate filler and still label it chocolate, despite chocolate purists’ outcry (Bolenz). Unsurprisingly, producers then selected cheaper fillers such as lactose Helianthus tuberosus flour, pea and oat fibers, and potato starches (Bolenz).

During a similar time, government leaders accused several companies, including Cadbury and Hershey, of adulterating cacao butter (Squicciarini). Now companies can avoid this public humiliation by rebranding products. Labeling products “chocolate flavored” in order to distract the consumer from the product’s true cacao percentage is considered legal (Bolenz). Since these corporations control a large percentage of the chocolate distribution chain, customers have a limited sense of what chocolate tastes like without additional fillers. The popularity of chocolate adulteration, exemplified by the participation of two big five companies, shows how chocolate fraud endures during modern times.


Illegitimate companies pass off their products as reliable but their counterfeit products pose extreme dangers to customers

Counterfeiting becomes especially visible when malicious producers employ flashy brand names to attract consumers. During Lunar New Year in 2017, the French government discovered a Chinese company that plagiarized Ferrero and Mars stickers to pass off their fake chocolate as legitimate (Yu). Unfortunately, many people probably purchased and consumed the counterfeit candies containing chemicals or larvae before then (Yu). While governments may punish counterfeit chocolate, the proliferation of fake chocolate, from fake branding to adulterated ingredients, persists and poses significant risks to consumers.

Evidence of counterfeit cacao dates back to the Aztec empire, but the practice remains rampant today. With the advent of new counterfeiting practices, the consumer now faces potential health risks. Only when more people start learning about cacao and chocolate counterfeiting, demand recipe transparency from companies, and pressure leaders to regulate and dismantle unethical companies will consumers learn to savor the taste of pure, unadulterated chocolate.

Works Cited

Bolenz, S., Amtsberg, K. and Schäpe, R. (2006), The broader usage of sugars and fillers in milk chocolate made possible by the new EC cocoa directive. International Journal of Food Science & Technology, 41: 45-55.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.

De Maré, Laurie. “Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.” A Tasty Currency: Cocoa – Museum of the National Bank of Belgium, 4 Mar. 2013, http://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm.

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.

Squicciarini, Mara P, and Johan Swinnen. The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Wilber, Del Quentin. “Fantastic Fakes: Busting a $70 Million Counterfeiting Ring.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 27 Apr. 2016, www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-counterfeit-money/.

Yu, Douglas. “Fake Ferrero and Mars Chocolate Seized in China.” Confectionerynews.com, William Reed Business Media Ltd., 8 Feb. 2017, www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2017/02/08/Fake-Ferrero-and-Mars-chocolate-seized-in-China.

Media Citations

“Chinese Counterfeit Chocolate with Larvae Worms.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Sept. 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO9OTPXbXUA.

Ross, Kurt. “Cacao Trading Manual.” Codex Mendoza: Aztec Manuscript. Barcelone, Espagne: Miller Graphics, 1978. Print.

Greenwood-Haigh, David. “Cocao Beans.” Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/users/dghchocolatier-5671698/