Timothy and the
How a space shuttle technologist and
the founder of Wired magazine hacked
together a homebrew chocolate lab.
By David Pescovitz
Photography by Doug Adesko
VISITING TCHO IS THE MAKER’S EQUIVALEN T
of winning one of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets.
The new chocolate company, headquartered in a
vast warehouse on San Francisco’s Pier 17, is
a sweet blend of DIY ingenuity, self-taught science,
and online community. From hacking together a
homebrew chocolate lab for $5,000 instead of
buying a $100,000 “pro” system, to tricking out a
30-year-old chocolate factory line shipped over
from Germany, TCHO ( tcho.com) embodies a maker
mindset that its founder calls “scrappy not crappy.”
“I was a technologist working on things like the
space shuttle when I got seduced by this weird,
crystalline, alien goo that’s called chocolate,” says
TCHO co-founder Timothy Childs.
TCHO, pronounced “cho,” bills itself as a company
“where technology meets chocolate, where Silicon
Valley meets San Francisco food culture.” Appropriately enough, then, the chocolate is still in beta.
Fifty-gram bars in plain brown wrappers are available
for $5 with formulations subject to change as often
as every few days, incorporating direct feedback
from, er, users. In the next year or so, though, the
company plans to transform part of its warehouse
into a retail store and European-style tasting room.
Childs’ eventual goal is to see TCHO chocolate
become an in-demand ingredient in other companies’
products. His business plan is based on using the
web to transform the supply chain into a supply
loop. TCHO will use digital video and other media
to tell the chocolate’s life story, opening the lines of
communication between, say, the Peruvian farmer
who grew a particular bean and the customer on
28 Make: Volume 14
another continent. The entire manufacturing process
will be transparent, he explains, from cacao pod to
palette, and TCHO will be the hub of communication
between supplier and sweet tooth.
The first step, though, is getting the factory line
up and running. Matthew Heckert, a kinetic artist
and alum of machine performance group Survival
Research Laboratories, is leading the restoration
of vats, tanks, mixers, and refiners that have been
dry for years. The story of how the 1972-vintage
factory line made its way to San Francisco is part
of the whole TCHO creation myth.
In 2003, Childs, a veteran technologist, was
working on a NASA contract to develop machine
vision technology for the space shuttle. Around the
same time, a friend at a previous tech startup had
prophesied to Childs that premium, single-origin
dark chocolate was the next big thing for foodies.
Through a bit of kitchen chemistry, the friend had
engineered dark chocolate to melt in your mouth.
Childs was intrigued by the business possibilities.
Then, with the explosion of the shuttle Columbia
on February 1, he suddenly had a lot more free time.
Based on the new technique, Childs and his friend
co-founded a confection company called Cabaret
Chocolates. For production, they secured an old
Oakland chocolate factory filled with obsolete,
broken machines. During the day Childs repaired
the machines, and at night he evangelized Cabaret
at dot-com parties.
“I learned about how chocolate was made by fixing
those machines,” he says. “We had very limited
investment, so we had to invent our own centrifuges