When it comes to Berkeley landlords, Mark Tarses breaks the mold.
By time Christmas arrives, Tarses estimates he will have given away 1,500 pounds of homemade chocolate this year, most of it to his 27 tenants.
“I go overboard trying to make people happy,” Tarses said Saturday as he peeled a freshly chilled milk chocolate Eiffel Tower from a plastic mold and placed it on a shelf beside several chocolate pandas, above 30 other specialty made confections.
Tarses’ South Berkeley home resembles a Homer Simpson fantasy. The living room counters and drawers are packed with figurines of Marge, Bart and Lisa, remnants from his failed bid to sell paraphernalia from his favorite show online, but the kitchen is 100 percent chocolate.
At Christmastime, Tarses accelerates his year-round chocolate making operation, working several hours a day to make sure his tenants, plumbers, electricians and friends have a sweet holiday season.
“He’s the best landlord we could ever ask for,” said Jackson Cone, a UC Berkeley junior, whose goody bag from Tarses for Christmas weighed about five pounds. Cone said chocolate had been at the center of their business relationship since day one.
“He lured us in with chocolate-covered cherries,” he said of the Ashby Avenue apartment above Tarses’ residence. “The lease was laid out with the cherries in the center.”
Cone said he and his roommates haven’t been shy about raiding their landlord’s stash if they are having guests or need a party favor.
“I’m shocked by how much he lets us take,” he said.
Tarses is an unlikely landlord and chocolatier. Now 59, he moved to Berkeley in 1970 from his hometown Baltimore, Md. “with $100 and a suitcase.” He said he first worked at the original Mel’s Diner and The Station restaurant and within a year he bought a triplex on Hearst Avenue for $37,000, with a $2,000 down payment.
After a string of random jobs ended mostly with pink slips, Tarses decided to devote his energies to owning property.
“You can’t fire your landlord,” Tarses said, “and besides I knew being a landlord was something I enjoyed and was good at.” He said he has never evicted a tenant or been sued by one.
Tarses, who said he has always had a sweet tooth, didn’t start handing out chocolate until around 1980. At about that time, he made his tenants Christmas baskets filled with chocolate caramel pecan “turtles”—his lone recipe back then.
They were grateful, he said, but not satiated.
“As long as something is free the demand will always rise,” Tarses said.
He now buys his chocolate in 500 pound boxes and packages his treats in specially made wrappers and tins that sport the name of his non-profit enterprise, “The Berkeley Nut Factory.”
Tarses spends about $3,000 a year on ingredients. He said he has never sold his chocolate and doubted he could turn a profit if he tried to market it. He does, however, recoup some of the expense as a tax write-off. Tarses makes sure to include chocolate as a service in every rental agreement.
“Any expense a businessman incurs to maintain income is deductable,” he said. “It’s no different than agreeing to pay for your tenants’ gardening.”
Tarses insists he provides his tenants with chocolate made from the finest ingredients. He buys chocolate from The Guittard Chocolate Company, a Bay Area institution since the 19th Century, his fruits and nuts from Trader Joe’s and includes plenty of cocoa butter, a pricey item missing from most of the chocolate Santas on supermarket shelves.
For fancy treats like the Eiffel tower, Tarses has a $1,000 chocolate vibrating table that shakes out air bubbles and forces the liquid chocolate into the mold.
Tarses said several of his confections are tips from friends in the business including the owners of Spun Sugar, the Berkeley candy making store, or from his own experimentation.
His chocolate biscotti truffles, for instance, came from adding a twist to a traditional biscotti recipe.
“It called for one pound of chocolate for every 10 pounds of biscotti, so I reversed it,” Tarses said. “I think the end product is much better.”
Many of his recent creations are the result of trying to satisfy an increasingly diverse set of tenants. When his first Muslim tenant moved in, Tarses switched to a kosher gelatin that used fish instead of pig by-product, which is prohibited to devout Muslims and Jews. He claims to make the only Rocky Road in the Bay Area devoid of pig snout, the part of the pig most often used to make gelatin in marshmellows.
This year Tarses searched the Internet for a traditional Mexican flavor to please a new tenant and came up with cinnamon butter toffee almonds.
He hasn’t been able to make enough.
Tarses said he urged the tenant, one of eight brothers and sisters, to take home bags of treats for his entire family to have at Christmas. Tarses said he hoped the family would enjoy it.
“Having people feel well of me, that’s important,” he said. “I believe good will matters.”