The Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker factory in West Berkeley will be closing this year, leaving 150 employees without work.
The Hershey Co., which bought Scharffen Berger in 2005, announced Tuesday that the plant will be closed, but the chocolates will still be made at their primary production facility in Robinson, Ill.
“We're consolidating production into our other existing facilities,” said Kirk Saville, a Hershey spokesman. “The majority of Scharffen Berger products are already made in Illinois.”
Saville would not elaborate whether or not the production consolidation is a result of the general decline in the economy.
Laid-off workers will receive a “competitive” severance package and career transition assistance.
Employees of the Sharffen Berger facility in Berkeley contacted by the Planet declined to comment, instead referring all questions to Saville at the Hershey headquarters in Pennsylvania.
“We will be assisting our employees through the transition,” Saville said.
The Scharffen Berger factory has been a West Berkeley staple since 2001. The facility offers tours and houses a store where visitors can buy the high-quality, locally made chocolates.
The company was founded in 1996 by Robert Steinberg, a family physician with an interest in European chocolate making, and his former patient, John Scharffenberger, a California farmer and winemaker. The company’s first chocolates were manufactured in Steinberg’s home using a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, an electric mixer, and a hair dryer. Once they achieved a professional quality of chocolate, the partners moved into a South San Francisco factory before transferring to the larger facility in Berkeley.
Deborah Kwan, the company’s public relations consultant from 1997 until 2003, credits Steinberg and Scharffenberger with changing the way Americans think about chocolate.
“John and Robert offered tours to demystify and educate people about the chocolate making process,” she said. “They allowed the public to come in and see how chocolate was made.”
Kwan said the founders never envisioned their company as part of a national corporation, but wanted to enlighten people about the science and art of high-quality chocolate-making.
“They started it because they liked this chocolate and thought other people should too,” she said.
Saville could not offer an exact date of the factory’s closure, but said that it will happen later this year. The company’s San Francisco Ferry Building store will remain open, and the factory’s store will remain open for the time being. The chocolates will also remain available for online purchase.
“We will continue to maintain the highest quality and use the best cacao beans,” Saville said.
Nevertheless, the chocolates will no longer be a local product.
“The Bay Area is such a fertile place for creativity, and this is really a great loss,” Kwan said. “At the same time, they really started this new wave of micro-chocolate-making, and their legacy will be with us for a long time.”