John Scharffenberger: From chocolate and wine to tofu

John Scharffenberger. Photo: Anne Hamersky.

Long known for the success of his premium wine and chocolate companies, John Scharffenberger is making a name for himself these days as a tofu hawker.

In June, Scharffenberger, 59, who divides his time between a home in North Berkeley and a place in the country, signed on as the CEO of the Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, an artisan food factory that makes products from organic, non-GMO soybeans.

The company, whose founder Minh Tsai was previously profiled here, makes fresh tofu, yuba (tofu skins), and soymilk, as well as prepared dishes such as spicy braised tofu salad, poached yuba loaf, and soy omelette.

The former chocolatier is trying his hand as well at making a Spanish-style specialty cured meat, Iberico ham, named for the region of origin and considered the best of its kind around the world. Along with a Northern Californian grass-fed beef and pork rancher, Scharffenberger raises a specific breed of hogs, and fattens these pigs on a diet of acorns to elicit just the kind of taste and texture he’s seeking.

A fan of fermented food, Scharffenberger also makes sauerkraut, using produce from his vast vegetable garden at his property in Philo. It’s a small operation — he sells his cabbage condiment to hot-dog maker Let’s Be Frank in San Francisco.

Clearly, this food entrepreneur has diverse edible interests. But just how did he make the journey from cacao beans to soybeans?

Scharffenberger never cared much for tofu until a few years ago when he was strolling through the Berkeley Farmers’ Market and tried what he thought were spicy noodles, dubbed them delicious, and was curious to learn more. First lesson: the “noodles” were actually yuba strips made from the skin of soymilk.

He talked with Tsai, and, long story short, Scharffenberger invested in the company, came on as an advisor in 2008, and assumed the top slot this summer.

I spoke with Scharffenberger in September at Hodo headquarters.



Hodo Soy Beanery.

Are soybeans a harder sell than, say, chocolate or wine?

Not from my perspective. It’s all about getting the word out, getting people sampling the product, and getting a quality product out there. I’m good at talking up product. Lately, I’ve been eating a lot of vegan chocolate mousse made with our silken tofu.

What’s your food philosophy?

I’m an unapologetic omnivore. I want to know where my food comes from and how it was grown or raised, and mostly I want to do those things myself.

What’s good about your time in town?

I love being able to walk to places. So I enjoy going to the Thursday Farmers’ Market. Cheese Board Pizza is high on my list. Corso Trattoria is a new favorite. It offers very simple, very flavorful food.


Cacao beans

What do you appreciate about a Berkeley clientele?

They’re enthusiastic, opinionated, and articulate. That’s mostly good. When it’s not, it’s not. But I like to gather input from people and Berkeley people see beyond marketing hype.

What’s missing in this city?

Market gardening. There are lots of open plots of land in Berkeley. It is a perfect place to grow year-round produce.

What makes this city a good incubator for food businesses?

The university is a big help. There is a ton of things going on at the College of Natural Resources and other colleges that involve food. The high quality of retailers and restaurants makes great food impossible to miss.

What are the qualities that make for a good food entrepreneur?

You have to be able to discern flavors and winnow out food fads from good food.

What’s your advice for budding entrepreneurs, food focused or not?

Make something you love, fix something that’s broken, help people in need. Do what you’re good at and the rest will follow.

Do you still eat Scharffen Berger Chocolate?

Yes, mostly the special editions, made from small farms. They sell them at the Ferry Building.

What’s next on the horizon, food-wise, for you?

A farming research project. I am trying to assemble the best practices in the world of cacao cultivation. Then I want to use a Wiki-based collaboration to allow farmers from all over the world to see what does the best job.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

Thanks to Anne Hamersky for sharing her image. Henry’s profile of Scharffenberger also appears in the Winter 2010 issue of California Magazine.


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  • fuzzymerkowitz

    Before we all get excited about this guy’s Oakland business,don’t get too excited. He will build it up into a vibrant business, then when everything is going great he will sell it to a large corporation. All of the local jobs will dry up, and the factory will close. It’s his business plan. If you would like to work for him I’m sure you will learn something that will help you be the next start up tofu business, but don’t count on a carreer there at his factory in Oakland.

  • Ephemerol*29

    The sale of the Scharffenberger chocolate factory here in Berkeley to Hersey Corporation ( yes, those people ) made me moan with pain. The last I heard or read was that they intended to close the facility here and move it back to their main manufacturing facility in he Midwest. One commenter told the readers on the SF Gate to “watch for the ingredient substitutions now”. My unasked and unanswered question to John, is thus: In what spirit was this sale done and under what stipulations? Is it that it is or was near impossible to retain this wonderful and I mean glorious facility here despite even breaking even if it came to that i.e. cost of labor and taxes and much more or did you just desire to move on and move on quickly?

    I know of a myriad of private investors who would have loved to keep this going here and to possibly expand it if needed. What was the ‘monster company’ transfer of this beautiful facility and all of it’s employees and jobs out of state and out of the city all about? It makes no sense other no than a fast disinvestment and a quick sale. Maybe we missed something or it will remain in some capacity at it’s old location.

  • TN

    I don’t have any inside knowledge of what drove the decision to sell to Hersey. I have no connection to the business. But from what public information there is, one can deduce that John Scharffenberger was not the only major investor in the chocolate company. When his partner died of cancer, the partnership like so many small businesses faced a problem in financial structure. There is a fiduciary duty to make the best financial deal possible for the heirs, the inheriting interests in the partnership.

  • Ephemerol*29

    Here is a bit more about this odd and bewildering sale and shut down of the Berkeley facility:

    “Robert Steinberg Spinning in Grave”

    The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Hershey’s will shut down the Scharffen Berger plant it acquired when it bought the brand from Scharffen Berger founders John Scharffenberger and the late Robert Steinberg in 2005.

    Serious eaters know how I feel about Steinberg, who died last year, and there can be no doubt how Robert would have felt about this. I remember having lunch with him right after the sale had gone through, and he articulated his many concerns about the plans Hershey’s had for his beloved chocolate company.

  • Scharffenberger has spoken extensively about the sale, which happened six years ago.

    You can read his thoughts on the matter in my longer profile for California Magazine:

    Earlier this year he told Grist’s Bonnie Azab Powell essentially the same statement he tells all reporters who ask him about the matter: “[Hershey’s] came to us with a crazy amount of money. Robert [Steinberg, company cofounder] had health problems. I had about 23% of the stock; I had no control over the outcome. I dragged my feet for as long as I could. Robert wanted to sell, most of the board wanted to sell. At the end of the day, they doubled the price and I would have been an asshole not to say yes.”

    The whole Grist post is here:

    Stacy Finz at the Chronicle recounts pretty much the same thing in her recent piece:

    That said, many folks in the Bay Area and beyond lament both the sale to an American food giant and the subsequent closure of the beloved chocolate factory:

  • Ephemerol*29

    It appears that everyone blinked and then buckled under the spell and glint of the gold that this creepy junk food company offered them. I feel like I have bugs all over me just reading all of this. Did the now former-employees ever even obtain an incredible severance bonus by way of the $50 million that this treasure was sold for? I feel sick just typing this and yet I have seen this time and time again in the entertainment industry and the music business. Still, this was all done incorrectly. Maybe courage, personal ethics and visions are a flexible commodity similar to say ‘the truth’ of any one matter or reality. Possibly another group could purchase this former factory ( if it’s not too late ) and transform it into something majestic. The old Elephant Pharmacy building still sits empty, vacant and idle after many years now since the venture capital people locked their own employees out and ran off. I now shop at Trader Joe’s and the Berkeley Bowl West if I feel up to it as we have no other place to shop in North Berkeley that is not just flat out horrid. _E.

    “But Hershey, the Pennsylvania behemoth, would not take no for an answer and kept raising its offer. That August, for a price reported to be nearly $50 million, Hershey acquired Scharffen Berger.

    The company kept John Scharffenberger as a consultant and promised not to change the quality of the brand. The promise lasted as long as a Hershey’s Kiss on a summer afternoon. Soon I began noticing a marked deterioration in my beloved 82 percent bar. The texture was chalky. The cherry notes had vanished. It was becoming just another mediocre American chocolate.”