clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tracing the Totally Sweet History of the Ghirardelli Empire

In honor of the inevitable chocolate binge that's heading your way this Halloween, let's take a look back at the royal family of candy: Ghirardelli. The chocolatier's history is intertwined with San Francisco's—sorry, Tcho!—and, though the company's HQ decamped to San Leandro, their name still looms above Fisherman's Wharf and their chocolate is found just about everywhere. Also, hey, it's National Chocolate Day!

The grand master of San Francisco chocolate was Domenico Ghirardelli, who was born near Genoa, Italy, in 1817. His family imported exotic foods, and at a young age he started apprenticing with a candy maker (how do we get that job?). By his 20s he took off for South America to start his own chocolate business. In Peru he started a confectionery store next to a cabinet shop owned by American James Lick (yes, that one).

Lick decided to relocate to the burgeoning San Francisco, and arrived days before gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill. Luckily for Ghirardelli, his buddy brought 600 pounds of chocolate with him. Ghirardelli, who at this point had changed his first name to the Spanish version, Domingo, decided to try his luck at gold prospecting and came to California, too. Turns out he was better at chocolate than at mining, and he opened a shop out of a tent in Stockton for the miners. Eventually he opened a general store in Hornitos, and it became such a hit that he opened one in San Francisco on the corner of Broadway and Battery.

Fires hit both towns within three days of each other and destroyed both of Ghirardelli's shops. He bounced back quickly, opening a coffee shop, and later a confectionary and spice company at Kearny and Washington. The business changed names a few times, relocated to Jackson and Mason, and re-relocated to the corner of Greenwich and Powell.

Domingo moved the family to Oakland and built one of the town's first big houses with grounds that took up a square block. It had a large garden with marble fountains and statuary from Italy. The place was sold at auction in 1874 when the company went into bankruptcy during a recession.

By 1893, Domingo retired and left his business to three sons, who decided to purchase the Pioneer Woolen Mill building in today's Fisherman's Wharf for manufacturing.

Over the next few decades the company built a few more buildings, including its own power plant and employee housing, to round out the complex. That 15-foot-high, illuminated Ghirardelli mega-sign was added in 1923.

The company was so influential that there was even a Ghirardelli Building at the 1915 World's Fair designed by Bakewell & Brown.

The company was sold in the 1960s (but kept its name, obviously), and the complex became one of the first examples of adaptive reuse in the country. The new owner, William Matson Roth, hired midcentury starchitects Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons to modernize the complex into a specialty shopping center. Ghirardelli Square reopened as a festival marketplace on November 29, 1964. The complex was declared a city landmark only a year later, and is still a major tourist draw.

The chocolatier is now owned by Swiss company Lindt and Sprungli Chocolate (of tiny chocolate ball fame), and Domingo Ghirardelli was inducted into the Candy Hall of Fame in 2012.

· The Ghirardelli story [Free Library]
· Ghirardelli's Heritage - 160 Years [Ghirardelli]
· Domingo Ghirardelli Inducted into the Candy Hall of Fame in 2012 [NCSA]
· San Francisco Landmark #15 Ghirardelli Building [Noe Hill]
· San Francisco Landmark #30 Ghirardelli Square [Noe Hill]
· At the Exhibition [The International Confectioner]
· Merchants Made the Money Back in the Day [Curbed SF]