John Scharffenberger: From Wine and Chocolate to Tofu

by Sarah Henry on December 17, 2010 · 27 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses

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 California 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 fermented food fan, 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. Cheeseboard Pizza is high on my list. Corso Trattoria is a new favorite. It offers very simple,very flavorful food.

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.

Cacao beans

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.

(Thanks to photographer Anne Hamersky for sharing her image.)

[This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.]

My profile of Scharffenberger also appears in the Winter 2010 issue of California Magazine.

You might also like:

Berkeley Bites: Minh Tsai, Hodo Soy Beanery
Two Berkeley Moms Try Their Hand at Street Eats
Berkeley Bites: Farmers Market Man, Ben Feldman

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Faith Kramer December 17, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Nice interview. Question that’s been on my mind since after Hershey’s (which bought the choc. co.) moved production out of the Bay area and into bigger plants is how does he feel about the change in his products post sale. If he were to sell a company again, how would he factor that in.

Forgive me, I’m just grumpy since my favorite local chocolate is no longer 1. local and 2. my favorite — I don’t think it’s as good as before.

FYI — Noah of Noah’s Bagels fame lives in Berkeley if you ever want to contact him let me know. Another product patriach that saw a lot of change to product after sale.

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Sarah Henry December 17, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Well, Faith, this Q&A was just a taste…you’ll have to read my profile in the Winter 2010 California Magazine to hear what Scharffenberger has to say about the sale to Hershey’s.

Thanks for the tip re Noah’s, I may well take you up on it down the track.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart December 17, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I’m a bigger fan of chocolate and wine than I am of tofu, but that research project sounds terrific.

That’s such a bummer (based on Faith’s comment) that Hershey bought out the chocolate company. One of my fav dog toy makers got absorbed into much bigger one recently. Not that I don’t like the big company. I just liked the idea of the small one better.

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Sarah Henry December 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Lots of Bay Area folks were bummed when a trio of small chocolatiers here were gobbled up by Hershey’s. Scharffenberger has talked openly about the sale for a variety of media outlets, and addresses the matter in my California piece too.

Here’s the link: http://alumni.berkeley.edu/news/california-magazine/winter-2010-inside-out/beyond-wine-and-chocolate

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NoPotCooking December 17, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I never really thought about artisan tofu, but of course it’s a brilliant idea!
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Island Pork Chops

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:31 pm

And it really does taste different from the packaged kind.

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Alexandra December 17, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Loved his advice response!

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:32 pm

I know, Sandy, bit of a mantra for life really, isn’t it?

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Cook Book Club December 17, 2010 at 9:40 pm

This is very interesting. It would be difficult for me to give up chocolate for tofu. My grandmother used to make me eat tofu, and I couldn’t stand it. My sweet tooth wins every time!

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Thanks for chiming in Cook Book Club. Maybe you can have your chocolate and eat tofu too: Scharffenberger told me that he’s been taste testing a lot of silken tofu chocolate mousse of late. Stay tuned.

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Susan December 18, 2010 at 9:12 am

I didn’t care much for dark chocolate until I visited the Scharffen Berger factory several years ago and learned more about it. I was sad to hear that the factory closed, but it’s great to see that John is still involved in the food community.

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Susan, you’re not alone, a lot of folks miss what that chocolate factory added to our community (check out the comments re same on Berkeleyside.)

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Lisa December 18, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Lovelovelove dark chocolate. I actually kind of like sauerkraut, too. Tofu “noodles”, though–I guess I’d have to taste it to believe it.
Lisa´s last [type] ..Free Wreath-Making Party Correction

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Sarah Henry December 19, 2010 at 1:34 pm

You might find, Lisa, that you’re pleasantly surprised.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. December 19, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Well, if anyone can make tofu cool, it’s John. I’d love to try some of his sauerkraut too – adding to the list for my next Bay Area visit!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Farm Friday- Roasted Sunchoke Salad

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sarah henry December 28, 2010 at 12:42 am

Let me know when you next visit, Casey. Happy to send you a list of food-related adventures for you to pick and choose from in your travels around town.

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MyKidsEatSquid December 21, 2010 at 6:03 am

Great interview, as always. Although I’m not a huge tofu fan, the best chocolate mousse I ever had was made with silken tofu (sorry mom). I need to track down a recipe and try to make it myself. John does seem like a cool guy.

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sarah henry December 28, 2010 at 12:43 am

Okay, sounds like I need to find me a silken tofu chocolate mousse recipe. When I find one I like I’ll happily share it here.

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Anna@Tallgrasskitchen December 21, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Fascinating! What diverse food interests. I’d love to shadow John for a week. I used to travel to the Bay Area frequently, and got to eat at the factory before the restaurant closed and the factory was purchased. Delicious! I wish we had a source for artisan tofu here in WI.

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sarah henry December 28, 2010 at 12:44 am

Hi Anna, Lots of folks here lament the closing of that chocolate factory & cafe too.

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merr December 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm

I appreciate anyone who can make tofu taste really great. I’m impressed with his diverse food interests…though you could make a meal out of them…tofu dish for dinner, served with wine, chocolate for dessert!

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sarah henry December 28, 2010 at 12:45 am

Don’t forget the side of sauerkraut.

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Jeanine Barone December 29, 2010 at 7:36 am

I’m a fan of chocolate, wine and tofu and found this a fascinating interview.

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