Business Spotlight: Chocolate

September 18, 2023

If you've even stepped onto the patio of Chocolate and felt like you were in another world, you're not alone. Head chef and owner David Jackman created an Italian oasis on Pacific Avenue after spending quite a few years as a chef in Italy. In fact, a lot of the principles of Chocolate were inspired by his time in Italy, and before that the UCSC farm, including his exclusive use of organic ingredients in everything on the menu. And, you might be surprised to know that chocolate really is a main ingredient in most of the items served including some of the less assuming dishes like their Mo'le.

We sat down with David to learn more about the origins of Chocolate the restaurant and how it continues to be a downtown Santa Cruz staple 20+ years later.

Choose Santa Cruz: How did your time as an intern at the UCSC Farm and then working in Italy inspire you to open your own restaurant?

David Jackman: During my time at the Farm and Garden Project in 1979, I was one of the interns and apprentices preparing meals for the others. The only items we purchased regularly were cooking oil, soy sauce, rice and flour. Most all other ingredients were grown on the Farm or up at the Garden. What we grew and harvested inspired our menus.

Our restaurant in Italy was also drawing from our farmlands. We owned 3 separate farms to harvest from. Meats, cheeses and fruits came from our farms. We did not grow vegetables, so we purchased those.

The restaurant kitchens I worked in here in the U.S. did not source from organic farms. I had to open my own restaurant in 1996 to make that happen.

CSC: During your later years in Italy, you were co-owner of a cooperative business there. To open a restaurant in Santa Cruz, you had to give that up. What made you decide that it was time to go all in on your own venture?

DJ: Our restaurant in the hills between Bologna and Florence was in a 1913 art deco villa owned by the county. County officials had decided to try and sell it, instead of renewing our lease. It never sold, not even today. It fell into disrepair, and this year, a community volunteer organization formed to restore the building and surrounding gardens. (I’m heading over to take a look at the ongoing project later this month [September 2023].)

With our restaurant looking for a new location in the mid-1990s, I decided to open my own restaurant here; cutting financial ties.

David's former restaurant in Italy

CSC: When you opened Chocolate, what was the ultimate goal and why was Santa Cruz the place to achieve that?

DJ: By the time I opened Chocolate, I no longer intended to return permanently to Italy. Santa Cruz was the only place in the U.S. that I had ever lived as an adult, and no other place in the U.S was a consideration.

The Farmers Market here was already an excellent resource for the restaurant. It enabled me to focus on seasonal, organic, locally-grown ingredients as I always had. The location appealed to me because it is very mainstream and on the public radar. We have always focused on serving the public here, rather than being a hidden or remote destination like our restaurant over there.

CSC: Let’s talk about the people that work or have worked at Chocolate. How have they contributed to the success of the business and what are a few things you look for when hiring employees?

DJ: One of the most memorable employees I ever hired was early in the year 2000. A waiter who had recently been part of the opening crew of another restaurant up north in his hometown in Oregon. His experience with that opening, as well as his visionary nature and team-playing spirit was a huge contribution during our first year here. Over these past 23+ years, he and his visionary sense has influenced me in menu choices, and restaurant space design to great advantage. His name, Nesh Dhillon, is now well-known in Santa Cruz as the longtime fearless leader of the Santa Cruz Farmers Markets. He is still my good friend.

But when hiring new employees, even after all these years, everything I look for, everything I see and hear at an interview, may or may not be useful to determine how that person performs and relates to co-workers. Too often, my experience with an applicant during their interview seems unrelated when working all together during service.

That said, many of my employees now are over 50 years old. This means that my teaching style, and their learning needs are sometimes more compatible than with someone who may have used mobile devices for communication during childhood.

Chocolate Patio

CSC: Chocolate’s tagline is “Real Food; Celebrating American Diversity” can you speak more about that and what that means to you?

DJ: We now know that this area has been inhabited for well over 100 centuries. What were some of the dishes and ingredients that were popular in this area over time? We are just beginning to learn about that. Our neighbors to the south have brought their recipes, such as tacos, and versions of these various dishes are now at home here. Those arriving from across the Pacific have brought their cuisines, which are favorites to many here. Many came from around the world to Santa Cruz in the last 150 years. The traditional dishes they brought with them have found themselves in diverse homes and restaurants here. These are the sources for our menu here at Chocolate.

CSC: What is it about chocolate as an ingredient that made you base your restaurant around it?

DJ: Although Chocolate was originally used as a fruit found along the northern Amazon River, in recent centuries, the seeds have become one of the most widely treasured ingredients around the world for making candy. Chocolate is now cultivated everywhere it will grow. It is processed on every inhabited continent. But some of it’s early recipes evolved just down in Mexico. Not for making candy, but for use in making sauces for “Real Food”! At our restaurant, we often use chocolate in that way.

CSC: With such a diverse menu, how do you ensure that you keep each offering as authentic as possible?

DJ: Authenticity becomes an interesting concept when we learn that Mole Poblano is a little different in every village and city in Mexico where it is made. When I put together our recipe, at least seven or eight recipes were needed, and then I began substituting ingredients from those areas, with ingredients that we use here. So our Mo’le Poblano is more about us. That’s one example.

Plant-based Entree: Vegan Mo’le, with roasted eggplant from Live Earth Farms

CSC: You have created a menu around organic sourcing. What has been the biggest challenge in that and where do most of your ingredients come from?

DJ: The main challenge that comes to mind about organic sourcing has always been that over the past 27 years our prices have had to remain competitive with other restaurants using cheaper ingredients.

Besides that, until recent years, local bakeries were unwilling to provide us with bread made with organic flour. Even after scientists began tying Round-Up use in wheat production to celiac disease and milder gluten-allergies local bakeries refused. It was not until Companion bakery got rolling that access to organic bread became feasible.

CSC: You’ve obviously figured out the sweet spot of organic sourcing and staying afloat during the most trying times (a recession AND COVID). How have you been able to navigate that and what things have you learned?

DJ: During the darkest days of Covid shut-down, it was just me in the kitchen and my wife packing up orders for curbside pick-up. The fact that we two owners could do the job ourselves, and soon after with only one other cook, allowed us to survive.

During the months that followed with conditional re-opening, we were one of the few restaurants that did not have to re-invent our seating. Outdoor dining has always been our focus at Chocolate.

Over the years, economic recessions have been gentle with us here at Chocolate because customers will then come here for their most special meals instead of maybe going to a fancier, more expensive place. We noticed this during the recession of 2001 and especially during the recession of 2008-2011, which was one of our busiest periods ever.

CSC: How do you continue to be inspired to run Chocolate after 20+ years of ownership?

DJ: I’m sure that now I find it more inspiring than ever. I’ve only been cooking one night per week, which leaves plenty of inspiration for creating seasonal specials. The other nights I bartend and serve tables. I really enjoy making the infusions that we use in our cocktails, Cacao nibs, oranges pomegranates, lemons and limes from our trees. And mint from our garden all help keep cocktail making in the family. My wife Lori serves tables here with me 3 nights per week. Having her with me here is a big bonus, so I don’t have to wait until I get home to see her.

Money is not getting any easier in the restaurant business. But finding organic ingredients is easier. Customer appreciation feels like it grows every year. Almost every group seated here seems to have something lovely and eloquent to say about their appreciation for what we do. That makes it so nice to be here serving the public. My employees feel it too!

David back in the Italian kitchen with some of our old team last year

CSC: Any advice for future restaurateurs who have their sight set on Santa Cruz to open their business?

*Although “Slow Food” in it’s complexity is a great movement, the term should never apply to service! And make sure everyone at the table gets their food at the same time! They come to eat together!

*Atmosphere is paramount. People do not live in Santa Cruz, if they are indifferent to their surroundings. Make it amazing.

*Always remember that the customers’ palate is more discerning than we would imagine. In this town, everything must taste fabulous if a restaurant is to survive!

You can visit Chocolate the Restaurant at 1522 Pacific Ave. in downtown Santa Cruz.

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