This seems to be the week to report on the deaths of chocolate makers. I just heard that Robert Steinberg, founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolates, died of cancer last week . Those interested in good chocolate know, of course, that Scharffen Berger was among the first endeavors to bring good chocolate to the market in the U.S. I finally had a chance to tour their factory just last May. But I actually knew him personally.
In 2000, I began to develop a new course “Cocoa and Chocolate from a Global Perspective” (sorry, I know that title is very dull). I then tried to get a hold of cocoa beans for my class. I had little luck since none of the local chocolate companies in Connecticut made their own chocolate. But a friend of mine who lived in the Bay Area had mentioned Scharffen Berger to me and I simply emailed the company, explained my purpose and hoped for the best.
A little later, my phone rang in my office and Robert Steinberg was on the phone. He was very interested in my course and we chatted about the idea behind the course and the books and articles I had assigned. He mentioned that he was very interested in learning more about the history and politics of chocolate and asked for my syllabus.
Then came the surprise. He offered to speak to my class. I sort of hemmed and hawed because I know I had no funds to pay or fly out guest speakers from California. But he reassured me and indicated that he could come down to Hartford after finishing a business trip to Boston. And so it happened that Robert Steinberg and I met.
His meeting with my class went very well and we all learned a lot about the challenges facing a small chocolate maker. For those with a historical memory, 2000 was about the time when cocoa prices hit an all time low and the most memorable point I remember from the presentation was his fear that these low prices would force farmers to give up cocoa production and leave Scharffen Berger without beans.
I realized then that the modes of cocoa production in Central America and the Caribbean were fundamentally different than those in Africa. In the former, farmers engaged in cocoa production as one of various farming activities. So they had the option of switching to other crops. In the latter, such shifts were far more difficult to accomplish.
I was, of course, sad to read that the company was sold to Hershey later, but I also knew that Robert Steinberg began this endeavor after a bout with cancer and I guess he did not want to continue to expend the energy demanded by a chocolate company. The link above points to an interview with his partner John Scharffenberger.
Robert Steinberg died of cancer at age 61. Irrespective of how one feels about Scharffen Berger chocolate, he was crucial in bringing good chocolate to the United States.