Ten years ago Snooky first came to our small factory on Valencia Street to help us with an electrical-machine mystery that no one could solve. His much-needed consultancy quickly evolved into a decade-long relationship whose anniversary we celebrate today. Formally, Snooky says his title is “Director of Engineering, or Engineering Director, who knows? We have a Latin phrase that we use here — and I’m guessing it’s used everywhere else — which maybe applies, which is factotum; which is, you know, someone who does it all. And so I may in fact be Dandelion’s technical factotum.”
So Snooky, let’s do introductions. Tell us a bit about you!
I have an ongoing love affair with nature. A part of that love affair is love of human ingenuity, human abilities, and creative expression. If I am good at anything it is being able to appreciate and admire what others are capable of. I like living in a state of “Wow.” I find working with materials — natural ones: metal, stone, wood — and sophisticated ones: machines, circuits, tools — extremely satisfying, especially when creating something of use and beauty. I enjoy the physicality of much of the work I do: heavy lifting, smithing, and hewing, as well as the subtler physicality of precision work like milling and boring and fitting and welding and the like. Chocolate is a thinking space for me. I like to muse about the metamorphosis from bean to mouth. All the steps involved in the transformation. The crafting.
Going back ten years, what was your first experience at Dandelion?
I was there to offer a boost. The Cocoatowns and Selmi weren’t quite up to speed. The space was so far from the building’s main electrical room that what measured 208 volts at its origin arrived at 202; not enough to give the machines what they needed to work their magic.
What struck me most about my first encounter with Dandelion at the (original) Dogpatch (location) was the feeling of abundant happiness in the space, everywhere in the space. My experience of all present (I think there were six, maybe eight, Dandelions at the time, depending on whom you count) was one of warmth and welcome. What began as a friendly professional service response to a cry for help quickly went from offering a simple electrical boost to figuring out how to stick around because something special was happening. “Hey, can I build a new winnower?”
So, did you build the winnower?
Yes, so they had a winnower which is the machine that uses air to separate the husk from the nib. And it had some black plastic pipe, it had a vibrating back massager, and it had a little hair dryer and plenty of duct tape … Upon seeing that I asked them, I said, “Would you like to build a real one?” And so, in a very short period of time, maybe less than two weeks, I’d come back and in a day and a half, we built a winnower which until a couple of years ago was in use at Dandelion, and more than enough cocoa had gone through that to produce two million bars. So we kind of whipped this machine together and it just ran and ran and ran.
How did you do it?
Well, I think it’s a thinking process, right? It’s part observation. Understanding some of the fundamental principles of how things work and how things don’t work and then considering the look and feel. One of the things that is important for Dandelion is an aesthetic. And not just that things are pretty but also that they are, let’s say true and honest. Which is, if it needs to be a pipe, then we allow it to be a pipe, we don’t cover it up. So the idea is to make the design itself and the object that we’re creating expressive so that there’s nothing to hide. And I’d say that’s a design philosophy or language or ethos that applies all around to Dandelion.
Speaking of which, there are some of your fingerprints at our 16th Street factory …
It’s probably not easily read by the average visitor here because it’s not something people look at all the time, but it was actually quite difficult to accomplish all the energy-delivery needs — so compressed air, hot water, electricity; and also mechanical conveyance of beans from the bean room to roasters and so on — in a way that was functional, that was legal, that was safe, and that looked intentional and thoughtful. So those were two important words in this. We had a stream of inspectors come in and photograph this wall of exposed stainless steel conduits. Not just because it’s pretty but because it’s notoriously difficult to bend, and I developed a small machine to make these exact bends that have come out (as) beautiful.
We all know you are a man of many skills. Do you have any hidden talents?
I have a long history of making things and figuring out how to make things. So sometimes, (when) making the workshop and the apparatus in order to make a product, the product becomes sort of the smallest part of the whole process. Years ago I started to explore metal casting for making jewelry and other things — small architectural features. Door handles and things like that. And of course I didn’t buy all the equipment to do that; I built or repurposed equipment to start learning how to do investment casting (casting) and lost wax casting.
Is there any of that in the factory today?
Not from casting, but almost all of the metal work, door handles, and so on, we actually made here on site: all the door handles (and they are quite big). We have doors that are more than three meters tall and more than a meter wide … We built all of those on site. They are somewhere in the neighborhood of between 280 and 450 kilograms. So that was a large-scale metal-working operation. Large-scale weldments and assemblies. I had a very small crew. A core group of four people, five including myself, with varying levels of skills and various skill sets, and I think we did a very good job. We created things that would’ve been difficult to outsource and we did it in such a way that we could make a prototype, show it to people, have them feel it; like, you know, get a grip on it, look at it, and say “Yes” — and then the next day have fifteen more produced and ready to install. So it was literally design-build in the moment.
Any special shoutouts?
Is it shoutouts to people within Dandelion who are involved in this process, or just general shoutouts like to the Dalai Lama? (laughs)
(laughs) Whatever you prefer!
In terms of Snooky’s contribution here at Dandelion, there are two people in my life who come to mind. One is my maternal grandmother, who was exceedingly patient with me from the time I was four years old and sitting at a kitchen table while I took things apart and put them back together no matter how long it took. And the other is an uncle who wasn’t really an uncle (he was my paternal grandfather’s brother-in-law; we called him Uncle Koch).
Three things about Uncle Koch: (1) When he would come to visit he would give me a dollar — a whole dollar — if I could answer, it didn’t have to be a correct answer, but if I could give a thoughtful answer to a science kind of question. (2) For holidays, birthdays for instance, he would give me things that were broken. And support me in fixing them. Encourage me to fix it, leaving me to my own in fixing it. (3) And then on visits to his very spartan flat in Hayes Valley, he would have all manner of salvaged stuff, little colored glass beads, and pieces of tile. And he would set me loose and I could make whatever I wanted to make.
So I had one person who was very patient with me exploring the physical, mechanical, interactive world of mechanisms, and the other person who fostered unconstrained, undirected creativity by giving me this space and some materials and saying nothing. So two very special shoutouts to those people in my life.
(Also), a shoutout to someone who’s no longer with Dandelion, a man named Victor Zapanta, who should be nominated for sainthood — maybe double-sainthood! … talk about talented. His level of dedication, and the alacrity with which he took to projects, and his love and appreciation for the opportunity to create, and be involved in a special project, was really inspiring for me — so a very big shoutout to Vic.
Happy tenth Dandyversary, Snooky, and thank you for all you’ve created!
Loved reading about Snooky and his journey with Dandelion Chocolates. It alway endears me even more to learn the backstory like this interview does. What amazing support you had, Snooky, as a child to set you well on this path!
This such a charming read. Deeply inspiring, thank you.
I loved hearing your story! And Thanks Dandelion for honoring your employees.
What a lovely interview! It’s great to hear about how you came into your skills, and how you gravitated toward Dandelion. Intentional and honest: I love that.
Give this man a lifetime supply of chocolate!