When you enter Bittersweet’s second location in downtown Oakland, butter-colored walls and rustic wood panels in shades of milk and dark chocolate line the walls and floor. The coffee grinder buzzes in the background as customers wait patiently for freshly brewed coffee, and the smell of roasted beans, cinnamon and chocolate mingle together in the warm and oddly familiar space.
Bittersweet is a coffee shop and chocolate bar in one. Depending on the customer’s taste, there is a selection of coffee beans imported from Madagascar, Venezuela, and Papua New Guinea and roasted daily to create espresso, medium drip and decaffeinated brews. Beans are also used to create chocolate bars, baked goods, flavored teas and milk shakes.
The downtown Oakland cafe located at Broadway and 14th Street had its grand opening in April, making this Bittersweet’s second location. From the moment Bittersweet opened its first café in Rockridge over seven years ago, customers have pledged their eternal devotion to its signature hot chocolate made with four kinds of dark chocolate and blended with water instead of milk. In addition to the chocolate selections on the menu, there are a host of food options such as homemade yogurt, and Bittersweet’s version of Oreo cookies made with dark chocolate and vanilla filling. The café bakes its own bread and prepares homemade granola and parfaits, vegan scones and vegetarian quiches.
Diana Meckfessel and Penelope Mayer-Finnie currently own Bittersweet, but Mayer-Finnie started this business with four partners. The concept for the café came about after Mayer-Finnie, co-founder of the Internet search engine Ask Jeeves, returned from a trip to the South of France.
At the time, she was not a chocolate fan, but she realized after traveling through Europe that chocolate was a “big deal. ” On this trip, she visited a place where the mint for the chocolate was grown in the backyard. “It was amazing chocolate,” she said.
Mayer-Finnie realized chocolate could be paired with a variety of foods and spices to create unusual flavors combinations. “It’s like wine,” Mayer-Finnie said of chocolate’s rich flavor palette. “It’s like coffee. It’s an agricultural product in a way that those things are or olive oil, but we don’t treat it as such. We treat it like candy in the U. S.”
When she returned to the US, she and her future business partners considered the idea of opening a place similar to a wine bar, except where customers would sample unusual chocolates from around the world. Since its debut, Bittersweet has evolved into a place where the staff roasts their own coffee, make the chocolate in-house and combine mixtures of Cayenne pepper, rose water or salted caramel to create a variety of candy and hot and cold drinks.
“It’s a good blend of the two things,” said assistant chef Violett Slocum, who dips a lot of the chocolate. “We make our own chocolate mixes here and we incorporate them into the drinks. So a lot of people come here because our drinks are really unique. It’s not your average hot chocolate.”
Sarah Longduriyang is a fan of the café. She went from bringing her lunch to work every day to visiting Bittersweet two—or sometimes three—times in a day. “I love the freshness of everything,” Longduriyang said looking at the salads and pointing to the yogurt in the case. “I always come here because there is always something different and they make everything from scratch.”
After the success of Bittersweet’s initial Rockridge location, which was established in 2004, Bittersweet’s owners opened a café 10 months later in San Francisco, followed by another one in Danville. However, when the lease ended at the San Francisco location, a new proposed contract with a 30 percent rental increase resulted in the owners deciding to close the café. Mayer-Finnie said. In Danville, the new shopping plaza never leased enough retail space to attract the number of customers needed to sustain a business in that area, said Mayer-Finnie, and in 2008 the Danville branch was also closed.
The owners of Bittersweet began the search for a new place approximately two years ago. They wanted a place where they could roast the coffee, make the chocolate and run a café all at the same time. Several locations in and around Oakland had good retail space but no place to roast the coffee, and it did not make sense economically to have a warehouse to roast coffee for just one shop, Mayer-Finnie said. The café on Broadway provides the space they need and is close enough to Rockridge to allow Mayer-Finnie to bike between the two places, she said.
Although the community has embraced the café, it remains a challenge for small businesses like Bittersweet to compete with large retail chains that can buy products in bulk. Mayer-Finnie said her husband often asks her what she is doing because she works seven days a week yet she and her business partner have not made any money from running the cafes. “In seven years I haven’t made a cent, taken a salary or any of it,” Mayer-Finnie said.
For her and business partner Meckfessel, this is a labor of love. Their connection with their employees is strong and they believe in providing jobs. Mayer-Finnie was heartbroken when she had to lay off the people in San Francisco and Danville. “Our employees are, you know, kind of everything,” she said.
Mayer-Finnie and Meckfessel are now reviewing new options that will allow the business to grow. They are considering extended hours and maybe obtaining a wine license in the future.
“I get satisfaction from knowing that Bittersweet is important to the community,” Mayer-Finnie said. It is a gathering place where people can get away or be with friends, and it also sets itself apart from its competitors because it is an artisan coffee shop, she said. The cafe currently also does not offer Wi-Fi in the hope customers will engage with each other instead of their computers.
Good coffee and good chocolate should be something that everybody can enjoy, Mayer-Finnie said. “We literally make everything we do,” Mayer-Finnie said. “So we try to provide the best quality that we can of everything.”