By Alex Tresniowski
Updated November 09, 1998 12:00 PM

The dream was to create a chocolate so rich it would make jaded gourmets moan. The result fell a bit short. “It smelled like burned plastic,” says John Scharffenberger, 47, of the first batch of candy he concocted with partner Robert Steinberg, 51, in 1997. Undeterred by that flop—and by the fact that no one had started a successful American bean-to-bar chocolate company in more than 50 years—the duo kept at it.

Chocoholics coast to coast, including Francis Ford Coppola and John Larroquette, are glad they did. That’s because foodies say that dark, superpremium Scharffen Berger is to your run-of-the-mill candy bar what espresso is to truck-stop Java. “It’s like the beginnings of the gourmet coffee craze,” says Andrea Marcum, manager of West Hollywood’s fashionable Angeli Caffé, where the $3.50, 3-oz. bars sell out. “A lot of our customers are heavily addicted to Scharffen Berger.” Some 80 high-end restaurants, including New York City’s Windows on the World, have recently ditched top European chocolates such as Valrhona for the new brand. “It’s rich and roasty and has a lot of flavor,” says Charlene Reis, pastry chef at the renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. “It’s an intense taste.”

What’s more, the 5,500-square-foot Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker factory in South San Francisco is one of just 11 in the country to import, roast and grind its own beans, and the only one not run by a large company. “What they’ve done is really unusual,” says noted chocolate chef Alice Medrich. “No one just starts a factory. It’s too tricky.” For Scharffenberger and Steinberg, the trick was simply to strive for perfection. When you taste most mass-market chocolates, “you’re tasting mainly sugar,” says Steinberg. “But chocolate is really a whole possibility of flavors.”

Bringing them out seems a natural vocation for the two lifelong chocolate lovers. “As a kid I drank Bosco with Coke,” boasts Scharffenberger, who grew up in New Jersey and later on a California ranch with his father, George, a corporate executive, and mother, Marian, a homemaker. After majoring in bio-geography at the University of California at Berkeley, he set out to create a bold new sparkling wine. His brisk-selling Scharffenberger—used by Reagan and Gorbachev to toast the end of the Cold “War in 1988—was, he says, the culmination of a dream “to bring joy and innovation to the world of food.”

Robert Steinberg followed a different path into that world. Raised in Massachusetts by his mother, Selma, after his father, Arthur, a psychologist, died of Hodgkin’s disease when Robert was 6, the Harvard-educated Steinberg became a successful family doctor. Diagnosed with an incurable lymphoma in 1989 (he undergoes intermittent chemotherapy), he sold his practice and pursued an interest in cooking. An apprenticeship with chocolate makers in France convinced Steinberg he could start a factory of his own. “Naïveté,” he says, “has worked well for me.”

One day in 1995, Steinberg ran into Scharffenberger, a former patient, and learned that he was out of the wine business and looking for a new challenge. “Robert had this chunk of chocolate in his pocket that I think he’d been carrying for months,” Scharffenberger recalls. “But it tasted better than anything I’d ever had.” Soon after, they experimented with recipes using a portable convection oven in Steinberg’s San Francisco apartment, then plowed $500,000 into vintage equipment and a warehouse.

Now Steinberg, the cacao expert, and Scharffenberger, the marketing whiz (both are bachelors), supervise 10 employees in their factory, which cranks out some 10,000 pounds of the sweet stuff each month. The surest signs of their success, though, are the silly grins of satisfied customers—plus intimations that there should be a warning label on the package. “Scharffen Berger should be approached cautiously by consenting adults,” says actor Robert Culp. “It is clearly addictive.”

Alex Tresniowski

Ron Arias in Los Angeles with bureau reports