Complete Chocolate Lover’s Guide for the San Francisco Bay Area

RIP: Martha Shibata, original CBTB chocolateer


Looking back, it seems like she started everything

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COCOA tasting
Martha sampling chocolate at the SF International Chocolate Salon.

Sadly one of the original 4 chocolateers of Chocolate By The Bay passed away this year. In May, Martha Shibata — AKA CBTB’s Chocopi — died at home after a long illness.

Martha was a dedicated foodie and our resident chocolate recipe tester. But more than that she provided the impetus for this whole blog.

I’ve never told our origin story here before but since CBTB would not have existed without Martha I think this is the time to do it. And knowing Martha who was one of the humblest shyest people I ever met, this is probably the first time I can do it without embarrassing her.

Ronnie AKA Cacaopod and I met Martha in 2007 when she was the designated driver for her out of town colleague who was meeting us for dinner. The colleague needed a driver — not because we planned on drinking — but because she didn’t know the area and didn’t want to drive at night. Ronnie and I don’t own a car so we were no help. Luckily in more ways than we knew at the time, Martha came to the rescue.

Tai chi & tea

During dinner Martha mentioned that she had to get up early the next morning to go to tai chi. Our interest was piqued — since moving to SF over a decade prior we’d become interested in learning tai chi but hadn’t found a group to join.

Martha was happy to tell us about her group and invited us to join. She later told us she didn’t expect that we would show up but that next week we had figured out a combination of walking and public transit to get us from Oakland to the park in Richmond and we were there.

Thus began a long friendship with weekly tai chi and tea in the park then brunch afterwards. Because Martha worked in the East Bay she knew lots of good restaurants we could try.

Brunch & best smelling bathrooms

One place she introduced us to was the Scharffen Berger cafe. Part of the Scharffen Berger factory in Berkeley, it was a nice brunch spot with high ceilings and antique chocolate advertising posters from Alice Medrich’s collection on the walls (and it had the best smelling bathrooms in the world because they were next to the factory). We went there often.

Over time we discovered we had a lot in common. For example we were all graphic designers. This got Martha and Ronnie talking about doing a project together. Working together was the whole point — not the actual content. But you gotta have something to work with.

Since we usually talked about possibilities over brunch — which was often at Cafe Cacao — Martha suggested we create something with a chocolate theme. The first ideas were print based — we had all started in print design — the one we discussed the most was doing a calendar featuring local chocolatiers — at this point we didn’t even know of enough local chocolatiers to fill a yearly calendar.

icon logo
One of the last bonbons by Joseph Schmidt graces our logo — courtesy of Martha

Martha knew the most since she was a dedicated if understated foodie and longtime SF resident. She taught us about SF artisan chocolate pioneers Alice Medrich and Joseph Schmidt. In fact she’s the one who gave us the Joseph Schmidt bonbon we use in our logo.

We started researching local chocolatiers and chocolate makers. Usually Martha would suggest we check out someone she knew of after brunch or sometimes she’d get other members of our tai chi group to go with us on chocolate excursions — I remember she took us to Charles Chocolates when they were still in Berkeley and how everybody loved Recchiuti’s when we did a big trip to the Ferry Building farmers market and tried their chocolates for the first time. That visit with everyone raving about Recchiuti’s bonbons gave us the idea to do our Recommended page with Recchiuti being one of the first chocolatiers listed.

Old school vs. online

While we were exploring the local chocolate scene, we weren’t able to figure out the logistics of making a print calendar work. At this point we started thinking virtual — a calendar online? A chocolate website? A YouTube channel of chocolate themed animations? Either Martha or Ronnie suggested doing a blog about local artisan chocolate where we could all contribute on an ongoing basis and that’s how CBTB originated.

Ronnie designed the initial site with Martha’s input. Since I do website coding as one of my jobs in our marketing services business, I was in charge of translating the design to the site.

At this point we asked other people if they wanted to participate and that was when our 4th chocolateer joined — Michele AKA CBTB’s Chocfull who was an arts administrator in Richmond  — and we officially started our adventures in SFBA’s artisan chocolate scene.

Building CBTB

Dandelion Chocolate
Martha peeking inside Dandelion Chocolate’s Valencia St. location

With our crew of chocolateers set, we built our website. We shared research on the local chocolate scene and met to sample chocolates. I ended up being the one to write most of the articles — which has continued to be the scheme to this day.

We liked to go on field trips to TasteTV’s Chocolate Salons. They were a great way for our fledging troupe to meet local chocolatiers and chocolate makers and expand our knowledge. We continue to attend them although it’s been a couple of years since Martha was able to come with us due to her illness. Instead she’d say she would be there in spirit.

In Tokyo
With Martha and other friends in Japan in 2016

Sometimes we would go further afield like when Ronnie and I went to Korea and Japan in 2016 and Martha joined us in Japan for a few adventures — including attending a sumo tournament! — and tasting some Japanese chocolates.

Before she got sick, Martha liked to do location research for the site and try chocolate recipes. She took a lot of the location pix in our DIY tours section. And she is represented by one of the cups in our Recommended ratings for local chocolate.

A side note

You may notice references to K-pop and K-dramas on this blog — I am a huge K-pop fan and as my husband says, “our TV only speaks Korean” because of all the K-dramas I watch.

Martha was the spark for this too. Prior to Ronnie’s and my first trip to Korea in 2009 — our main client is a Korean American software company with a development office in Seoul so we were going there — Martha lent us her DVDs of a popular K-drama, Dae Jang Geum, which she liked because it was very food-centric.

Going through the series’ 54 episodes we got hooked on it too — the food, the costumes, the culture — very unique and appealing. I told my clients that I’d love to visit some of the sites from the series while we were in Korea and they obliged by taking us to the sets that were used for the palace and villages — the TV station had made a theme park of the sets and for the approximately $3 admission fee we could wander all around the sets, dress up in the costumes, and play with the props — the jail and torture equipment proved popular with our crew — without any supervision.

It was super cool — and it even got our boss hooked on K-dramas. No one in our company watched much TV and they didn’t know the series. After that visit, he started watching K-dramas too. Martha’s influence spread farther than she ever knew.

Farewell dear friend

Martha was such an important part of CBTB and so influential in my life that it’s hard to imagine she’s gone. What started with the desire to do a group project with some friends ended up being this blog that’s been going on for 15 years now. It never would have happened without her and while I like to grumble about how I was roped into this gig where I do 99% of the writing I have enjoyed this new area of my life and will always be grateful to Martha for setting things in motion.

If she were still with us she would downplay her contributions but if you enjoy this blog just know that it’s all her fault

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Published June 28, 2024

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