Jack Epstein is the owner of Chocolate Covered, an artisanal chocolate bar boutique in Noe Valley. The store just celebrated its 25th anniversary, a milestone for any business.
J.: You aren’t such a chocolate lover yourself. You’ve said it would be much more hazardous for you to be in the deli business. How did you become a chocolate connoisseur?
Jack Epstein: One day in 1994, I was walking down the block and saw a basement store for rent for $700 a month. I thought there might possibly be a niche for a chocolate store. After Alice Medrich’s Cocolat closed here, there was no good chocolate in Noe Valley, and that gave me the inspiration to say ‘Let me try to be that chocolate person here.’ Two and a half years later, I moved to the current location. That was the year that the craft chocolate movement really started. Either Robert Steinberg or John Scharffenberger came in and sold me their chocolate themselves. It’s my job to keep up with the craft chocolate business, but so many new ones are starting all the time that it’s impossible to know them all.
J.: Tell me a bit about your collection.
JE: At any given time, I have over 1,000 unique bars from all over the world. I just started carrying a brand from Poland, we’ll see if it sells. I have a craft chocolate bar from Israel called Holy Cacao [with beans sourced from Ecuador and Peru]. I get visitors all the time from local chocolatiers, who spend hundreds of dollars in the name of research. I’m like a library.
I’m also a destination store; I get many chocolate-loving visitors from around the world who know about me, thanks to the internet. I buy stuff for a much wider palate than mine. I don’t claim to have everything or the best, but what I claim is to have the most good in one place.
J.: Does that explain the success of your business?
JE: I did an event last year where I thanked the “bean to bar” makers. I’m 66. Without them, I’d be living on Social Security in some godforsaken hot place. It’s being in the right place at the right time. I’ve worked 70-hour weeks for 25 years. You have to be committed. I had no choice but to make this work.
J.: You also have an incredible display of metal boxes with cyanotype photos on them. What’s the deal with those?
JE: It started as a hobby. I went around and took photos of nearly every street sign in San Francisco and also did many landmarks and famous people and put them on boxes. I also do custom boxes, if people bring me their own photos. I can put any photo on a box. Some people buy boxes without chocolate, and some buy chocolate without boxes, but many fill boxes with chocolate. Behind the register, I have boxes with my own family members, and this one (gestures) is my bar mitzvah photo.
J.: You’ve been in the Bay Area for over 35 years and Los Angeles before that, but your accent is an immediate giveaway that you’re not from these parts.
JE: I’m from Washington Heights, in Upper Manhattan. My parents were wonderful people who gave me everything. They had a lower-middle-class income, but I lived an upper-middle-class life. I don’t know very much about my ancestors but I’ve been told that back in Russia, there were some rabbis among them who were Cohens.
J.: How did you end up in Noe Valley?
JE: I first followed my brother to L.A. My partner Marilyn and I moved to Noe Valley in 1983. We started by selling clothing, first at festivals. We still have a clothing store a block away, Ocean Front Walkers, that she runs. We also live another block away from the store, so our whole lives are within these three blocks.