When it comes to specialty retail, North Beach has always had a full plate. In addition to some of the best bars and restaurants in the city, we’ve got some of the best Italian pastry shops anywhere, and Grant Avenue is one of the most eclectic shopping corridors you can find. We’re also blessed with one of the best candy shops you might ever visit: Z. Cioccolato.

I’ve written about Z. Cioccolato here on the blog before, back in the early days of the pandemic. That’s when the shop’s owner Mike Zwiefelhofer, looking to pivot in the face of dwindling retail sales, began to experiment with virtual chocolate-making classes. The candymaker had been doing classes at his shop prior to Covid, and it was starting to take off—but when the retail restrictions hit, that model was suddenly off the table. It was time for Zwiefelhofer to get creative. 

chocolate and wine

Mike Zwiefelhofer, owner of Z. Cioccolato, teaches a candy-making class how to temper chocolate at Belle Cora. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

His solution turned out to be a home run: by shipping kits of chocolate making tools and supplies to his clients, and running the classes online via Zoom, he extended his reach from strictly local to nationwide. Once retail restrictions were lifted, Zwiefelhofer resumed his onsite classes—but the virtual classes continued. Faced with a crisis, he had created a brand-new profit center for his business.

[easy-tweet tweet=”In our class, we’re actually teaching people how to temper chocolate, and make candies. –Mike Zwiefelhofer” usehashtags=”no”]But Zwiefelhofer wasn’t finished. Though flush with success, he knew there was more he could do with his concept. And that’s where Nils Marthinsen and his Belle Cora come in.

North Beach’s only true wine bar, Belle Cora has been holding it down on Green Street for fully seven years now, with small plates, craft beers and over 30 wines by the glass. And though it has been a popular spot since its inception, its owners had their own come-to-Jesus moment when the Covid curtain came down. 

chocolate and wine

Nils Marthinsen, owner of North Beach’s Belle Cora, describes one of his featured wines to a recent candy-making class . | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Reduced at one point to selling bottles out of the front window, Marthinsen was mulling over his options when he decided to take a chance on a burger popup with a visiting chef. The burgers were a massive hit—and when San Francisco’s Shared Spaces program kicked in, Belle Cora suddenly had outdoor seating for another 50 people. 

And they would need the room—because when the crowds came back, they absolutely poured into Belle Cora. Today, thanks to Covid (plus a lot of hard work, ingenuity and general stubbornness), the place is busier and more beautiful than it’s ever been.

chocolate and wine

Belle Cora co-owner Teague Kernan creates his first handmade peanut butter cup. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Belle Cora and Z. Cioccolato sit back to back, just around the corner from one another, and Marthinsen and Zwiefelhofer have been friends for years. So when the chocolatier was faced with a big order that totally upended his stockroom, and needed an alternate location for a Zoom class, he automatically thought of Belle Cora. He asked Marthinsen if he could use his space, and the barman was all in.

Happily, the class went off without a hitch—and it got Zwiefelhofer to thinking. Hosting chocolate classes in his stock room was working fine, but the setting was admittedly less than ideal. And a lot of the times when the classes were scheduled, Belle Cora was closed and empty.

Better yet, Belle Cora had wine. And what could possibly make a chocolate class better than a nice glass of red? Everyone knows chocolate and wine go together like ham and eggs, and the more Zwiefelhofer thought about it, the more sense it made. He and Marthinsen had stumbled across the perfect way to change up his chocolate making events.

I’m lucky enough to have attended one of these, so I can vouch for the concept wholeheartedly. Making chocolates is just fun, and doing it with a group of people feels a lot more like a party than a class. I understand why these have become such popular team-building activities—and adding wine to the equation just kicks the whole thing into another gear.

chocolate and wine

People love to make their own candy, and Kelsey is clearly no exception to the rule. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

To kick things off, each person gets their own set of chocolate making tools, along with all the raw materials, including almonds, caramel and oreos. Clearly no stranger to the format, Zwiefelhofer does a quick intro, taking the class through a basic orientation. Marthinsen takes the floor next, describing the wines he’ll be serving, and how they were chosen to pair with the chocolate.

Then the fun starts. With the option of both dark and milk chocolate, you get to try your hand at five different chocolate candies. It’s tactile, it’s creative, and sometimes it gets messy—and it’s a total blast. And all the while, Marthinsen is keeping glasses full: he pours four different wines over the course of the class, each with a short description.

Of course at the end, everyone gets to take home a box of their handiwork. What could be better?

When I spoke to Zwiefelhofer, he had this to say. “When we moved the classes online during the pandemic, it opened up a world of possibilities for us. Suddenly we weren’t limited by space, or by geography,” he said. “Or even number of people. We have yet to hit our maximum—our biggest class has been 350 people.

Rain enjoys a glass of red wine while she waits for her chocolates to cool. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“I’m proud of the fact that in our class, we’re actually teaching people how to temper chocolate, and make candies,” Zwiefelhofer explained. “I have competitors doing things like chocolate tastings and pairings, but not actual candy making.

“As things change, we know there will be room for both virtual and physical classes. And being in a world-class neighborhood like North Beach, we thought it was a great idea to create a fully realized experience,” he continued. “One where people could come to a chocolate making and wine tasting experience, and enjoy both.”

For his part, Marthinsen sees the classes as part of a broader change in the neighborhood. “Though it took a pandemic to realize it, in retrospect this partnership seems obvious,” he said. “These classes exemplify the way North Beach not only survived the pandemic, but found a way to thrive. By innovating and collaborating, this neighborhood has completely reinvigorated itself.”


For more information, contact Mike Zwiefelhofer at zccustomercare@gmail.com.

Belle Cora
565 Green Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 872-5451

Z. Cioccolato
474 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 395-9116