Not long ago, I moseyed on over to the New Tree Café (16 Jessie St, San Francisco, CA 94105) in downtown San Francisco, a prototype store for this established Belgian chocolate company. There, I met with founder and CEO Benoît de Bruyn, who was enjoying a pause as the café wound down for the day. He splits his time between the café, offices in San Anselmo, and Belgium, so it’s a wonder I was able to see him at all.
Ever since The Wang Post interviewed me and called me an “entrepreneur,” I have been putting more thought into what it really takes to earn that title. Not everyone agrees with me, but anyone who offers something to the public can be an entrepreneur. That includes painters, musicians, writers, and food purveyors. For me, being an entrepreneur means taking responsibility for something, final responsibility. It’s about being where the buck stops.
In any case, questions surrounding food entrepreneurship guided a lot of our conversation. Benoît didn’t always know he was going to eventually be head chocolatier of his own company. He began his career as an engineer, dealing with the environmental management surrounding dredging. He always loved food, though, from the production to the service. As a biochemical engineer, he has always wondered how he can grow food sustainably and efficiently, create the most healthy environment, and devise the most healthful recipes. That constant questioning resulted in New Tree, which is now trying to extend its sustainable, healthful formula to a retail-focused environment.
We talked about some of the hurdles he faces as a food entrepreneur, even after the immense success of his company. In San Francisco, land of the tech startup, he’s often greeted with skepticism when he tells people he works in food. I’ve seen this sort of attitude before—people who work with food aren’t always as appreciated as those in other sectors. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe because food doesn’t seem as complex as new technology (it is so complex!). Food grown from the soil is of lowly origins. Dealing with it is messy, physical. Whatever the reasons are, the perceptions are there, and I think it sometimes discourages smart people from entering the industry.
So what’s next for New Tree? They’re expanding on the completely sustainable food chain—from production to transportation to building materials in their shops. We will see more chocolate, but also more shops/cafés. The café is bringing new challenges to Benoît, who, for the first time, gets to interact directly with consumers.
Thanks for letting me visit, New Tree, and if you’re in downtown San Francisco, the café is worth a visit! You can try so much chocolate!