January 28/San Francisco/The San Francisco Chronicle-- The Hershey Co. plans to close Scharffen Berger's West Berkeley manufacturing plant as well as the San Francisco factory that makes Joseph Schmidt chocolates and consolidate production at other facilities.

Hershey, which in 2005 bought both Scharffen Berger, which specializes in premium dark chocolates, and trufflemaker Joseph Schmidt, will continue to produce those brands, but the chocolates will no longer be locally made.

Hershey already makes the majority of its Scharffen Berger products in its newly upgraded plant in Robinson, Ill., said spokesman Kirk Saville from the chocolate giant's headquarters in Hershey, Pa. He said the plant closures will affect a total of about 150 employees from both facilities.

Saville said Hershey intends to maintain the quality of the brands, which make up the company's wholly owned subsidiary, Artisan Confections Co.

"We will continue to source the world's best cacao to create our rich and distinct chocolate," he said. "We will maintain the highest quality standard for all our artisan productions."

Scharffen Berger was founded in 1996 by Robert Steinberg, a family-practice physician in San Francisco and Ukiah, along with a former patient, winemaker John Scharffenberger.

The pair experimented in Steinberg's kitchen, using everything from a mortar and pestle to a hair dryer to create their chocolate. Production started in a South San Francisco plant but was moved to the larger, 27,000-square-foot Berkeley factory in 2001.

"It was home grown. They really changed the way people regarded chocolate in this country," said Deborah Kwan, a public relations consultant for the company from the time it opened until 2003.

Steinberg died in September after a long battle with lymphoma.

Hershey's Saville gave little information on the timing of the plant closures, other than to say they will occur this year. He said he expects Cafe Cacao, the restaurant at the Scharffen Berger factory, and the on-site retail store to continue to operate until further notice.

"We are committed to communicating details to our employees first," he said, adding that Hershey is offering laid-off employees "very competitive" severance packages. He declined to provide details.  

From the February 2, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition