In 2015, Michael Benner was swept off his feet for the better part of a year by a foot injury.
Consumed by wanderlust during his slow recovery, he one day talked his husband, Curtis, into a therapeutic walk. Without forethought, Michael blurted out a vague vision: "In my next life, I want do something with chocolate."
A few months later at Christmas, Curtis gifted his partner with a pair of books on the subject. Michael consumed them, as well as the litany of videos, blogs, articles, social media posts, cooking shows, trade shows and confectionery festivals that followed.
Although he was grateful for the benefits that saw him through his prolonged recovery and was eager to return to the workaday world, Michael wasn't exactly counting down the days to his return to a career that kept him on his feet all day pairing obscenely priced wines with obscenely wealthy humans.
Encouraged by Curtis, Michael reconnected with the culinary creativity that first attracted him to the Bay Area from his hometown of Redondo Beach (where he and Shaws Candy owner Diana Zogaric, then a resident of Manhattan Beach, were unbeknownst neighbors).
"Chocolate was my mid-life crisis," Michael admitted. "Turns out I was pretty good at it."
The several years of entrepreneurial alchemy that followed started in his own kitchen and expanded to a shared chef's kitchen in South San Francisco, a humble 12-square-foot beachhead from which he launched Michael's Chocolates.
While there was no shortage of Willy Wonka wannabees in the aftermath of the tech-driven gentrification of San Francisco and points beyond, Michael's Chocolates began collecting festival medals up and down the West Coast on the strength of a niche talent by its proprietor: "Painting" bonbons.
During the labor-intensive process, high-end chocolate is molded in a highly polished polycarbonate shell, then literally painted to a sheen with color-infused cocoa butter. Michael was a quick study and soon was on the fast track to master craftsman status.
"Understanding chocolate and confections is one thing, but understanding colors and cocoa butter is a different ball of wax," he said of his acumen for chocolate painting. "If I've done my job, you can see your reflection, like a little mirror."
It was his signature creation, the Lemon Burst Bonbon, that drew the attention of the future Shaws proprietor a year ago at a chocolate convention at the Palace of Fine Arts. Diana grabbed Michael's card that day, but it sat idle when the pandemic and then an extended demolition and rebuild of the 90-year-old West Portal property delayed the opening of Shaws Candy until January 18, 2021.
"I went to the convention with the intention of selling some good, high-end chocolates and he really stood out to me," Diana said of Michael. "So I started following him on Instagram, and by the time I was ready I was sure that he was someone I wanted to have a business relationship with."