Ghirardelli Chocolate Company was founded by an Italian, Domenico Ghirardelli, who was born in Rapello, Italy, in 1817. Domenico's father was a merchant, and he apprenticed his son to a confectioner and spice importer. Domenico learned the trade, then moved to South America and went into business for himself. He worked for a time in Montevideo, Uruguay, and then settled in Lima, Peru. While in South America, Ghirardelli changed his first name from the Italian Domenico to the Spanish Domingo. Ghirardelli's shop in Lima was next door to that of a cabinetmaker, James Lick. Lick was either a restless or an adventurous fellow. In any case, he decided to leave Peru for California.
He landed in San Francisco on January 11, 1848, just 13 days before gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, precipitating the California gold rush. Lick had brought with him 600 pounds of his neighbor Ghirardelli's chocolate. He soon wrote to Ghirardelli that conditions were ripe in California. He had sold all the chocolate he had with him, and he advised the confectioner to come north. So Domingo Ghirardelli promptly followed Lick to San Francisco.
At first he sold chocolate, coffee, liqueurs, and other items to the gold miners, and by 1852 he had established a store in San Francisco. Ghirardelli's company had several locations in its early years, and apparently business was up and down. But by 1885 the company was importing 450,000 pounds of cocoa beans a year, as well as importing and grinding spices and selling coffee, wine, and liquor. Chocolate manufacturing was the mainstay of the business. The equipment needed to sort, blend, roast, and grind cocoa beans took up a lot of space, and the expanding business meant the company needed bigger quarters.
Domingo Ghirardelli retired in 1892, leaving the company to his sons, and in 1893 the company purchased a square block in San Francisco bounded by Beach, Polk, Larkin, and North Point Streets. This area luckily survived the earthquake and fire of 1906, and Ghirardelli continued to expand its facilities, erecting new buildings in what became known as Ghirardelli Square.