Bay Area sisters bring their Vietnamese heritage to their chocolate venture
How do you distinguish yourself in the highly competitive market of chocolate, one of San Francisco’s most iconic treats?
For Santa Rosa natives Wendy and Susan Lieu, two sisters who launched their chocolate business Sôcôla Chocolatier 20 years ago at the Santa Rosa Downtown Market, the secret has been as simple as it is savvy.
They have infused the soft ganache interiors of their truffles with the sweet, sour, salty and umami flavors of their family’s homeland of Vietnam. Sôcôla is the Vietnamese word for chocolate.
“For me, it’s about telling stories through chocolate, and that comes from being able to incorporate so many other flavors from our heritage,” said Wendy Lieu, the culinary genius behind the confections. “These flavors I came up with were not on the market in 2001. ... Creating things that didn’t exist is so cool to me.”
She started out making truffles with traditional flavors like raspberry and coconut, but for the past 10 years, Wendy has been incorporating savory Asian flavors in collections such as The Saigon Box, which features a mind-opening array of chocolates imbued with jasmine tea and Vietnamese coffee, pho soup and sriracha, plus the sour-sweet fruits of the tropics like passion fruit and durian.
“I have a Vietnamese palate, so I don’t like very sweet things,” Wendy said. “It’s not just about sweet, but about the tartness. Passion fruit is very sour, so I use white chocolate and the sourness balances it out.”
The chocolatier also dips most of her confections in a 72% cacao dark chocolate made by Guittard of Burlingame, which provides her with a consistent flavor profile she can rely on and make sweeter, if she needs to.
“That (72%) represents the amount of cacao (cocoa nib and butter) in the chocolate, and 28% is sugar and emulsifier,” she said. “We use a higher percentage because I can then add in whatever kind of sugar I want to. I like to control the sugar content in the chocolate.”
A performance artist and writer who now lives in Seattle, Susan Lieu plays a secondary but crucial role in the chocolate company by providing key support in the areas of marketing, sales and branding.
In 2008, after graduating from Harvard University, Susan joined her sister in launching Sôcôla Chocolatier in earnest. Susan had moved to Vietnam to pursue international development and was working directly with cacao farmers.
“It was very full circle, to learn about an interesting, sustainable crop like cacao,” Susan said. “My sister came to visit me ... and we got to see the supply chain of chocolate. She was inspired and she said, ‘I really want to do this.’”
“Chocolate is such an interesting and unique ingredient,” Wendy said. “It’s actually a very natural product, and there are so many ways to work with it. I’m always learning.”
From 2008 to 2011, the sisters experimented with their chocolate startup while working out of their sister-in-law’s doughnut shop in Oakland. They had to figure out how and where to sell their truffles and how to ramp up the business. Eventually, they rented a commercial kitchen in south San Francisco and hired a few employees.
While Susan went back east to get her MBA at Yale University in 2011, Wendy quit her day job and took over the business as full-time chocolatier. In 2014, she opened a storefront, Sôcôla Chocolatier + Barista, on Folsom Street in San Francisco, where she continues to create her handcrafted artisanal confections with modern flavors (although coffee service has been temporarily halted due to the pandemic).
Flavors of home in the Ox Box
For the Lunar New Year this Friday, ushering in the Year of the Ox, Sôcôla is offering a special Ox Box featuring four truffles that reflect the flavors of their homeland: Candied Ginger Peanut, Pandan Coconut, Preserved Kumquat and Tamarind Sesame.
During the Lunar New Year holiday, known as Tet in Vietnam, families clean house, make food offerings to their ancestors, host parties and give envelopes filled with money to kids (and anyone unmarried). They exchange blessings for health and wealth, happiness and longevity.
The Ox Box is a way for younger people to give a gift to their elders during the pandemic, Susan said. It has proven so popular that it was on back order by early February.
“This is a way that people can be connected with their family at this time,” Susan said. “We can be proud to make these pieces that our family wants to eat, and we’re tapping into a market that is nostalgic for these flavors.”
Wendy, who came up with her own recipes for the Asian flavors, said she is thrilled to be able to invent a creative new product based on the European tradition, but with a new twist.