has a name?
Would you name your chocolate tempering machine Quentin Tempertino? If you were Wendy Lieu, co-founder and Chocolatier at Socola Chocolates, you would — and also name almost everything else in her new space, Socola Chocolatier + Barista, including the dollies she fills with her Southeast Asian-inspired chocolates.
“We’ve got 3 dollies, so I named them,” Wendy explained, “The Dolly Lama, Salvador Dolly, and of course, Dolly Parton.”
If you know anything at all about Socola, silly names are just part of the company’s culture. From “Give It To Me Guava” and “Burnt Baby Burnt” truffles to the Soco-latte coffee drink, you are going to have to get in the mood just to order something at the café/shop. Don’t worry, it isn’t hard to do: This is an enjoyable space full of tasty chocolates, drinks and pastries, served by a friendly, knowledgeable staff.
Good things come to those who wait
“It took a long time to open a store,” Wendy told us. “Thirteen years.
“I used rent space in a commissary kitchen with a few other small businesses in South San Francisco, but I couldn’t have all my equipment there. Plus they were baking there, so I couldn’t use my tempering machine [because of heat issues]. I had to temper everything by hand.
“Now I have everything here. And we can control the temperature and humidity ourselves, so I can use my own tempering machine.
“This is the perfect space,” Wendy explained, “with just a little bit of a storage issue. The 2nd level is all storage; but my office is the size of a closet. I call it my ‘cloffice.’ But I can walk to work, or bike in 3 minutes, and I have everything in one place for the 1st time.”
The location is also pretty perfect: Next to Rincon Hill in SOMA, it’s in a brand-new building in an up-and-coming area. On Google Maps, it’s still a hole in the ground. When they were in lease negotiations, Wendy said her lawyer asked, “Are you sure that’s the address?”
“We’re pioneering in this space,” Wendy said. “They’re building a park and a 50-story condo building across the street. And the new Transbay Terminal is being built a few blocks away.
“Our current customers include the consulate staff across the street. Plus there are a lot of law firms & start-ups in the area. We’re planning to be here 10 years.”
It’s a fairly convenient location to downtown, just 4 blocks from the Montgomery BART station. And I recommend it as a 1st stop if you do a DIY chocolate tour downtown because they open early for breakfast.
Start your day with Socola
They’re open 7-6 M–F and 9-3 Saturday, because the café “doubles as chocolate production space,” Wendy explained, “so we’re here anyway.”
Patisserie Philippe provides the baked goods, which include the only-at-Socola ‘Guassant’: a croissant with a lightly sweet guava paste filling. Recommended! Get there early enough, or they’re gone.
Coffee and chocolate drinks feature the same truffle ganache and caramel that they use in their candies (but in liquid forms), making for some seriously decadent cupfuls. Ask for a Truffogato (#3 in Zagat’s Top 10 coffee drinks of SF and recommended by Eater SF in The Coffee Heatmap: 15 New Spots For A Killer Cup) to experience what I’m talking about: super thick, super intense — it’s a double shot of Four Barrel espresso over their “liquid truffle” (essentially their candy truffle melted) with a house-made chocolate marshmallow on top! Good thing it comes in a small cup, or I’d still be racing around.
Exotic flavors, local sources
Their entire line of candies, many with Southeast Asian flavors and using local ingredients (like Guittard chocolate & Straus Family Creamery dairy ingredients), are available for purchase at the counter. Their more unusual offerings include Vietnamese coffee, Flying Rooster Sriracha, lychee, and durian truffles, as well as passion fruit, macha green tea, masala chai, and guava truffles.
They also have crunchy almond dragees, which are roasted almonds triple coated in caramel, then triple coated in chocolate. And “Mouthful Caramels,” so called because they fill your mouth with a soft caramel that is smoky, salty and sweet.
Wi-Fi free, not free Wi-Fi
The café is a pretty little space to wake yourself up in. While the space is small (720 sq. ft.), it doesn’t feel cramped. Kudos to the architect, Syncopated Architecture of SF, who kept the high ceiling in the front of the shop, which with the wall of windows, keeps the space feeling light and airy. (Be sure to look up: The ceiling looks like a giant chocolate mold.)
The interior design is very attractive too, with a window counter for watching the neighborhood rise around you, and a couple of West Elm dinette sets and comfy chairs if you’re with friends. No Wi-Fi, so you’re there for the food, drinks, people, ambiance and chocolate. It’s a spot to enjoy in itself.
It opened for business just in time for Valentine’s Day, which they celebrated with chocolate-dipped strawberries. “Valentine’s Day was crazy,” Wendy said. “We did 8 flats of chocolate-dipped strawberries — and they sold out fast.”
Wendy had hoped to be open in January 2014, but there were some delays in the permitting over the end-of-year holidays. Still, the construction process took only 3-1/2 months, which for a food service business in San Francisco sounds miraculous. She credits her architect and contractor for working so well together.
Chocolate for lunch, anyone?
They don’t serve sandwiches here, so lunch hour is the café’s slow time. “We might do a pop-up for lunch,” Wendy said, “But we don’t want to stray from our model too much: ‘undiluted chocolate.’ Besides, the corner space in our building will be Vietnamese sandwich shop soon.”
In addition to chocolate, coffee and pastries, they also sell Socola T-shirts, aprons and necklaces which have a laser cut-out of their mascot, Harriet, made by [un]possible cuts of Oakland.
Not a lot of chocolatiers have a mascot, but Socola does: Harriet the flying alpaca. How she came to be goes something like this:
“When we [Wendy and her sister Susan] started our company in Santa Rosa [when they were teenagers], I would make chocolate in the summer, and we’d sell it at the Santa Rosa farmers market. Then we moved to Oakland, and I would make chocolate on weekends and holidays to order.
“After graduating from Harvard, Susan worked in Vietnam for almost a year on sustainable cocoa development. When she came back, we restarted the company.
“We decided we needed a mascot to show our rebirth, but most animals were already taken. We searched — even mountain goats and ladies on horses were taken. We found only alpacas weren’t taken.
“It fits us: It’s a funny, unique animal; it’s cute, and has a personality. I named her Harriet because she’s hairy. And we added wings because we both love to travel.”
Wendy spreads her own wings
Susan was at Yale for the past 2 years earning her MBA, so Wendy handled the move herself and has been running the business solo too. Initially, it seemed daunting, but she grew into it, and now: “I enjoy every single aspect of it,” she said, “But there’s always a challenge.”
“I used to hate doing projections, business plans, etc, but now I love it. It’s exciting to compare how we are doing with our goals. So I do projections, etc. — but not bookkeeping. I figured out what I really don’t enjoy doing and hired someone else to do it.”
Although she has always been the company’s head chocolatier, running the business too isn’t that much of a stretch. As Wendy explained, “I’ve been enterprising since I was 8. At 8, I would call people to remind them of their appointments at our family’s nail salon.”
And she’s always been in business with her sister. “We started out as kids selling friendship bracelets out of the nail salon, and we were top sellers of girl scout cookies every year. In fact, we got so busy, we outsourced the bracelet-making to friends.”
Wendy is definitely coming into her own. She was honored as a rising star chef, this past March along with Martin Yan and Chef Roy at CAAMFeast, an event honoring the achievements of Asian American chefs and foodmakers.
And to promote the event, she appeared on Bay Area People, where she made ganache live on air in a 2-minute demonstration:
She’s even been profiled in Forbes!
Taking a step up
One sure sign of her success: Socola no longer fills wholesale orders. With experience (and now all the business planning and analysis she does), Wendy found that “we can’t make it on wholesale only — dipping takes too much time. So we haven’t done wholesale for the past year and a half.
“I’m trying to work full-time, not round-the-clock,” she explained. “I have one full-time chocolatier and some part timers working with me. We have the retail shop and the café, plus corporate orders. Corporate orders are our bread & butter: we do custom images, and we do bridal chocolates.”
And by eliminating wholesale, “We don’t have to store for wholesale,” which is a big plus for their small space.
Instead, Wendy plans to hold special events at the café, including wine & chocolate tastings and private classes in making ganache.
Extending a helping hand
In addition to their unique Southeast Asian-inspired flavors, another way Socola stands out is in their charitable work, which is focused on Asian American and Vietnamese issues, especially children and hunger. They work with Plate by Plate, volunteering at their gala for the past 3 years.
Wendy works with CAAM Fest, an annual film festival put on by the Center for Asian American Media that promotes independent Asian American and Asian films. And both Wendy and Susan volunteer at Catalyst Foundation’s culture camps for adopted Vietnamese kids.
“We do it every year,” Wendy explained. “We show them how to make chocolate and talk about being entrepreneurs.”
You can get some of the same info yourself. Visit Socola Chocolatier + Barista and you can watch them making candies in their open kitchen while you enjoy a coffee drink and pastry in their super-cute café. Ask questions; if they’re not too busy, they’re happy to chat. And don’t forget to buy some of their chocolates before you leave to enjoy later.
Socola Chocolatier + Barista, 535 Folsom St., SF.
Transit options: Closest BART station is Montgomery (4 blocks). The temporary TransBay Terminal is a couple of blocks away. Lines that stop at the terminal include 5, 38, 38L, 41, 71, 71L, 108, Golden Gate Transit, SamTrans, AC Transit and Greyhound.