The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company in San Francisco isn’t easy to find. Tucked away in an alley in Chinatown, you’d walk right past it if you don’t know where to look.
Thankfully, name recognition is not an issue for the business. People come from all over the world in search of the company’s famous treats, largely because this is one of the only places where you can see fortune cookies being made.
In contrast to the mass-produced freebies you’ll find in your Chinese restaurant takeout bag, the cookies from Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company are stuffed, folded, and packaged by hand. The company uses original machines from the 1950s, replacing and repairing parts as necessary to keep the tradition alive. The machines and their operators are in the middle of the showroom, an area that’s free to observe all day long.
The process is simple but constant. The batter is measured and dispensed by a machine before being flattened between two hot molds. It comes out piping hot and flat like a pancake. Workers have approximately four seconds to fold and stuff the cookie before it loses its pliability.
For a time in March 2019, a flurry of stories in the media made it feel like Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company could soon disappear. Chan told the BBC that the business’s rent had tripled since 2016 to around $6,000 a month and that there might be a problem if rent continued to rise. Chan maintains that the problem affects all business owners in the area, not just his, and you don’t have to look long to find stories about how the incredibly high cost of living and doing business in San Francisco is impacting small businesses.
“I had a bit of a challenge, but it’s everywhere, not just me,” Chan says. The company got through the rough patch, and the publicity and generosity of patrons and community collaborations have kept them afloat since then. He is thankful for his customers, telling me, “You guys are the best because you keep us alive.”
This is a family-owned business with a matriarch at its helm. Nancy Tom Chan started the factory in 1962 and is now co-owner with her son, Kevin Chan. Nancy blends the batter herself each day in preparation for the work ahead. While it includes all the basic ingredients — sesame seed, vanilla, egg, butter, and flour — no one but Nancy can make it. That’s because to date, she refuses to divulge her secret recipe. She is the only person who knows the magic formula behind the cookies and has been perfecting it for decades.
Kevin doesn’t mind his mother’s protectiveness over the recipe.
“I don’t want to learn it,” he says. “This [company] is her life. I don’t want to take that away from her or make her feel less important.”
Chan recalls growing up on the factory floor, participating in the manufacturing process and learning the business from the best. He’s watched Chinatown transform around him from an undesirable neighborhood to a prime location in the middle of one of America’s largest cities.
The Chans had to rethink their business plan in 1962 after realizing they couldn’t compete with large production factories. So they embraced what they do best: handmade custom cookies in small batches. There’s a wide variety available at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, from chocolate-dipped and sprinkle-covered to flat cookies (no fortune included as they’re better for crumbling over dessert). In addition, guests can write their own messages and instantly have them inserted into a cookie. The final product comes packaged in a Chinese takeout container.
“A simple greeting goes in the cookie, but people open [it] up and they’re so happy with it!” Chan says. “Within an hour from now, I have a client calling me from the East Coast, ‘Kevin I want to propose to my girlfriend, can you help me make cookies?’ I’ve seen people put diamond rings and money in [the cookies] for Chinese New Year.”
Working at the factory comes with free tastings (Chan approximates eating a minimum of three-four pieces a day — for quality control purposes, of course) but it also demands a grueling schedule. The company is open seven days a week because the Chans appreciate the distances some customers come for a cookie and don’t want to disappoint anyone.
“My job is to service the people,” Chan says. “Happiness is serving, and when you see a customer come from far away just to see you, you feel more success and pride because of this.”
It goes beyond just making cookies — the Chans are on a mission to spread wisdom, joy, and laughter.
“When I see a funny quote I put it in there, and some motivational good quotes or educational quotes I put in there, because I think they are good for people,” Chan says. He adds, “I donate a lot to the public library because they’re information and writing a message is information too; we have something in common. I want to promote people’s minds.”
It’s the positive emphasis and personal touch that keeps customers coming back for more and championing a confectionery process long thought to have been replaced by major industries.
“After you come to our shop and have one of our cookies, you will never have another [fortune] cookie again,” Chan says. “We hold on to the recipe and the machines, but most importantly, we make [them] by heart.”