Post by Ashlyn Perri, CAAM
Socola Chocolatier’s mascot, Harriet the Flying Alpaca, will be finding herself a more permanent place to live in the Rincon Hill neighborhood, located just south of the financial district of San Francisco. Socola Chocolatier’s new store and café is slated to open just in time for Valentine’s Day.
For Wendy Lieu, a first generation American whose parents were war refugees from Vietnam, opening a chocolate café in San Francisco may seem like a whimsical pipe dream. Lieu found herself at the age of 19 selling homemade chocolates at a farmers’ market in Santa Rosa. She, along with her sister, Susan Lieu, the business and marketing guru behind Socola, later started selling their chocolates—in flavors such as sriracha, guava and ca phe sua (Vietnamese coffee)—wholesale to specialty shops like Bi-Rite Market and supermarkets like Whole Foods.
“I always had a dream of creating a store,” says Wendy Lieu, owner and chief chocolatier at Socola, as we peek into the under-construction, future home of Socola Chocolatier + Barista. In addition to their chocolates, which will be made on-site, they will serve hot chocolate, Four Barrel Coffee, tea, and pastries such as a guassant (guava croissant with cheese) from Patisserie Philippe, where Lieu externed. Customers will be able to choose from Socola’s signature truffles to melt in a cup of espresso—a truffogato—as well as a tea selection curated to match their tea-influenced chocolates such as jasmine, chai, earl grey, and matcha.
Socola is the word for chocolate in Vietnamese, a nod to Lieu’s Chinese Vietnamese heritage. Lieu’s mom was pregnant with her when her family left Vietnam as refugees in 1982. Her parents spent two years in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur—where Wendy was born—before they eventually settled in Emeryville, CA. “I escaped many times by boat, in a small boat, and finally I made it,” says Tom Lieu, Wendy’s father, in a recent phone interview. Once there, Wendy’s mother learned to do nails and her father delivered papers. After years of saving, her parents opened their own nail salon.
Lieu remembers booking manicure and pedicure appointments at the nail shop when she was as young as 8 years old. “We were hustling!” exclaims Lieu, as she reminisced over her formative years. They sold Girl Scout cookies and their homemade friendship bracelets while working at the nail salon. ”We’ve just grown up being business women and entrepreneurs.”
Growing up in a Vietnamese household, Lieu was no stranger to cooking and the love and appreciation of food. She scoured cookbooks and received “weird gifts” like a sandwich press, and even made her own French bread when she was nine. However, there was one food item that baffled her—chocolate.