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How one chocolatier pivoted during pandemic by putting own spin on mooncakes

Her atypical truffles also include flavors like pho spices, Sriracha and durian.
Chocolatier Wendy Lieu has been selling mooncakes and truffles online through Socola, the chocolate company she co-founded with her sister.
Chocolatier Wendy Lieu has been selling mooncakes and truffles online through Socola, the chocolate company she co-founded with her sister.Socola / NBC News

Chocolatier Wendy Lieu has been making a lot of mooncakes in preparation for the Mid-Autumn Festival on Thursday. But hers aren’t the typical baked pastry with a sweet or savory filling. Lieu's are made of chocolate: a dark chocolate shell filled with a mix of lotus seeds, white chocolate and the customary salted egg.

“I've been working on the lotus paste, and my arms are really buff because of that now,” Lieu said.

Eating the holiday goods and celebrating looks a little bit different for this year’s festival, also known as the Moon or Mooncake Festival, which is rooted in the legend of a moon goddess. It’s commemorated by Chinese and Vietnamese communities, during which families and friends gather for the harvest season.

Amid the pandemic, Lieu is selling her version of mooncakes online through Socola, the chocolate company that she co-founded with her sister. And even though the double hit of the pandemic and wildfires has kept their San Francisco storefront closed, Socola is still surviving, thanks to its flexibility and inherent creativity. For instance, in addition to creating bold, new chocolate flavors, Socola has pivoted to offering online chocolate classes.

“Right now, it’s just like, throw everything against the wall and see what works,” said Lieu’s sister, Susan.

The sisters have seen their online sales increase by 60 percent during the pandemic. The initial batch of chocolate mooncakes sold out in less than a week. Lieu promises they will restock.

Since its inception, Socola (“sô cô la" is the Vietnamese term for chocolate) has set itself apart by offering flavors not normally seen at your typical candy store. Yes, there’s the requisite caramel and bourbon-infused truffles. But there’s also some atypical truffles too, like durian or Sriracha. And just because the store is shut down doesn’t mean Wendy is done creating new flavors.

Recently, she created a chocolate she called, cheekily, “pho #1,” a tribute to the Vietnamese tradition of putting numbers in restaurant names. It’s a ganache infused with pho spices (star anise, black cardamom, fennel, black peppercorn, coriander, cloves, cinnamon) and encased in dark chocolate. Socola sources chocolate from Guittard.

“Why make dark chocolate caramel when you can make Vietnamese coffee, Sriracha and passionfruit?” said Wendy, whose parents immigrated to America from Vietnam. “I can incorporate all the flavors that we grew up with and celebrate our heritage.”

Socola opened its brick-and-mortar store in 2014, but the Lieu sisters have been making chocolate and selling it since they were teenagers.

When they were growing up in the Bay Area, working after school at their parents’ nail salon, the siblings would reward themselves by going to the See’s Candies next door. Then in 2001, Wendy became inspired to try making her own chocolate at home. Using a recipe for mocha truffles from Gourmet magazine, she recruited Susan to help.

“We didn't know how to temper chocolate,” said Susan. “We used a microwave to melt the chocolate. But then sometimes it would bloom. And the fat would rise to the top.” But soon, the siblings perfected how to temper chocolate and how to make their own flavored truffles. Their first custom flavor: Vietnamese coffee, which they still sell today.

The two started giving the chocolates away to friends and family, and then graduated to selling them at the nail salon and at the local farmer’s market. But when Wendy wanted to make candy full time, her father balked. “My dad told me if I went to a pastry school after high school, he would not support me,” Wendy said.

So she went to University of California, Davis, and got a degree in managerial economics. Susan went to Harvard and majored in social studies. But during the holidays, they continued their side business. “We did a simple online order form. And then we would make chocolates and then ship them out,” Susan said. “We were online in 2003."

After UC Davis, now an adult with her own money, Wendy started going to pastry school at night, while still working her day job as a management consultant. In 2014, the sisters took the leap and opened their own storefront and cafe in San Francisco.

They admit it’s been an uphill climb. In America, female chocolatiers, especially Asian ones, are still rare. “We had no role models,” Susan said. “And we were up against an institution that is heavily white and male.”

But the duo realized that what made them different from other chocolatiers was also a source of strength. “There came a point where we were like, ‘We can do burnt caramel with sea salt very well, but what's going to differentiate us and actually make us competitive in the market?’” Susan said. “Tapping into our heritage and creating flavors that we were super excited about, that were honest, that's when I would say the company started to really take off. Because we were offering something truly different.”

These days, Susan is still a partial owner of Socola and oversees marketing, but the day-to-day operations and flavor development is Wendy’s purview.

When asked about the future, Wendy wants Socola to stay unique. “My dream for Socola is to become a globally recognized brand with the prevalence of selling direct-to-consumer with gift baskets like Harry & David, the luxury cache and international brick-and-mortar presence of Louis Vuitton, and the cute joy of Sanrio Surprises,” she said. “I want Socola to be the go-to luxury chocolate brand in the world with flavors my grandma would fight over.”

Adds Susan: “Our parents came to the U.S. as refugees, as boat people. We didn't realize they were role modeling with the nail salon — that you build what you want. And Wendy has built this from the ground up.”