If you live in San Francisco’s Bay Area, you’re in luck! Oakland, across the bay from SF, is a welcoming, culturally diverse place, and home to the oldest fortune cookie maker in northern California. It is also one of the last fortune cookie makers that produces the cookies entirely by hand.
Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory was started in Oakland’s Chinatown in 1957 by one Calvin Wong. Since its inception, the factory has witnessed many changes, including ownership. Since 2016, Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory has been owned by the mother-daughter duo Jiamin and Alicia Wong, distant relatives of founder Calvin.
Jiamin was born in a Tiger year and is an embodiment of the Tiger spirit: ambitious, creative and generous. The current owners moved to Oakland from Guandong Province in the late 1990s when daughter Alicia was only 4. No one in the family spoke any English at that time, so they took whatever odd jobs that was available. Alicia said the elementary school she attended was a mere five-minute walk from the cookie factory. She said her mother would often purchase a $2 bag of “rejects” from the cookie factory as snack.
When mother Jiamin caught wind of the cookie factory was about to close down, she saw it as an opportunity to “be her own boss!” Jiamin purchased the factory. It was dark and drafty, and the few pieces of machinery there were ancient, often needing new parts! It was a struggle to keep things going, but the new owners were determined to preserve the history and culture of the factory.
Alicia was attending college on the East coast at the time. However, she’d get phone calls from her mother requesting help with translating for customers. After graduation, she returned to Oakland thinking she’d help out for a little while and then get on with her own life. After working there a short while, she realized she could change the general assumption of what a fortune cookie could look and taste like.
“It’s important to me to change the stereotypes people have of both fortune cookies and Chinese people. They think we are all generic, boring, and all look the same. We’re not. That’s why I spend a lot of energy on how the fortune cookies look and photograph them in the best light, because the visual impression is what people see first,” Alicia said.
Mother supervises the cookie making while daughter focuses on marketing and creating new cookie combinations. Witness the bright red Chinese New Year cookies dipped in fine Belgian chocolate! And it doesn’t stop there. Alicia draws from her favourite childhood flavours: White Rabbit candy, lychee tea, hot pot with Szechuan pepper. New concoctions include Pink Peppermint, Crushed Candy Cane, Pumpkin Spice and Gingerbread Chocolate just to name a few. They custom-make cookies for family and corporate celebratory events. And oh, they also make X-rated ones where the fortune slips inside are yellow in color – just to make sure they do not get mixed up with the wholesome variety!
All based off a vegan recipe that produces fresh, crunchy cookies with no nuts, milk, eggs or preservatives.
Since the pandemic, business had dropped off significantly. Its storefront was closed to protect its employees (of mainly immigrant women), offering curbside pick-up and only. Their website indicates they will ship orders. also The factory developed “care packages” where fun fortune cookie charade-like game is included for receiving families to play on lockdown! There is also gratitude- and support-themed cookies people can order as gifts for essential workers to help spread positivity.
The factory produces approximately 100,000 cookies a day. Before the pandemic, the public could take a 15- to 20-minute tour of the factory for a few dollars and see how the fortune cookies are made. At the end of the tour,visitors get some yummy samples hot off the cookie press. The tours are now on hold indefinitely.
By 2020, Alicia’s husband has joined in to help run the family business. The factory has taken to supporting social causes, one cookie at a time. "The fortune cookie itself, I believe, can be a vehicle for anyone for anything. Unlike any other dessert out there, it can encapsulate an idea and spread it out there," said Alicia.
To show solidarity with the Black community, there are “Solidarity Cookies” that include quotes from civil rights leaders and resources on the movement. These cookies were handed out at BLM marches and events such as Juneteenth. Fifty percent of the proceeds from the sold cookies were donated to groups such as the Innocence Project, NAACP and local community organizations.
The World Journal, a major Chinese-language newspaper in the U.S., reported numerous shops in Oakland’s Chinatown were vandalized during the George Floyd protests in 2020. Elderly Chinese and Asian residents in the Bay Area were attacked by Black teens.
For Alicia and Alex, their BLM-themed cookie is the step they hope will break down barriers and tensions between the Blacks and Asian Americans. It is the fortune cookie factory’s way of showing the world this Chinese American creation is more than just a snack or after-dinner treat. It can be a vehicle that brings people together.
Year of the Tiger cookies
Worker wearing heavy gloves to protect hands from handling and crimpling hot cookie
Did you know ...
… there is almost nothing Chinese about the fortune cookie?
· Supposedly, the Pac-Man shaped cookie was invented in San Francisco by a Japanese American who was better known for creating the beautiful Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park! It was rumoured one of the earliest places to serve the “Chinese” fortune cookies was the Japanese Tea Garden.
· The fortune cookie folding machine was invented in Oakland.
· People in China do not eat (and probably most do not know about) the fortune cookie.
According to “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” by Jennifer Lee, the Japanese had a cracker in a similar shape with a fortune tucked inside being sold in confectionery shops in Kyoto as far back as the 1870s. The Japanese version was made with miso and sesame instead.
So how did this Japanese cookie end up in Chinese restaurants? Japanese émigrés to the U.S. could not open Japanese restaurants as no one wanted raw fish. So they opened “Chinese” restaurants offering chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young. To appease American sweet tooth for dessert, they also began offering a fortune cookie with the check.
During the WWII Japanese internment of Japanese, many Japanese-operated “Chinese” restaurants and bakeries closed. Chinese American entrepreneurs took over the manufacturing and sale of fortune cookies. By the late-1950s, they were making an estimated 250 million cookies each year. By 2008, three billion fortune cookies were produced in the U.S. annually.
One enterprising American fortune cookie company began selling authentic American “Chinese fortune cookies” in China in 1992. But it failed because the mainland Chinese considered them “too American!
Keywords: fortune cookie, Oakland, Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory, fortune cookie novelty, fortune cookie trivia, Oakland Chinatown, Alicia Wong, Jiamin Wong, handmade fortune cookie