If necessity is the mother of invention, it was quite literally the prospect of single motherhood that necessitated the invention of Jade Chocolates. A long-time baker, Mindy Fong had quit her job as an architectural designer for the city of San Francisco to become a full-time mother when she became pregnant with her first child, after two years of trying. But three months into her pregnancy, she realized her marriage was no longer working. So when her daughter was four months old and she left her marriage, Mindy realized she need to create a job for herself.
“I was an architectural designer for about five years. It wasn’t my calling – that’s what I went to school for, but I wasn’t all that happy with it. It wasn’t passionate enough for me, so it was hard for me to go to work everyday…it was actually a simple decision for me to quit,” she said.
Mindy knew she was interested in food and thought her baking skills were pretty good. To find something she could be more passionate about than architecture, Mindy turned to the Internet to research food trends. At the time, she said, coffee had already begun to be “a big thing,” and she noticed that chocolate seemed to be following the same path. She was specifically looking for a niche within the food world that seemed like a good business opportunity, and chocolate fit the bill.
“Luckily for me, I lived here in the San Francisco Bay Area where the food movement is most prevalent,” she said.
Mindy realized that, like coffee, chocolate tends to go across cultures, so she knew it would be in demand because who doesn’t love chocolate? Mindy began her chocolate company under the name of Cocoa Bites. After a while she realized she needed to create something unique in order to stand out in the market. Then it hit her that no one was pairing Asian flavors with chocolate or adding the kinds of tastes that she grew up with—teas and Asian spices—to it. Thus Jade Chocolates was born.
“It was hard for me to pinpoint ideas to use, and I just had to reflect on what I should be doing and how to make my business unique for people. Then I thought ‘why am I working so hard? I should just use the flavors that are common to me,’” she said.
As a daily tea drinker, tea-inspired chocolate just seemed like an intuitive pairing to Mindy. After that, the concept of doing Asian and Pacific Island inspired chocolates and the new company name flowed naturally from there.
“I created the name ‘Jade’ because jade is a form of good luck for most Asian countries, and it’s also the first piece of jewelry you give to children,” she said. “From there it became easier for me to focus more on what products I should be doing.”
With the exception of a truffle-making course she took with Andrew Shotts, owner of Rhode Island based Garrison Confections and former executive pastry chef for Burlingame chocolate company Guittard, Mindy is a self-taught chocolatier who learned on her own how to infuse flavors into her chocolate and temper it using books, videos, YouTube and a little old-fashioned trial and error. She has also taken a few classes from the Small Business Administration on things such as web development as she’s built her business. The inspiration for many of Mindy’s flavors comes straight from Asian grocery stores, she said. Her most popular chocolate bar, the Genmai (roasted brown rice tea), which recently won two awards, came from walking the store aisles.
“I thought it would be good to use Genmai with chocolate, and it could be like a version of a Nestle Crunch Bar. I added the tea to make it more authentically Asian. When people think Genmai, they think of tea,” she said.
Other Asian-inspired flavors include her Dragon’s Breath (lapsang souchong tea, sesame seeds and red chili), Krakatoa (black pepper and lemongrass), and Mahal (ylang ylang, cinnamon and coconut) bars. Mindy says she particularly enjoys experimenting with different savory flavors that she’s discovered and enjoys as an adult, many of which she learns about while eating at different restaurants. This year she has plans to come out with a line of between four and five dark chocolate bars with new flavors, and she would like to increase her truffle production, she said. Mindy’s featured truffle flavors include jasmine tea, chai, calamansi lime, yuzu fruit and thai basil, among others. She primarily uses Guittard or Valrhona chocolate for her confections, and has won two International Chocolate Awards for her Genmai bar and a Good Food Award for her Dragon’s Breath bar.
The bulk of Jade Chocolate’s business is done wholesale in the Bay Area. Mindy also attends seasonal festivals and events and does online sales through her website. Mindy says she concentrated solely on wholesaling for the first three or four years of her business, which required “lots of cold calling and walk-ins.” Although doing that much cold-calling may sound difficult, Mindy says it wasn’t as daunting as one might think because people were always interested in chocolate.
As she continues to grow the business, Mindy is thinking of branching out into a couple different directions. She’d like to get into corporate gifting or selling her chocolates to hotels, restaurants or wineries to use as part of a turn-down service, after-dinner treat or part of tasting menus. She is currently looking for a larger kitchen space or a kitchen that also includes a small storefront so that she can also serve items like hot chocolate menu or hot prepared foods.
What drew you to food?
When I was growing up, I was extremely shy and an extremely picky eater. And when I was growing up I felt that I was missing out on a lot of things. So as a younger adult, I started exploring more foods, along with my love for baking. So that sort of inspired me to start a business in the food industry.
Chocolate, because it was the next big thing after coffee when I was researching. It seems to go across all cultures. And people get excited for chocolate.
Where does your inspiration come from?
The whole idea of me becoming an entrepreneur was because of my grandfather. He was an immigrant from China. As a teenager, he came [over from China], and it was prior to 1920, so at the time he had to come in and pretend that he was a merchant’s son, although it was all faked. The whole thing was called ‘Paper Sons.’ So on paper, these Chinese men were sons of merchants or academics, but they actually paid their way through to get to the U.S. It was basically a business transaction. He came here without any family, didn’t know English, he had $20 in his pocket. He was detained at Angel Island for two weeks and during that time they determined if he was actually the son of the merchant who ‘sponsored’ him. I remember looking at the paper; it was through the library. One of the questions he got wrong was that his supposed dad said that the window shutters in the house in China opened out and my grandfather said they opened in—that was one of the questions he got wrong. But they let him in.
From his teenage years to when I was finally born (he had already been retired when I was born), he spoke perfect English, and had a lot of odd jobs as a kid—houseboy was one of them. He was a welder, cook, and then from all those odd jobs he was able to own lots of liquor stores and restaurants in the city and by turning them over, he would make profit by selling it. So that’s my inspiration—his life, his history. So I thought it can’t be that hard for me to start a chocolate business. But it’s hard—it’s really hard.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I would say to get referrals for building the base of your team—your CPA, your bookkeeper, graphic designer, photographer. Don’t go through the yellow pages or Google them. Try to get industry referrals.
Networking is the best way to get your name out the door. You can have the best product but if no one knows about you, it doesn’t matter. So through your networks, then you’re able to get contacts that way. Not only are you building your brand, but you’re becoming aware of what is out there for you.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Right now, it’s money. Because chocolate is so seasonal—it’s hard to be able to have money come in where you’re not stressing and waiting for Christmas time to come. Because it’s such a gifty item, I would say the season would be from Black Friday to Valentine’s and a little bit into Mother’s Day. But other than that, it’s pretty dead, especially with the hot months coming, it’s harder to ship out to people, harder to sell at festivals.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
The best thing would be seeing people’s reactions to tasting the chocolate and knowing that no one else produces what you do. I do a lot of catering and dessert bars and that’s when I do my experiments, and I had made a chocolate lolly and sprinkles, one side was a transfer sheet and the other was ajwain and sumac. It’s savory, and people loved it. The Indian and Middle Eastern people that tasted the chocolate were very impressed and loved the idea, so that’s going to be one of my flavors. They had never tasted ajwain with chocolate and it worked very well together.
The espresso—it’s called Orient Espresso. I actually created that one just for myself. Cardamom is my absolute favorite spice, so that bar was specifically just for me, and I made it into a bar with cardamom and espresso.
What other food artisans do you admire and why?
I just found out about this Japanese chocolatier—es Koyama—we were in the international chocolate awards, we were competing against each other. I had won the two gold awards, so I won for the Americas and I won for the U.S. And Es Koyama had won silver for the Americas. When we went over to to do the International, where all the winners went to London to compete with the European brands, because the European brands had their own competition, es Koyama won gold for the category and I didn’t win anything.
So I began to research this guy, and I had a friend who was traveling to Japan bring me back some of his stuff. And I was very, very impressed. Very impressed. She brought me back some truffles, and he does Asian flavor truffles, but I was told he was more known over in Japan for his pastries.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
That’s a hard one because I’m trying to go vegan and trying to be vegetarian. But my last meal would I would say Roy’s of Hawaii’s butterfish and his chocolate soufflé.
Favorite Bay Area restos/chef/food?
Photos courtesy of Mindy Fong, Jade Chocolates.