Located on the corner of 18th and Sanchez in the historic Castro District is a truly unique and special chocolate shop that also sits at the cultural intersection of both LGBTQ and Filipino identity.
Kokak Chocolates was founded in June 2020 by journalist-turned-master-chocolatier Carol Gancia, and her delightful company's two-year anniversary happens to rightfully coincide with the big return of this year's much-awaited Pride parade celebration.
In those last two years, Kokak has flourished tremendously into a beloved mainstay in the colorful neighborhood, devotedly offering a sweet retreat and creatively flavored artisanal chocolates to their local community through the hardships of Covid.
Beginning on May 16th, the absolutely cute and distinctly pastel green 740-square-foot brick-and-mortar shop will go even more above and beyond, unveiling six new “Pride-versary” collections that commemorates and encompasses all of Kokak's identity.
"June 12th is Philippine Independence Day, June 17th is our store anniversary, and Pride this year is on the 25 and 26th," Carol proudly elucidates, "and so we have big things planned!"
We had the incredible chance to sit and chat with Carol in her beautifully decorated shop to have her elaborate on not only on how she how she got started in her delicious business, but also on how being both queer and Filipino influences her chocolates and what the significance of her shop means for her community.
I'd love to know how you got started in your business, did you know you wanted to become a chocolatier from the start?
So I moved to the states in 2004 from the Philippines, and the first job that I got was as an associate producer for KQED's Check, Please! Bay Area. I worked there for 3 years, and after that I wanted to go back onto the entrepreneurial path, which was my original path. When I was in the Philippines I had my own video production business that I started there for eight-and-a-half years before I moved here. This eventually led me to chocolates,
My video production business is still running and is called Ripplemakers, Inc., based in Burlingame. But at some point I wanted to try a new business that would challenge me again. I was looking for something that would make me feel... nervous again. That will make me feel clueless and make me stumble. I wanted to challenge myself, so I picked something I didnt know anything about but was very interested. My whole family are chocolate lovers, and to this day my uncle has chocolates in his pockets still.
So having a sweet tooth must run in the family then!
You know what’s weird, I actually don’t have a sweet tooth! But I really love chocolate. I remember growing up, everything was chocolate- chocolate ice cream for my birthday, chocolate cake, all the time. My uncle would bring home chocolates and that was my first taste, with mint, liqueurs, he was very daring with his choices. And that’s when I truly fell in love with chocolate.
How did Kokak eventually come about?
When I started the chocolate business I had to take several courses in different places by women chocolatiers. At first I thought making chocolates would be easy, like how hard could it be? I realized later on that it's hard and expensive, but like video production, you need to have the passion and you gotta love doing it. Fortunately I do and it makes me happy.
I was also yearning for a connection with my customers, and I think that’s what drew me to chocolates, because when you make chocolates, you make people happy. So after selling in pop-ups, I needed a kitchen so I can make it a serious business. Finding this location was actually a total accident and coincidence, but maybe nothing in life is a coincidence… My agent ended up talking to the landlord of an incorrect place, this one, but we ended up leasing it 3 years ago, and it took us 9 months to fully build our shop.
What is the significance of being in San Francisco's Castro to Kokak's message and mission?
To me, the big thing about visiting SF was always the Castro. I remember being totally scared when my two friends would bring me here because everyone just shows their true self and are open about their sexual identity. That wasn't something I was used to in the Philippines, and so it scared and excited me at the same time.
When we opened in june 2020, and no one really knew we existed except for the neighbors. Everything worked out because everyone supported us, so that was really nice. That’s when you know you’re in the right place because the Castro is such a warm and supportive community. From the first time I laid eyes on the Castro to today, it hasnt changed, it's still the same supportive community and we still have strong relationships with the neighbors.
This year we are celebrating the anniversary of when we opened, Pride, and who we are as a business, who we are with our heritage, and my own identity as a Filipina and LGBTQ individual.
Yes, how does your Filipino culture influence Kokak as well?
Starting right from the flavors, we use traditional ingredients, such as the calamansi, which is our hero flavor. I love it when Americans come in and ask what it is, and I explain that it’s a citrus fruit the size of a quarter that grows in the Philippines. We also have mango lemongrass, passionfruit, because we want to be known as a tropical inspired shop. Yet people ask "tropical like Central American or Hawaiian?" So I decided to define it further. I graduated from the University of Santo Tomas, which the campus has a big pond with many beautiful lilies, and to this day I love all of it. That was my inspiration for the logo and name Kokak, meaning "ribbit" in Tagalog.
We help promote Filipino culture in this subtle way by telling stories over a medium that is universally loved. You can see that in our Freedom 1896 bar, it's like the name Kokak where people will ask has colors of flag and then learn about our Independence Day.
They hear the story and then they say, "that’s what I'll get!" because they want to support the universal concept of freedom and is what connects us with each other, even from different cultures.
I love that somehow in my own little way I have a small contribution in helping connect people and reach understanding through chocolate.
That is so kind, thoughtful, and empowering to hear. I just want to ask lastly, what advice would you give to those similar Filipinos, women, and others who might be struggling with their sexual identity?
The more you embrace who you are, the better life gets because it's so hard to deny who we are. The best decision I ever made was to be proud who I am. I don't know if there's another chocolate shop in San Francisco that so confidently yells "I'm gay, I'm gay!" (laughs). So I hope others will see that there's nothing wrong with being gay because they see me smiling and proud of it, successful making chocolate. It's ok and everything will be alright (smiles).
Kokak Chocolates utilize the rare cacao variety, “Naciónal” and will have their 2022 Pride-versary selections available from May 16-June 30. This luxurious and perfectly-balanced collection includes their 16-piece "Say it Louder Truffle Collection," their 2022 limited edition Birthday Heirloom 70% Dark Chocolate Bar, the Love x 3 Lolly, their 9-piece Love is Love SF Pride Truffle Collection, and more.
You can order and ship online and customize your order with a personalized note card. Kokak is located on 390118th Street and is open noon-6pm Tuesday- Friday, and 11:30am-6pm Saturday and Sunday.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Kokak Chocolates