Oakland Fortune Factory
261 12th St. (near Alice Street), Oakland
The bright red fortune cookies, dipped in Belgian chocolate, studded with sparkling gold and silver sprinkles, or stenciled with an elegant peony, are nestled in festive packages featuring red paper cut-outs of tigers to celebrate the coming Lunar New Year. These are a universe away from the fortune cookies we’ve all unwrapped at the end of a takeout meal, or handed to us with the check at virtually every Chinese restaurant.
The Year of the Tiger officially begins Feb. 1. Alicia Wong said her mother, Jiamin, who was born in a Tiger year, epitomizes its spirit: ambitious, creative, and generous. The two are now co-owners of the 65-year-old Oakland Fortune Factory, one of the last bakeries that still makes fortune cookies by hand. While Jiamin mixes the batter and oversees a crew of six doing the baking and fastidious folding of each warm cookie over its fortune strip, Alicia and her husband, Alex, handle decorating special orders and printing custom fortunes. Alicia also creates original designs and innovative flavors, updates their website, does the paperwork and accounting, handles the marketing, mailing and social media. (During the Christmas rush, she admits she has worked 36 hours straight.)
Alicia’s family moved to Oakland Chinatown from Guangdong, China, when she was 4 years old. Neither parent spoke English, so they worked at whatever odd jobs they could find, as cleaners, restaurant servers or on the line at an envelope factory. Alicia attended Lincoln Elementary School, five minutes away from the cookie factory, which was then owned by Calvin Wong, a distant relative. Growing up, Alicia would routinely do her homework at the nearby Asian branch of the Oakland Library after school and then attend Chinese school from 5-7 p.m. Her mother would often purchase a $2 bag of “reject fortune cookies” at Wong’s factory for her daughter to enjoy.
“Then I did the thing that every Chinese parent wants,” Alicia said. “I attended college as pre-med in order to become a doctor.” But, she admits, she almost fainted in anatomy class and found lab work lonely and boring.
Meanwhile, her mother got word that the Fortune Cookie Factory was about to close down. Jiamin saw an opportunity to try something new and become her own boss. With her daughter Alicia interpreting, Jiamin told Nosh that she bought the factory to have an opportunity she could never have had in China. She was determined to develop her skills and work hard to achieve the American Dream. “My mom is my inspiration. She has never let her lack of English skills stop her from doing anything,” Alicia said.
When Jiamin took over the factory, it was admittedly a struggle. She often phoned her daughter at college in Boston for assistance interpreting for customers or translating emails. After graduation, Alicia came home. “I thought I’d just to help out for a little while and leave,” she said. But something changed when she started modernizing the operation and realized that she could also change people’s assumptions of what a fortune cookie could look and taste like.
“We took over 6 years ago,” she said. “It feels like forever now. The place was completely dark inside. They were barely making anything, just traditional cookies for local places. When Mom started running the factory, it was really struggling. When I came back from college to help, it was in bad shape.” The factory first opened in 1957 and the cookie-making machines date from the 1950s, if not before. They often need new parts; luckily Alicia’s husband, Alex, is mechanically gifted.
Some of the women who work at the Factory have been there for over a decade. One can see the flames that heat the beasts as they clank and dispense splotches of batter onto circular indentations in a continuously moving metal tray. After they complete their heated circuit, the baked cookies come back around, and a worker carefully removes the crispy hot disks. From the pile of fortunes on her lap, she inserts the slip of paper, then bends the cookie over a metal rod and places the bent shape into a metal cooling rack. She wears thick gloves to protect her hands from the high temperatures.
After the mother-daughter team took over, while Jiamin supervised the cookie making, Alicia focused on custom orders, slowly building up their website and creating new cookie combinations. In the beginning, she just bought chocolate from local stores. Now, she uses fine Belgian dark and Swiss white chocolate, topped with sugar stars, caviar pearls or crystals in a rainbow of colors.
Jiamin feels torn about having Alicia work with her, saying that she doesn’t want to hold Alicia back. “Asian moms like to brag about what big company their children work for,” Alicia explained. It lets them share the prestige. But clearly, Jiamin’s daughter has found her purpose at the Factory, inspired in part by the example her mom has set. “She works seven days a week, harder than anyone else, and created our giant cookies that take two to three hours to make,” Alicia said.
“I’m always thinking, what’s the next big thing? What can I do that’s different?” Alicia said. “We make designs that no one else does. But I’m not satisfied, I want to come up with something new every year.” Alicia innovated stenciling on cookies: from the logos of companies like United Airlines or the SF Giants to the Chinese character for “tiger.”
One aspect of their cookies defies innovation, however. Their cookie recipe, which produces fresh, crunchy cookies, stays the same: wheat flour, cane sugar, and soybean oil. It’s vegan, with no nuts, milk, eggs, preservatives, colors or additives.
It’s the chocolate where Alicia gets creative. “I did a series based on my favorite childhood flavors: lychee tea, white rabbit, hot pot with Sichuan pepper. In 2022, I want to feature a new flavor every month.”
Alicia, who is now 28 years old, said her mission is to do more than just produce unique, decorative cookies. “My passion and my purpose are to use the cookies to help nonprofits that work for social justice,” she said. “For Black Lives Matter, we made a BLM cookie with quotes from civil rights leaders instead of fortunes and donated profits to charities like the Innocence Project and the NAACP.”
Five percent of their Lunar New Year sales will go to the Asian Pacific Fund, which provides grants to nonprofits that serve the most vulnerable groups in the AAPI community, such as one that helps victims of recent attacks of anti-Asian hate. And Alicia plans on funding educational initiatives in the coming year.
Alicia doesn’t stop at using a portion of the profits to fund worthy causes. She wants to use her decorated cookies to make a deeper point. “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.”
Orders can be placed at the Oakland Fortune Cookie Company online. Custom cookies must be ordered at least a week ahead of time, and orders of 500 or more cookies should be ordered 2-4 weeks in advance. Orders can be shipped anywhere in the U.S., or picked up at the Factory between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays by calling 510-832-5552.