In the latest blow to San Francisco’s most storied neighborhood, Chinatown’s famous fortune cookie makers, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley, say they’re struggling to keep the doors open.
The BBC reported this week that co-owner Kevin Chan, whose mother and uncle opened the business over 50 years ago, says rent on their alleyway space has tripled since 2016. And while the factory isn’t going anywhere right now, he fears for the future of the institution if the price keeps going up.
The fortune cookie factory does not enjoy the same fame and acclaim the world over as many other San Francisco landmarks, and yet it’s hard to imagine SF as the same city without it. Here’s why:
- A family-owned business, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory has operated out of the same building in Ross Alley since 1962.
- The factory’s claim to fame is its hand-folding technique: A freshly baked fortune cookie resembles a tiny pancake, and factory workers have minutes—sometimes just seconds—to place the fortune slip inside and then fold the whole thing in its proper shape before it cools into its fragile form.
- “Flat fortune cookies”—those that have been allowed to cool and harden without folding—are available too. They taste exactly the same but are easier to crumble as a topping on another desert, like ice cream. They’re also a labor saver for factory workers.
- Aside from the owners, the entire operation runs with three part-time employees.
- Accounts vary as to precisely how many cookies the factory produces per day, with figures ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 commonly cited. However, factory employees themselves say that most days they average about 10,000.
- On top of traditional hand-folding technique, the three different cookie machines circa-1952 used at the factory are classics in their own right and predate the business.
- A standard issue vanilla fortune cookie consists of flour, sugar, sesame seed, vanilla, butter, and eggs. But the exact recipe is a family secret, allegedly known only to one person today.
- Fortune cookies are, of course, not Chinese—as Kevin Chan puts it, “If you go to China or Hong Kong and ask them for a fortune cookie, they’ll look at you like you’re a fool”—but to cookie’s actual origin is forever in dispute. The most popular story in SF, and the one put forth by the Golden Gate crowd, is that Makoto Hagiwara, the Japanese-American designer noted for the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, is responsible for the original idea.
- The factory building, 56 Ross Alley, dates to 1907. Since the original Chinatown, which used to look radically different, was devastated by the 1906 earthquake, that makes it among the oldest buildings in the neighborhood.
- According to Chan, the building’s original 1962 rent was $900 per month. Applying the inflation formula used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that’s the equivalent of over $7,500 per month today. But apparently business was a lot hotter back then, as factory owners say they fear they won’t be able to keep paying the $5,750 per month rent leveled on them now, a figure that’s triple what the price was only three years ago.
- Speaking of money, it’s free to drop in and look around the factory, but there’s a 50-cent fee for the privilege of taking pictures. The company often waves that fee for customers who plan on buying cookies.
- Some people refer to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory as the last place in the U.S. still making cookies by hand. However, the Oakland Fortune Cookie Factory on 12th Street also proclaims that it still abides by hand-folding techniques, and even claims to have opened five years before its San Francisco counterpart.
- The self-proclaimed oldest producer of fortune cookies in SF is Mee Mee Bakery on Stockton Street, which opened in 1950. But they switched from hand folding to automated cookie creation in the 1990s.
- The city declared the factory a legacy business—or “legendary business” as the shop’s site has it—in December of 2016, citing among other things the “unique cookie dough recipe,” “practice of selling handmade cookies,” the signage, and the antique machines on site as elements that distinguish it as significant.