Self-made Filipina chocolatier Carol Gancia of Kokak Chocolates in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco shares her success story.
Gancia recently celebrated Philippine Independence Day (June 12) and is now relishing vibrant SF Pride with gusto, especially having opened her shop during the pandemic, and following a cancer diagnosis, no less. Gancia’s Kokak Chocolates offers something different: Single origin dark chocolate heirloom works of art with a lot of skill, dedication, and LGBTQ know-how involved! A high-achieving, generous survivor, Gancia took time out from her hectic Pride season chocolate-making to tell us about herself and her special Pride Month chocolate collections.
When did you first identify as queer – personally and publicly – and did this pose problems with her other identity as Filipina?
Carol Gancia: I realized I was different from age 13, but coming out to myself and others was a long process. I only really came out in my 30s. Living in the Philippines, the message then was that it was okay to be gay but just don’t say it out loud. That made it hard for me to even say the word “gay.” I remember many years where I felt that “gay” was a bad word. I simply described myself as a woman loving another woman. And I definitely hid my relationship from everyone. There were maybe all of five people who knew.
I hear the Philippines has gotten better with the LGBTQ+ community, and I am very happy to hear that.
What aspects of Filipina identity and culture do you cherish and incorporate into your work and business life?
Carol: Love, freedom, pride, family and loyalty are universal concepts that Filipinos cherish in their culture. I embrace my heritage in the chocolates we make. My mission is to spread love by making treats that help build chocolate memories with our loved ones.
After I opened the shop in June 2020, I decided I wanted to make being Filipina an important part of the shop’s identity. Sometimes, business owners are afraid to attract a narrower demographic with this decision, but I think you can make it work for you. First off, how you feel is how people will feel about your business. I am a proud Filipina lesbian chocolate shop owner, and I send the same message with the chocolates I make. Representation is so important and empathy is something a lot of people have for each other. I feel very fortunate that customers from different walks of life near and far have embraced Kokak Chocolates to enjoy for themselves or gift to their loved ones.
How did you become a chocolatier and what new mission do you bring to the craft?
Carol: Since I turned 21, I have had conversations with my best friend about topics like, “Why are we alive?” and “What is our life’s purpose?” I’ve always been passionate about the idea of service. I want to make a difference. I want to stay authentic–to only do things that mean something to me.
I started out as a broadcast journalist and eventually carved my path as a small business owner. I love the idea that I am able to provide meaningful employment to my co-workers while supporting other small business vendors.
After 15 years in video production, I knew I was ready for another challenge. I wanted to feel scared and clueless again. I decided to learn something new. Chocolate has always been a great love within my family. I took some courses and started selling at chocolate salons.
It makes me happy to bring joy to our customers and help them find the perfect chocolate to connect with their loved ones. I am grateful for the opportunity to do this everyday.
Pride products can get a little cliche with rainbow everything … but you appear to have found a tasteful and unique approach. What does the rainbow mean to you and how have you made it delicious?
Carol: I think about ideas for my Pride design and flavor that comes from my own experiences. It’s my message to the world. Our “Say It Louder Collection” is about being Proud as always but this year, I did not want to stop there. In our collection, I wanted to encourage conversations about the different colors of the LQBTQ+ community. Accepting and embracing who we are makes for a better world. I am also making a stand about being proud and saying it louder. I have decided to make Pride an important part of my shop’s identity because there should be no shame about being gay–not the least bit. Not in our homes and not in businesses. I am hoping to contribute to the positive image of the LQBTQ+ community in my own small way.
How will you be spending Pride?
Carol: Oh, I’m hoping to have a really fun time with the community! We are planning a karaoke sing-along Pride night with our neighbors and friends in the Castro community on June 17 to celebrate our second anniversary at the store. There is also the Castro parade I’m planning on joining with friends.
Being that you are over 40 can you please share the positive aspects of being part of that demographic?
Carol: There are so many things I love about being over 40. You get to look back at who you were in the past, make a few tweaks and work towards the kind of person you’d like to be in the future.
You definitely have a better understanding of yourself. You learn to truly love and forgive yourself for every flaw, every miscalculated turn and every imperfection. You acknowledge and celebrate the person you’ve become.
And for me, the most important milestone is figuring out how to incorporate service in my day-to-day life.
I want our chocolates to be an instrument in connecting people with each other. My favorite moments at work are when I read the notes customers want us to include in their chocolate order for their loved ones.
Last year, a customer ordered a box of chocolates for her son. She was in the Midwest and was sending the chocolates to her son who moved to San Francisco.
“Charlie (not his real name), I love you just the way you are.
This touched me in so many ways. After all the challenges we had in production that year from supplies to being short staffed, I decided it was all worth it.