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Benkyodo Company’s Claim to Producing the Modern Fortune Cookie


Iron kata used by the Japanese Tea Garden to make fortune cookies in the early 20th century, donated to the Smithsonian Museum of American History by Gary Ono.

We had a question last week on our Instagram post about Japantown legacy business Benkyodo Company, from someone asking if this historic confectioner was the original home of the fortune cookie. We couldn’t resist going down that rabbit hole!

Exterior of Benkyodo Company today. Commissioned by Makoto Hagiwara of Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden, the Benkyodo Company produced the first modern fortune cookie in the early 1900s.

Suyeichi Okamura, founder of what was then the Benkyodo Candy Factory in 1906, was asked to supply fortune cookies by Makoto Hagiwara, a landscape designer who ran the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Hagiwara has a strong claim to the modern fortune cookie; as the story goes, he had the idea to put little notes in Japanese senbei (Japanese rice crackers), and would fold them by hand to serve to customers at the Tea Garden in 1914.

Japanese Tea Garden circa 1910. Sada Hagiwara (Yamamoto) on left, Koto Hagiwara on right. They are standing next to the tea house, where the Hagiwara family first served their fortune cookies. The Japanese Tea Garden was originally part of the Japanese Village, an attraction of the California Midwinter Exposition (World’s Fair) of 1894.  Because of its popularity, when the fair ended it was decided that the tea garden would continue.  To achieve this, Golden Gate Park Superintendent John McLaren entered into what is described as a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Japanese immigrant Makoto Hagiwara to develop and manage the garden. (OpenSFHistory / wnp70.0269.jpg)

But when the Tea Garden couldn’t keep up with demand, they commissioned Benkyodo to produce the cookies for them, and the confectionary shop developed a machine to mass produce the cookies for the garden, sometime around 1911. Gary T. Ono, Okamura’s grandson, claims that his grandfather advised Hagiwara to sweeten the cookie, using vanilla and butter, which is typically how fortune cookies are still made today.

Gift of Gary Ono in honor of the Suyeichi & Owai Okamura family of Benkyodo Company, early 20th century, Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Today, Benkyodo and Hagiwara’s legacy lives on in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Ono donated three of Benkyodo’s antique iron kata (hand skillet mold) to the museum, which were used by the Tea Garden to hand-make fortune cookies. Known as “sembei kata” in Japanese, these baking molds are used to bake the cookie wafer prior to being folded into the fortune cookie shape that we know today. Engraved on the object is an illustration of Mount Fuji and the Japanese letters for “Japan tea.”

Bakeries like Benkyodo and Fugetso-Do in Los Angeles manufactured fortune cookies for decades until 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering people of Japanese descent into internment camps.

Fortune cookie makers were among those interned. During World War II, Chinese restaurants surged in popularity and began manufacturing cookies “en masse,” author Jennifer Lee told KQED. Lee is the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures In the World of Chinese Food. Longtime Chinatown legacy business Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is one of the last businesses in San Francisco who make fortune cookies by hand in their Ross Alley shop.

“I like to say that the Japanese invented them, the Chinese popularized them, but the Americans ultimately consume them,” Lee said.

The next time you visit Benkyodo or the Japanese Tea Garden (both newly reopened with safety precautions during the pandemic), remember this uniquely San Francisco fortune cookie legacy.


Suzie Racho. April 26, 2019. “Unwrapping the California Origins of the Fortune Cookie.” The California Report, KQED News.  https://www.kqed.org/news/11742748/unwrapping-the-california-origins-of-the-fortune-cookie

“Collections: Fortune cookie mold.” Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. http://smithsonianapa.org/now/collections-fortune-cookie-mold/

New Self-Guided Walking Tour of Pacific Heights


Learn more about some of our city’s grandest architecture with the new self-guided Heritage walking tour of Eastern Pacific Heights.

With a helpful appendix on Victorian architectural aspects and terms, the tour covers approximately 15 blocks (0.8 mile) from Van Ness Avenue to Fillmore Street and starts at our very own Haas-Lilienthal House. The path of the walk is not laid out in chronological order or of importance.

You can print out the tour from a PDF file or access it on Google Maps with your smart phone.

SFACC Plans to Turn Bryant Street Substation into a State-of-the-Art Facility


A modern-day view of the Bryant Street Substation from the southwest corner of Bryant & Alameda. SFMTA Photo Archives.

An interesting transformation is happening in San Francisco: a former steam powerhouse and then MUNI substation in the historic Design District is currently under renovation to become a new facility for the San Francisco Animal Care & Control (SFACC) animal shelter. It will be a state-of-the-art, retrofitted building with modernized interior facilities.

This is an early view of the powerhouse as it looked in January 1904. Note the double smokestacks used to heat water for the steam-powered generators. SFMTA Photo Archive.

Constructed in 1893 and rich in San Francisco history, the historic brick structure is one of the city’s few remaining unreinforced masonry buildings of its time. Built by the Market Street Railway Company, this building has gone through several name, ownership and function changes over the decades but has always served as a power facility for public transit. Originally, the building housed large steam engines and generators used to power the company’s electric streetcar lines. The SFMTA Photo Archive wrote a great piece about the history of the substation, which you can find here.

SFACC is a taxpayer-funded, open-admission animal shelter. Since 1989, it has provided housing, care, and medical treatment to wild, exotic and domestic stray, lost, abandoned, sick, injured, and surrendered animals. Their current facility at 1200 15th Street was originally built as a warehouse in 1931 and renovated into an animal shelter in 1989. Since then, the standards for animal care and the number of animals they serve have changed dramatically, leaving their current facility woefully inadequate. The retrofitting/preservation of the Bryant Street Substation for SFACC’s new home will allow them to follow best practices in disease, noise, and odor control, improving the overall well-being and adoptability of the animals in their care.

According to their campaign brochure, the City of San Francisco has committed over $70 million to retrofitting the substation building and inside spaces for SFACC’s new shelter project. However, the organization is now turning to the generosity of the San Francisco community to help raise the final $4.3 million needed to complete the project and continue to fund the critical programs SFACC offers. During this time, the Friends of SFACC are exploring every avenue possible to advocate for this renovation/preservation project in an effort to raise awareness about the shelter and its future home.

Excerpt from SFACC’s campaign brochure, showing a rendering of their new facility. View the entire brochure here.

The restoration project is managed by the SF Department of Public Works as an interdepartmental collaboration and the expected completion date is Spring 2021. As part of the project, the SF Arts Commission held a call for submissions and selected a local artist to create murals in the lobby that will reflect the many species of animals that are helped by the city’s shelter.

You can help make SFACC’s new shelter a world-class facility by donating to Friends of SFACC, and learn more about supporting this campaign and the shelter’s programs on their website.

Updated: A Running List of Legacy Businesses You Can Support Now


Postcard courtesy of Vesuvio Cafe

In the midst of this current crisis, historic businesses can be particularly hard hit. These establishments, from your favorite historic neighborhood restaurant to the longtime local hardware store, help make San Francisco home. If you are in the position to support our city’s legacy businesses, we have started a list of places that are raising money through GoFundMe for their employees and overall operations.

While we’ve spotlighted legacy establishments that have started their own fundraisers, there are of course dozens and dozens more legacy businesses across the city that can use your help. Whether that is through your purchase of gift cards, merchandise, food for delivery or take-out, posting on social media, or even a quick email to ask them how you can help, check out our 100 Legacy Bars and Restaurants map and Legacy Business Registry to explore more options. We’ve also included several helpful district maps and lists further down to help you support your favorite independent businesses.

Please email Kerri at kyoung@sfheritage.org or message us on SF Heritage’s social media channels if you know of other fundraisers we can add to the list!

Bars and Restaurants

Aub Zam Zam

Balboa Cafe

Brazen Head Gift cards available

Doc’s Clock

Dogpatch Saloon

Eagle Bar


El Rio You can also help by purchasing gift cards for a later date here, and/or signing up for their new monthly subscription service with differing levels of perks.

Glen Park Station

Hi Dive

Hotel Utah Saloon

House of Shields

John’s Grill

Madrone and Pops Bar

Mauna Loa

New Delhi Restaurant You can also help by purchasing a gift card for a later date here.

Perry’s In addition, Perry’s is selling gift cards on their website and are offering a 20% off gift card option here with the code ‘save20’

Philosophers Club

Plough & Stars

Red’s Java House

Vesuvio Cafe

Spec’s Twelve Adler Museum Cafe In addition, you may support them by purchasing gift cards here.

St. Mary’s Pub

Twin Peaks Tavern




Great American Music Hall, 1976. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Music venues and theaters

Cafe du Nord/Swedish American Hall – Send PayPal donations to erin@swedishamericanhall.com; donations of more than $30 will receive a limited edition Cafe du Nord t-shirt. Cafe du Nord bar staff also has a GoFundMe here.

Great American Music Hall  Purchase tickets for upcoming virtual shows, and purchase branded merchandise and bottles to-go.

The Fillmore Purchase branded merchandise

The Independent Purchase tickets for upcoming virtual shows, and purchase branded merchandise.

Punch Line Comedy Club

Local Shops

Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative, Inc. When they reach our goal of $31,000, they will enter everyone who has donated into a drawing for an original Barry McGee artist plate.

Animal Company Purchase bird and other pet supplies directly from their website for pick-up.

City Light Books 

Green Apple Books You can purchase gift cards here, purchase awesome STAY HOME READ BOOKS shirts and hoodies here, and purchase teacher THANK YOU cards with gift cards here. The bookstore is also offering free online ZOOM backgrounds  here.

Russian Hill Bookstore In addition, you may purchase gift certificates and shop for book on their store online.

Essential Services

Curry Senior Center

Instituto Familiar de la Raza Support their “Resilience Fund”

Kimochi, Inc. Donate to support their essential services

Mission Neighborhood Health Center Donate to support their essential services

Neighborhood Newspapers

San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper Contribute to their GoFundMe to help keep the paper alive

Arts, Tours, Education

ArtHaus is offering a $500 gift certificate towards any work of art purchased through their website while the shelter-in-place lasts.

Bay Area Video Coalition

Crusin’ the Castro Walking Tours Gift certificates are available for purchase on their website.

EROS: Center for Safe Sex

Joe Goode Performance Group Donate to support initiatives like their Resilience Fund

Red and White Fleet Limited rides now open + Purchase gift certificates for trips at a later date

Neighborhood Local Business Fundraisers

Heart of Jtown Small Business Resiliency Fund for Japantown businesses

Save our Chinatown fundraiser for SF and Oakland Chinatowns

Fundraiser for Clement Street Small Businesses, including Green Apple Books and Plough and Stars

District Guides

Below are some very helpful district guides (from The SF Chronicle, African American Arts and Cultural District, Excelsior Action Group, Mission Local, Rose Pak Democratic Club,  Ingleside Light, NOPA Neighborhood Association, Potrero/Dogpatch Merchants Association) to businesses that are still open for delivery and take-out (includes legacy businesses):

Bayview restaurants open for takeout and delivery:

Excelsior restaurants open for takeout and delivery (click image for list):

Mission District restaurants, cafes, and stores open for takeout and delivery:

Chinatown restaurants open for takeout and delivery (click image for site):

Ingleside restaurants open for takeout and delivery:

Lower Haight restaurants open for takeout and delivery:

North of the Panhandle/Western Addition restaurants open for takeout and delivery:

What’s Open in NOPA? (Google Doc list)

Potrero Hill and Dogpatch businesses open: