It seems like the stuff of sweet dreams: almond biscotti, hand-dipped in a custom blend of Guittard milk and semisweet chocolate. Yet for Daniela Tempesta, the classic Italian cookie posed a challenge, prompting what would almost overnight become a life-changing decision.
Just over a year ago, Tempesta lost her mother, Boncora Biscotti founder Bonnie Lynn Tempesta, who died suddenly from breast cancer. At the time, Daniela Tempesta was pursuing her dream of being a licensed psychotherapist. Suddenly, she was faced with a critical decision: follow her beloved career, or take over her mom’s thriving Sonoma business that at one time was the largest biscotti maker in America.
“My mom started the (original) company when I was 3, so I grew up in a cookie factory,” said Tempesta, 34. “But when people would ask if I wanted to go into the business, I always said, ‘Not a chance.’ It just wasn’t my gig.”
Bonnie Lynn’s cancer came out of nowhere for the family, discovered while Tempesta was on her honeymoon with her husband, Jeff Wycoff, in 2014. With her marriage had come a full house of four stepchildren, and she was also juggling a quickly growing private mental health practice. Her mother died just two months later, at 61.
“My whole world turned upside down,” Tempesta said. “I had no formal training in the food industry. But what could I do? Close it down?”
After taking a few months to consider her situation, she did what made cookie lovers across the nation cheer: She decided to not only maintain the business, but grow it. It was a blessed choice, it seems, as in the first six months of 2015, Tempesta more than doubled the number of retail accounts selling her biscotti, including gourmet groceries, cafes and coffeehouses. She estimates her Kenwood bakery produces about 9,000 cookies a month in slower times, surging up to 25,000 biscotti a month in the busy season of September through December.
“My heart kept pulling me back to biscotti,” she said. “Now, I think I am coping with my grief by keeping her legacy alive.”
When Bonnie Lynn started her company in her home kitchen in San Mateo in 1983, it was a labor of love with her own mother, Italian-born Aurora Marcheschi. Originally called La Tempesta Bakery Confections, the shop used a treasured family recipe, courtesy of Bonnie Lynn’s Florentine aunt, Isa Romoli. The first customer was a fancy chocolate shop in San Francisco, where Bonnie Lynn worked making coffee.
Nobody was producing local biscotti for sale at the time, but she had little idea of what passion the treats would ignite, introducing legions of fans to the flat, crunchy, twice-baked cookies that Italians love to dunk in vin santo wine or espresso.
Tempesta’s handmade, hand-cut cookies are different from most biscotti Americans have tasted. Rather than thick, heavy, sometimes tasteless mass-produced slabs, these biscotti are ethereally crisp and light in the biscotti di Prato style of Prato, Italy. Flavor sings in each bite, the cookies studded with crunchy Northern California almonds and optionally dipped in chocolate, or a new Boncora triple-chocolate creation. The secret was, and remains, the second bake. For the first oven go-round, the dough is rolled into logs and baked until firm. The logs are sliced on a slight diagonal and rebaked at a bit lower temperature to dry them out for an excellent, delicate crunch.
And because the biscotti di Prato, unlike most other cookies, don’t contain butter or shortening, they stay fresh longer and can be savored slowly. They’re versatile as well, delicious when coarsely ground and sprinkled on top of custard, ice cream, tiramisu and whipped cream, or used as a cheesecake crust.
La Tempesta expanded from San Mateo to a commercial kitchen in South San Francisco. At the company’s height in 1995, the bakery produced 300,000 cookies daily and was credited by the media for effectively starting the national biscotti craze. Then, in 1997, Bonnie Lynn, the “biscotti queen,” retired her crown, selling La Tempesta to Horizon Food Group of San Francisco. Not bad for an undertaking she started on a whim, as a single mother looking for ways to make ends meet.
Yet the baker still had biscotti in her blood, and in 2012, Bonnie Lynn started a small baking company in Kenwood, Boncora (Bon for Bonnie and cora from ancora, which means encore or more in Italian).
She kept her ingredients simple and natural, using white flour, almonds, sugar, vanilla and the optional chocolate. But at this new shop, Bonnie Lynn added spelt flour for a nutty flavor, making the cookies a bit more rustic and less sweet. She never stinted on the toasted almonds, with 21 pounds of nuts in each 40-pound batch of biscotti dough.
“It was more of a hobby,” Tempesta said of her mother’s new business. “We didn’t know about the cancer, but she would have obviously been sick then, and was very tired all the time.”
Since taking over, Tempesta is now owner, package designer for the 100 percent recyclable sacks, salesperson, human resource director and in charge of anything else that needs to be done. She has changed nothing about the tiny production bakery located at Kenwood Village. She commutes between her San Francisco home and the bakery, often staying over at her mother’s former house in Sonoma. The recipes — and the staff of three bakers — remain the same.
“It’s kind of ironic, but all the employees are moms, too,” said Tempesta, who does not offer retail sales at the bakery. “I think they like the flexibility of working here, and the support. If someone needs time to take care of a child, or go to a kid’s game, it’s fine. That’s how my mom always was, and it’s important.”
In another curious twist of fate, taking over Boncora has enhanced Tempesta’s still-strong love of psychotherapy. Her emphasis had been in counseling millennials on how to find and embrace their life purpose and work focus, and this year she revived her practice to one day a week, finding deeper perspective from her own recent experience.
“For me, everything I knew changed on a dime,” she said. “Thinking of this allows me to better help others, while giving a voice to my mom’s story.”
It’s a story that’s hers now, too, to explore and nurture.
“I eat, drink, breathe and dream biscotti,” Tempesta said. “And I love it. I guess you just never know where life will take you.”
To purchase online and see a list of retail shops that carry Boncora biscotti, visit boncorabiscotti.com
Looking for great Sonoma Magazine content in your inbox? Subscribe here