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‘Biscotti queen’ at home in Sonoma, baking once again

Sunday, January 13th, 2013 | Posted by | no responses

Bonnie Tempesta, owner of Boncora Biscotti, which is based in Sonoma. (Jeff Kan Lee / PD)

By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

Biscotti lovers everywhere can thank the dogs and cats at Pets Lifeline in Sonoma for inspiring the latest gourmet biscotti on the market.

Bonnie Tempesta, the single mom who introduced Americans to the crunchy Italian cookie in the 1980s, is back with a new line from Boncora Biscotti, made right in downtown Sonoma.

Tempesta moved to Sonoma Valley in 2001, a few years after selling her wildly successful business, La Tempesta Bakery Confections, Inc. At its peak, the South San Francisco company had more than 100 employees, generated some 300,000 biscotti a day and reached nearly $9 million in annual revenues.

Her compelling story was featured in newspapers and magazines that included Bon Appetit and Forbes, as well as a Newsweek article on the “new American elite.”

Semi-retired after selling the business she started from scratch, Tempesta moved to the countryside of west Sonoma after her only child, Daniela, went off to college. She built a new home and immersed herself in the community she had fallen in love with as a tourist, an area that reminded her of picturesque Lucca, Italy, her parents’ homeland.

“I really feel like part of the community here. I’ve never experienced that in any of the other places where I’ve lived,” says Tempesta, 60, a board director with the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

Perhaps by fate, her neighbor Nancy King became executive director at Pets Lifeline, the valley’s haven for pets awaiting adoptive homes. Tempesta was moved by the dedicated volunteers and staff at the nonprofit animal shelter, who depend on fundraising and donations to provide care for the hundreds of animals they help each year.

“I was inspired by Nancy King, who lives behind me. I wanted to do something for them. They’re such a great organization,” says Tempesta.

“I thought, ‘What can I do to help?’ I thought maybe I could make cookies again.”

From that, Tempesta launched Boncora Biscotti, now in its fifth month of operation. She donates five percent of her profits to Pets Lifeline and Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit organization that fights childhood hunger.

Tempesta made her first donations during the holiday season, with a $1,000 check for Pets Lifeline, a personal milestone that brought Tempesta to tears.

“I love animals, absolutely,” she says. “I love every kind of animal. I just have a passion for critters.” She is a vegetarian whose household includes a cat and three dogs, the newest a “terrier mutt” adopted from Pets Lifeline.

Although Tempesta taught occasional classes in cucina dell’orto (Italian garden cuisine), she was ready to return to baking after being away for so many years.

“I was thinking back to those first five years when we rolled the dough by hand,” she says. “That doesn’t exist anymore. Other companies make (biscotti) completely differently.”

She wanted to recreate the “magical part” of those early years when she and just a few employees made the cookies by hand in a rented kitchen.

A San Mateo County resident at the time, Tempesta had worked for $6 an hour at a chocolate shop at the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, one of the few places that offered an espresso bar in the early 1980s.

She thought customers would enjoy the flavorful twice-baked Tuscan cookies she made at home from an authentic biscotti di Prato recipe passed along from her Italian aunt.

“People loved them,” she says. “It was great.”

She started La Tempesta with her mother after attending a fancy food show at which not a single vendor offered biscotti.

“I walked up and down every aisle of that show, and no one was making biscotti,” she recalls.

Before long, she was going shop-to-shop, selling her cookies from elegant glass containers. Sales reps quickly caught up with Tempesta, her business growing beyond her wildest expectations.

“Those first five years were amazing. It was like the dream was coming true,” she says.

The real turning point was when a distributor’s sales rep suggested coating biscotti with chocolate, something not done in Italy, certainly not with Tempesta’s decades-old family recipe.

“He said, ‘If you could put that chocolate on that biscotti, I could sell a million of them,” she recalls.

A new sensation was born. Cioccolotti more than doubled her sales. Tempesta was dubbed the “biscotti queen” by the media and credited with starting the biscotti craze in the United States, where she made 99 percent of her sales.

The warm and engaging Tempesta is now back at it, but on a much smaller scale and with a return to the old-fashioned roots of her original business. She currently rents space in a small commercial kitchen while awaiting the February completion of a 500-square-foot facility in Kenwood. Jim Gade of Benchmark Construction, the contractor who built her home, is handling the project.

Boncora Biscotti is in every way a hands-on business for Tempesta. She and six employees make the almond biscotti by hand, with one version dipped in Guittard milk and semi-sweet chocolate. She “tweaked” her original recipe a bit, with toasted almonds as the first ingredient and adding spelt, an old world hulled wheat, which brings a rustic texture to her light, crisp and smaller-sized biscotti.

“The fun part is I’m baking again. Every single batch I’ve had my hands in,” she says. “I want to be in the bakery again and get back to my roots.

Her biscotti already have caught the attention of food critics, with online accolades on food sites and in such media outlets as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Vogue magazine. Bay Area TV personality Narsai David declared both varieties “absolutely delicious.”

Tempesta checks in with customers on her company website and Facebook page, familiarizing herself with the social media so critical in today’s merchandising.

She wants to position Boncora Biscotti as a special treat. The cookies are festively packaged in a clear recyclable tube so consumers can see them, with each handmade biscotti sized a bit differently from the rest.

Tempesta sells to just a few select retail shops, instead focusing on Internet sales, an entirely different approach from her first business.

“I don’t want to do the distribution thing again,” she says. “I’m not looking to be huge. I want to keep it small and homemade.”

Tempesta hopes the business will make a difference for homeless pets in her community and hungry children across the country. As she asks on her biscotti packaging, “Has there ever been a more delicious way to share?”

Boncora Biscotti are available at boncorabiscotti.com and in Sonoma County at Sonoma’s Best in Sonoma, Muscardini Cellars Tasting Room in Kenwood and Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg. The six-ounce tubes contain 14-18 biscotti; $13.50 for plain, $14.50 for chocolate-dipped.

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Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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