Delicious Invention

Tifa Chocolate & Gelato hits the sweet spot between quality, creativity and flavor.

By Maxine Hurt

Photo by Michael Montano

Siblings Candace and Shawn Orr built Tifa on a dream, a do-it-yourself philosophy and a shared sweet tooth. The results? Deliciously different.

“When we first started Tifa we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.” That’s what 32-year-old Shawn Orr says. He’s the front man for Tifa Chocolate & Gelato, a family-owned business with locations in Agoura Hills and Westlake Village that serves gelato, chocolates, pastries and espresso drinks. He provides the local spot with what he calls “the vibe.” His younger sister Candace Orr, age 30, is, according to him, “the creator.” She’s the one who comes up with all of those lovely gelato flavors and bakes indulgences that are unlike any you’ve experienced before. Shawn and Candace agree that Mom, a.k.a. Denise Orr, is “the glue” that holds the family together. As for stepdad Mike Ashamalla, “He’s the one looking over all of us with the crystal ball,” says Shawn. 

Walking into Tifa’s Westlake Village location, the deep whirr of the gelato display freezer provides a soothing white noise as the sharp aroma of chocolate and espresso rides the air. This is the newest location, which opened up in January 2015. It’s obvious that this place is original — a reflection of its owners, who openly admit to figuring out everything as they went along. The small stereo set up on a table in the middle of the store is playing an unfamiliar bluesy tune that brings to mind velvet, cigar smoke and a rickety card table set up in a back-alley speakeasy. A vintage mint-green fan blows cool air on my face as I read the shabby-chic wooden signs hidden amongst the inventive truffles, bon-bons, caramels, nut clusters and artisanal chocolate bars from around the world.

“Your husband called and said that you can buy anything that you want.” 

“Chocolate fixes everything.”

Words to live by. 

Although the Orrs didn’t have any experience when they started Tifa, Shawn and Candace remember how growing up with a single mom helped form their ideas about food. “Our mom worked so much that dinner was the only time of day that we all got the time to sit down together. It became about bonding, pairing emotion with food,” says Shawn. “We wanted to do something with food that created that intimate bonding experience where someone eats something that you made.” 

Later in life, after traveling abroad, the siblings noticed that everywhere they went there were “cultural epicenters” that served the community. “They were open late and had delicious treats and everyone hung out and drank coffee,” says Shawn. Coffee wasn’t for takeout. There weren’t any drive-through windows. “We came back here and thought, there is nothing like this,” says Shawn. “That’s where the initial idea came from, more out of necessity for us. We needed a place to hang out.” Tifa started out as an online venture, grew into a kiosk at the Topanga mall outside of Nordstrom, and then further developed into the first Agoura Hills location, which opened in April 2008. When they outgrew that location, the family moved the enterprise to the current Agoura Hills store, which opened in May 2014. 

According to Shawn, “We just wanted a place where you could come for a few minutes during your day and enjoy something that’s in front of you, listen to some cool tunes, and enjoy a chill vibe. You know what I mean?” I do know what he means and I’m sure others do, too. It’s what we always hear about — being present, enjoying the moment, the power of now. 

Rough, reclaimed wood, knotted and dotted with imperfections, is used to make shelves and siding. Communal tables featuring games of chess, checkers, backgammon and cards invite people to make a connection. The chairs are each painted a different color. Fresh flowers, care of Mom, adorn each of the tables every day. This is not a sleek establishment (although the lighting is pretty Edison chic) and I mean that in a good way. There is warmth here. Things don’t match, they make sense. 

So that’s the vibe. What about the products? 

A part of what makes the chocolate and gelato at Tifa so very good is that everything is made fresh daily from all-natural, high-quality ingredients. All of the chocolate comes from a single origin, meaning that the chocolate is made from one variety of cacao harvested in a single location, which gives the beans the characteristics of that region. With such an exceptional product, it’s hard to believe that Shawn is a self-taught chocolatier. No degree. No certification. Pure do-it-your-self gumption and boot-strapping got him where he is today. “It’s funny to say, but the cheapest tuition is just making mistakes,” says Shawn. “Screwing up over and over again. Also, when you figure something out from the ground up you aren’t boxed into any one idea.”

Shawn has found flavor inspiration for his chocolates from a good meal, a trip to a roadside farm stand on his way to surf in Ventura, and talking to customers. “That’s how we come up with all of our recipes. Everyone tries it out. We like to break the barrier down between business owners and customers.” He has experimented with blue cheese, beer caramels, wasabi rolls and other exotic ingredients. Best-sellers include salted caramels as well as hot cocoa, blue cheese and honey, Bordeaux, and strawberry bon-bons. (I’m personally devoted to the dark chocolate whiskey crowns and lavender dark chocolate bon-bons.) “I even did one with pipe tobacco,” Shawn admits. “It turns out that you aren’t supposed to eat pipe tobacco. I turned green and sweaty and was throwing up.” Candace is quick to state that, “He was the only guinea pig. He didn’t serve it to the customers. Let’s make that clear.”

Candace is also self-taught, but in making gelato rather than chocolate. After spending two years of undergrad at San Francisco State, she moved back to the area, refocused, and started experimenting with gelato. She then went on to complete a two-year baking and patisserie program at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. Her gelato knowledge came from another source. “I was really lucky. I came into contact with one of the vendors I had for gelato ingredients, who was an Italian,” says Candace. “His parents and grandparents owned gelato shops in Italy. He took me under his wing and in his super-sarcastic Italian way he’d ask, ‘Why do you want the texture like that?’ . . . I didn’t know. I had to figure it out, refine it, make it the best it could be.” 

That gelato is where it’s at. Customers lean toward dark chocolate, strawberry balsamic, pistachio lemon curd and cinnamon panna cotta, among other flavors. As for the pastries, Candace creates her own original versions of brownies, lemon and chocolate chip cookies, and scones.  

When asked what’s on the horizon, the siblings get excited about a third location that’s in the works, the possibility of a food truck, one day creating their own chocolate bars, and perhaps introducing kid-friendly gelato pops. They are quick to state that it’s not about becoming millionaires. “I’ve had jobs before where my bank account was always overflowing, but there is something about not sitting in your car before work, hating yourself,” says Shawn. The siblings want to continue to focus on what’s important to them: making sure that customers know that they are as important as, if not more important than, what’s on the menu. 

Tifa Chocolate & Gelato




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