December Issue: Sisters Bond Through Tragedy, Chocolate

Frances (left) and Ginger Park at their store, Chocolate Chocolate, in Washington, D.C. Frances is holding the sisters’ co-authored memoir, released earlier this year.

Home Sweet Home

A family tragedy bonded sisters Frances and Ginger Park in a lifelong partnership that has led to several children’s books, a new memoir and a very special chocolate store that offers customers more than just treats.

story by Helin Jung
photographs by Jeanne M. Modderman

The Park sisters have always known the allure of chocolate—because, they say, it was in their blood.

Chocolate is a food so ancient and universal, with powers so overwhelming and complex, that it seems to escape only a rare few, and Frances and Ginger never stood a chance.

It began decades ago, in a place that doesn’t exist anymore.  The sisters’ now 81-year-old mother, Heisook Park, was the first to fall in love with the elixir, spoiled as a child by the cocoa sweets that her older brothers would bring to their home in Sinuiju, in what is now North Korea, from faraway, exotic places. Chocolate equaled mystique, love, happiness.  And then everything changed—except for the one thing that didn’t. While still a teenager, Heisook fled persecution in the north and ended up in Seoul at the start of the Korean War. Her mother left behind, a brother dead, she coped by buying Hershey chocolate bars on the black market.

As bombs fell outside and windows shattered, the Park sisters say in their frequent re-tellings of this story, their mother huddled under a burlap sack and nibbled on those precious bars.

If I die, I’m going to die with chocolate on my lips, she told herself then.

The Park sisters didn’t stand a chance.

For the past 27 years, Frances and Ginger—and in that order because Frances is older by seven years—have been the proprietors of a shop in Washington, D.C., called Chocolate Chocolate. They are also writers of novels and children’s books, and have most recently co-authored a memoir called Chocolate Chocolate: A True Story of Two Sisters, Tons of Treats, and the Little Shop That Could. Youthful in appearance and spirit, they have spent their lives doing most things together, and the book, written in first-person plural, is a collection of we’s and us’s that speaks to their near-total unison.


Though Frances and Ginger had always been close, the impetus for going into business together was tragedy: Their father, Sei-Young Park, a Harvard-educated senior economist for the World Bank, was traveling through Hawaii in 1979 and bound for Korea when he suffered a fatal stroke. He was 56 years old, and Ginger was two days short of her 17th birthday.

Their father’s death fused Frances and Ginger together. Terrible though it was, and still is, the loss represented the beginning of a symbiotic, lifelong partnership between the sisters, who have two other siblings but always got along best with each other.

They grew up as the only Koreans—the only Asians, the only other—in their Virginia suburb of Washington, but their father had given them everything they needed. Even in death, he left an inheritance that would largely finance Chocolate Chocolate, with help from their mother as a silent partner.

The Park sisters’ father had been incredibly poor during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and in the kind of story that seems too much to be true, he wore rags as a boy and milked goats at dawn before he went to school. But Korea was changing, its society in upheaval. He saw opportunity and struck, teaching himself to speak English fluently, gaining notoriety as an outspoken student activist and eventually becoming the personal secretary to Syngman Rhee, the first president of the fledgling Republic of Korea.

He wanted for his children only to be happy and fed, the sisters say, and he postponed his own dreams of returning to Korea to re-enter the political fray, opting instead to provide for his family in his adopted country.

“When he died, Frances always says, and it’s so true, we lost our star in the dark,” Ginger said one afternoon in October.  “We had lost everything. So we didn’t worry. We had no fear.  But you know, it’s weird. When you’re doing something with someone you love and when you love chocolate …” Frances, who was sitting next to her sister, finished the sentence: “Even on the worst days, it seemed magical.” “Even on days we were eating more chocolate than we were selling,” said Ginger, “believe it or not, there was a sense of peace because we were together.”

“Our shop is an extension of home,” added Frances. “We didn’t want a chain, we didn’t want a franchise, we weren’t in it to be millionaires. We were in it to have a good life. That’s what we wanted: to be surrounded by great customers, to be surrounded by chocolate.”

The shop that Frances and Ginger built is a perfect universe, and least of all because it carries an exquisitely curated global variety of chocolates. The doorway to that perfect world stands on Connecticut Avenue, across the street from the Mayflower Hotel, in a city that can be a cold, cynical and rootless place. But, there is Chocolate Chocolate, lit golden from within, bidding a tender welcome, drawing you in with its warmth, asking you to stay.

“I’m sure other people have told you this—I feel very close to them,” a regular customer, Barbra Bailey, confessed by phone one day. “It feels like family in the place.

Some of the customers, we see each other there often and laugh each time. ‘Oh, no. Here we are again.’” Even the business card for Chocolate Chocolate bears witness to this feeling. Skip | Koomo | Estelle | Francie | Ginger.

Skip, Ginger’s husband. Koomo, Ginger’s tennis acquaintance-turned-shop-manager. Estelle, the part-time shop clerk who used to be a chocolate sales rep and, like everyone else inevitably does, became family.

As a tour group passes through the store, its members listen to Frances and Ginger tell the story of their lives. They lean in closer as Frances describes the shop’s couture French and Swiss offerings, even closer still as Ginger tells the tale of her house truffle, its dark ganache center draped in milk chocolate and covered in cocoa powder.

“A lot of our customers tell us we’re like the Cheers of chocolate,” Ginger says.

Indeed, spend a few moments in Chocolate Chocolate, and you will feel known. You will feel loved. You will feel joy. Everything else is obsolete.