I watch the kettle-cooked potato chips George Bush eats on Air Force One bubble up in the pot. I sip coffee that was specially blended to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge’s specifications. And these are just two of the many treats I witness being made, up-close-and-personal — although they aren’t all so well-connected.
Welcome to York, Pennsylvania – The Factory Tour Capital of the World. Although there are other factory enclaves nationwide, York’s claim is justified. York, adjacent to the oft-visited Amish Country in southeastern Pennsylvania, is home to a number of industries, including Pfaltzgraff Pottery, Harley Davidson and others, many family owned and farm-originated, that conduct tours in which participants almost feel part of the assembly lines.
These are not your look-down-from-a-catwalk type tours. They’re the watch-out-for-the-forklifts and don’t-slip-on-the-wet-clay kinds of tours. You’re on the shop floors of production facilities – where the fashion requirements range from closed-toe shoes to hairnets and safety goggles.
Martin’s Potato Chips for the President
We are met at Martin’s Potato Chip Co. by tour guide Blair Norris, who works in the warehouse when not entertaining visitors. An average day at the factory starts with 2-3 trailer trucks, each full of 30,000-45,000 pounds of potatoes. There’s symmetry to the way the men, dolled up in hairnets, do their own private dance through 10 separate processing steps. Strange-looking machines go up, down and sideways, taking the potatoes from mud-covered to munchable. Ninety-two-year-old Grandma Martin, whose farm recipe inspired the company 60 years ago, still sells her chips at the Farmer’s Market.
Blair proudly relates the story of how the kettle-cooked chips ended up on Air Force One (it’s all in who you know), after which they became a perennial favorite of Bill Clinton’s. First rejected by George, rumor has it, he changed his mind after tasting them. I’m with Hillary, though – she prefers the butter-flavored air popped popcorn. The bag they gave me to take home was gone before I ever got there. There’s a picture of Air Force One in the gift shop, with a note of appreciation from the Presidential Pilot.
Trading in our hairnets for safety glasses and earphones – you can’t hear the guide without them due to the loud rumbling of machines – we enter the work-a-day world of pottery making. Pfaltzgraff was started in York in 1811 by German immigrants, and currently is headed by a fifth-generation Pfaltzgraff family member, making it the oldest continually operating pottery maker in the U.S. Liquid clay, poured into giant troughs, is transformed into solid form. The chunks are then dried, sponged, pressed, molded, decorated, trimmed, glazed and ultimately handled by 32 artisans in their journey from clay to casserole.
I was heartened to hear that for the past few years, the workers rotate jobs every half-hour to prevent carpal tunnel and shoulder problems. This seemed to be the norm among the factories we visited.
Naylor’s Winery For Fun Tasting
Many of us have gone the wine-tour route before – and the Naylor’s Winery version is not startlingly different. But the story is a nice one – and the tastings – well, they’re worth the time spent listening. Again – family owned; Dick Naylor is our guide. The process is very hands-on: Dick eschews the impersonal, automated approach to wine growing and bottling. The grapes are handpicked and the bottles filled and labeled by hand. Mom often helps with the labeling, and, recently, when a customer was recounting the benefits of wine with dinner, she was quick to add: “And sometimes with Jeopardy, too!”
Producing 40 varieties of the tasty grape-based beverage, Dick appreciates his orchard – especially his recent harvest. “This is a great growing area, and last year was ideal for wine. Good elevation, good soil and good weather,” he notes. Word to wine aficionados: Remember 2001!
The wine tasting is rough, as usual, as we are forced to savor six different vintages, ranging from a dry Pinot Gris to a tender Cabernet to a scrumptious port-like dessert wine. Each wine comes with a tale of its own: its vintage, its idiosyncrasies and what it’s most happy being served with. I felt a very personal connection to the three bottles I bought to take home.
Sparky & Clarke’s Coffee Roastery To Wake Up Again
Another beverage, another tour. At Sparky & Clarke’s Coffee Roastery, a micro-brewery for coffee, there are even more varieties to sample. With 45 variations on a cup of joe, including international flavors with exotic names like Ethiopian Harrah, Yemen Moca, and Tanzanian Peabody, ordering is no easy task. Check out what’s being prepared in the industrial roaster, which you can see through the back glass wall.
At first glance, the coffee shop resembles a storefront with a couple of counter seats and a few small tables. Then I notice the upholstered couches and comfy armchairs, the homey coffee table and light stand, the games of checkers and chess waiting to be played – and did I mention the fireplace?
I am in a living room, which somehow makes the smells and the tastes of the rich-flavored coffees seem really home-roasted – which, of course, they are. In addition to the environmentally friendly, high-end organic coffees of unending variety, there is also an assortment of teas. And for the non-coffee drinker? Hot chocolate made with renowned Ghirardelli. The white chocolate raspberry is addicting.
As with all tours, I am amazed at how much goes into the production of any item. The number of steps and processes involved behind the scenes could never be imagined by the person at the retail counter.
When was the last time you pondered, over morning coffee, how the taste of that particular blend came to be? Well, since you ask, it’s determined by the original bean, its geographical region, the climate, the weather, how and when harvested, how processed through the roaster and, finally, how brewed. Sparky & Clarke’s has ruined me for Starbucks.
Oh, yes, about our Director of Homeland Security. His coffee of choice is part decaf/part caffeinated. Called American Defender – what else? – and created by owner Scott Dempwolf, the blend is shipped regularly to the Governor’s Mansion, where the state’s First Lady still resides.
Wolfgang Candy Factory For Sweet Dreams
As I enter Da’s Sweeten Haus Center, home to the Wolfgang Candy Factory, I feel almost physically assaulted by the intense smell of chocolate. Upon recovering, I spy a large three-tiered window display of every imaginable ingredient that ever made it on top of, inside or mixed into a piece of candy: nuts, banana chips, coconut, raisins, rice krispies, sunflower seeds…well, you get the idea.
The family ownership here extends to fathers, sons, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. I guess if you’re making chocolate, everyone wants a “piece” of the action. Once again, we’re re-introduced to hairnets – but this time with a twist. My husband gets to sport one covering his beard.
First, the different shapes of the chocolate centers are molded in cornstarch. Oohs and ahhs abound with each mention of cashew turtles, coconut clusters or vanilla buttercreams. We carefully negotiate around huge vats of caramel syrup and nougat as we keep an eye out for samples. I can feel my face break out just watching hundreds of peanut butter mounds get drenched in chocolate as they pass through a wide, low chocolate waterfall. And then wind around for a double dousing.
Twelve-year-old Shawn Nealon of Nazareth, PA is getting quite an education. “It’s so neat to see how different candies are made,” says the home-schooled youngster. “Not a lot of kids get to see that.” Any chance he was influenced by the many chocolate delicacies he got to taste along the way?
Harley Davidson Assembly Plant: Samples, Please
Attention all men and boys! And female motorcycle enthusiasts! And just about everyone in the universe! There isn’t a soul who doesn’t sigh with envy when I mention the Harley Davidson Assembly Plant, a resident of York since 1973. Former minister Karl Fetterman, who clearly still loves his job after 10 years, is our tour guide for the intimate one-million-sq.-ft. area. From frame to finish, somewhere between 850 and 1250 individual parts coalesce into a single cycle. It takes 2 ½ hours to build a Harley Softail. Oil tanks, gas tanks, handlebars, suspension systems, exhaust pipes, kickstands — each part is made separately by a team of employees, computers and robots. It takes an hour to polish a gas tank by hand; a robot can do it in 7 ½ minutes.
The men and women who work there look as though they were hired right off their own Harleys. Says Karl, with apparent pride: “There are 3200 employees here, any one of whom would probably know how to build an entire bike.” My one complaint: it was the only tour that didn’t give me a sample to take home! For more information, call York County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 888/858-YORK (9675) or check out their web site.
Factory Tours Around the Nation
York, Pennsylvania rightly claims the title “Factory tour capital of the world.” Other towns and areas also offer manufacturing tours that may be more limited in number, but also can teach and entertain. When planning a trip, check out factories in the area that open their doors to the public. Here’s a brief checklist of enticing tours from coast to coast. Among edibles, and drinkables, that visitors to Massachusetts may see made are cranberry products, potato chips and beer. A bit more unusual is a stop at the National Braille Press in Boston, to watch how books for the blind are produced. For more information call 800/227-MASS (6277).
Bourbon is king in Kentucky, so it’s no surprise that several distilleries are on many an itinerary. But don’t overlook visits to plants where goods from candy to cars, and pottery to pulled-glass are made. For more information call 800/225-8747.
Factory tours in Ohio combine the usual with some pleasant surprises. The first category includes plants that make potato chips, candy and other familiar products. Less familiar is Warther Carvings, where cutlery is hand-crafted and a collection of carved wooden trains, cars and other miniatures is on display. Those seeking something really different enjoy Winesburg Carriage, where Amish workers make horse-and-buggy carriages. For more information call 800/BUCKEYE (282-5393).