What is so magical about Willy Wonka? Is it the dancing Oompa Loompas? The story of the underdog inheriting a chocolate-covered fortune? The mystical chocolatier? Or is it the inside view of what we all desperately hope a chocolate factory looks like?
For me, it is all about the virtual tour of where chocolate is made, even if Roald Dahl’s particular chocolatier, brand of chocolate, and factory are all fictional. From an early age, I was introduced to the magic of factory tours. On family and school trips, I have learned how airplanes are built (thanks Boeing), how money is made (thanks Bureau of Engraving and Printing) and even what plastic injection molding is. It's cool. Seriously.
Back to Willy Wonka though, of all the tours I have been on, the very best are those that have dealt with food. There is something mesmerizing (and maybe disconcerting) about how we mass produce food in the United States, and it is hard to appreciate the quantities of food manufactured until you see items flashing by on a conveyer belt with robotic arms touching down to stick labels to packages that are destined, sooner or later, to land on your kitchen table.
The whole spectacle of watching items roll off production lines is all the more fascinating when those items are ones you know and love. So, if you are new to the food factory tour world or want to explore it further, below are 12 tours you can take from sea to shining sea.
Jelly Belly in Fairfield, CA
This free tour, which I had the chance to take when I was little, is a sensory overload of happiness. During the tour, you can look down on endless beans being infused with color and flavor, and as you walk through the building, you can learn about Ronald Reagan’s love of Jelly Belly.
Did I mention the jelly bean artwork gracing the walls? If you have never seen a presidential portrait made of candy, this is your chance. As is true with many of these tours, the experience ends in a gift shop where you can satisfy your belly and sample every weird bean flavor you didn’t even know existed.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookies in San Francisco, CA
After eating jelly beans to your heart's content, head to San Francisco, the home of the modern fortune cookie and a smaller scale production. In Chinatown, you can visit Golden Gate Fortune Cookies, which has been making the treats since the 1960s. While there, you can also buy their bags of reject cookies that didn't quite get shaped in time.
Ben & Jerry's in Waterbury, VT
From the socially conscious company that brought you free cone day and The Tonight Dough, you can watch as their ice cream is being made for just $4. Naturally, the tour includes a view into their production room and a "sample of the day." The highlight of your trip to Vermont might not happen during the tour but may be when you walk outside to the graveyard of ice cream flavors past. Rest in peace, Wavy Gravy. Rest in peace.
Cabot in Cabot, VT
Once you have satisfied your ice cream needs, hop in your car and take the hour-long trip over to the Cabot Visitor Center, where cheese awaits you. For $3, you get to learn how cheese is made, learn the history of Cabot, watch the production process, and get a few samplers along the way.
Goodrich's Maple Farm in Cabot, VT
After the Cabot tour, you can stay in Vermont and head to Goodrich's Maple Farm to add a final hint of sugar to your day. The free tour walks you through the maple processing from harvest to table and the eight-generation history of the family farm.
According to TripAdvisor, Goodrich's is the second most popular attraction in Cabot–second only to the cheese factory. Of course, there are only so many things to do in Cabot, Vermont...
Utz in Hanover, PA
How does a brown, rock-like vegetable turn into something so tantalizing as a crunchy potato chip? Take a road trip to the food-factory packed town of Hanover, Pennsylvania to find out. The free Utz tour covers the 600,000 square foot facility and gives you an inside glimpse at their production lines, where you can watch golden potato chips stream by like the Yellow Brick Road leading to Oz.
Snyder's of Hanover in Hanover, PA
You guessed it. Before leaving Hanover, don't forget to visit Snyder's of Hanover for all your pretzel needs. The 30-minute Snyder's tour walks you through their raw material warehouse, finished goods warehouse, packing room, and oven room. And, when you are done, if you have enough room, you can spend your loose cash at their Factory Store.
Before heading out to Hanover, be sure to call and book a time. Unlike other tours which are walk-ins, Snyder's requires a reservation 24 hours in advance.
Hershey's Chocolate World in Hershey, PA
Impress your friends next Halloween by dropping some major chocolate knowledge. The Hershey tour, another one I experienced as a young chocolate fanatic, takes you through the process from bean to bar, making it the eighth wonder of the world.
The tour, revamped as of 2016, is not quite the raw, factory tour you will get to experience elsewhere (don't expect to see any conveyor belts here), but it is still a fun and free adventure which includes–you guessed it–a free sample at the end.
PEZ in Orange, CT
Before leaving the Northeast, get your nostalgia fix with a visit to the PEZ factory. The $5, self-guided experience lets you look out on their manufacturing facility and immerse yourself in a world of Wonkaesque color.
The PEZ Visitor Center also boasts the biggest PEZ memorabilia collection on public display in the world (yes, even bigger than the baggie full of old dispensers in your elementary school sock drawer) and the world's largest PEZ dispenser.
Mayfield in Braselton, GA
Prepare for udder delight (sorry, had to) if you visit the Mayfield dairy in either their Georgia or Tennessee location. The tour includes a video and walks you through the milking process all the way to their finished products, and can end, if you choose, with a taste test adventure in their ice cream parlor. If you want some great giant cow photo ops, this is the tour for you.
Visit a Craft Brewery or Winery
You can check these food tours off your list at any number of places on any number of coasts. Even if you are under 21 and won't be ending your trip with a taste test, visiting these factories is still interesting. There is nothing like seeing ginormous cellars full of barrels of wine surrounded by endless grape-covered hills in Napa Valley, California.
On craft brewery tours, you can usually expect a brief lesson on hops and fermentation, plus some history on the brewery. At Sweetwater in Atlanta, you get to check out the brew house, which includes fermenters, tanks, and the bottling and packaging line. Their tours, at $10 per person, include a souvenir glass and samples.
If you don’t live near any of these food factories or adventures or can’t road trip to something similar, the Internet is here for you. On the How It's Made YouTube channel, you can observe the magic of manufacturing from the comfort of your pajamas, like this video of bubble gum being produced...you know, to give you something interesting to chew on. (I'm done, I promise.)