By Darren Garnick
September 1, 2010
The next best thing to working in a chocolate factory is pretending to work in a chocolate factory. I was recently lured to Hershey, Pennsylvania for intensive research on Kit Kats and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. In the self-proclaimed “Sweetest Place on Earth,” there are multiple opportunities to get a behind-the-scenes taste of life on the production line.
Hershey’s Great American Chocolate Tour involves no actual manufacturing. It’s a lot more like Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride with singing robotic cows and synchronized machinery. Adults may roll their eyes at the visual and audio barrage of advertising, but the kids are hypnotized as the ride whirls them through a cocoa bean’s journey from the rainforest to your digestive system.
Despite cries that such tours are not “realistic,” I much prefer the edutainment approach. Pragmatically, any real factory tour is a distraction to workers and an invitation for the kiddies to get their tongues caught in the conveyor belt. Toss in fears of corporate espionage and you never get to see the cool stuff anyway. I was once on a brewery tour that only showed a movie and the distribution warehouse before ushering me away to the free samples.
At its Chocolate World complex, Hershey’s tributes to its factory workers are refreshing — as refreshing as taking a bite out of a York Peppermint Pattie.
As a clever way to boost Hershey’s Kiss sales, the company invites kids to tightly pack the foil-wrapped candies in commemorative boxes. The challenge: The Kisses are spilling off the conveyor belt faster than most youngsters can handle.
“Some visitors take them off the belt and start eating them, just like ‘I Love Lucy,’” says 17-year-old Alaina McNaughton, a local high school student who works as a factory supervisor. “Some of the older kids joke that this will get the younger ones fired.”
McNaughton, who incidentally has never been in a factory, projects an upbeat spirit to her elementary school workforce. She welcomes them to their first day on the job and points to utopian company signs that say “Share Happiness,” “Spread Love,” and “Send a Smile.”
After her employees pack their candy, McNaughton’s real work begins. She teaches them how to shake the boxes as they dance the “Chocolate Roll” and the “Chocolate Shake”
for good luck. This aerobic activity helps to make the chocolate taste good, she insists.
Nearby, the more elaborate “Create Your Own Candy Bar” attraction is a 45-minute customized chocolate experience that allows kids to choose their own base (dark, milk, white) and crunchy mix-ins (graham crackers, caramel bits, jimmies). They then watch the bar be processed at various stations, including a package design center where they can choose wrappers and name their products.
Throughout the process, the kids wear factory aprons and hairnets and are exposed to signage about proper workplace hygiene.
Company founder Milton Hershey, who died in 1945 at age 88, would have been proud.
He’s credited with transforming chocolate from a luxury item into an affordable dessert for the masses by streamlining the production process. Inspired by Henry Ford’s assembly line, he was the first to separate his factory buildings by functionality, from the roasting of cocoa beans to packaging and distribution.
He was also a pioneer in fun. The Hersheypark amusement park was originally founded as a place for his employees to picnic and swim with their families. Amazingly, during the Great Depression, the Hershey Company laid off no one.
True to the spirit of Milton Hershey, none of the kids pretending to work in the chocolate factory these days experience the threat of downsizing. Hopefully, outside the amusement park, most of them never will.
Darren Garnick’s “Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the Boston Herald.