I have been thinking about my elementary school days lately. In a matter of months my son will cross the threshold into his Kindergarten classroom; I will likely be wiping tears away as I wave goodbye. It’s a big transition time for families; a time of growth, change, and celebration as a new normal settles in. While we still have summertime on the horizon and there is fun to be had, it’s hard not to think about what’s ahead. It makes me think about my own childhood days in the classroom. While time behind a desk was punctured with the fun-filled chaos of recess, it was field trip days that were always a highlight of the school year. During my recent wandering through Oakland’s Chinatown I stood in front of The Fortune Cookie Factory and thought about a field trip of my own a long time ago to watch fortune cookies being made; and of course being sampled by my eager little hands. I figured it would be fun for my equally eager grown-up hands to get inside and relive a childhood memory that was sure to end with the fun crack of a fortune cookie being opened.
So on a sunny morning a few weeks ago I met up with Alicia Wong, the young woman who is the 3rd generation of the Wong family to run this historic business in Oakland. Aside from the dynamic and fierce panda bear painted on the roll-up door by Steven Anderson, resident artist for the local non-profit group Dragon School, the storefront itself is nondescript. You would never assume that inside between 10,000 to 50,000 fortune cookies are being produced each day.
As Alicia and I wandered into the back and she began to share the history of both her family and the factory I quickly realized this little spot was chock full of surprising facts and stories. Most notable: The Fortune Cookie Factory is the largest in the Bay Area, yet they do not sell to restaurants. Equally as notable: the factory is owned and run entirely by women. Alicia’s mother Ming took over the factory from her uncle when he retired; Alicia is now taking over management as her mother steps back from the daily running the factory. All of the long-standing employees are women.
It is mind boggling to me to think of how this factory has survived when restaurants aren’t part of their customer list. With a recipe that uses high quality ingredients and a method of hand-folding each cookie, their cookies are simply too high-priced for the local restaurants just looking to toss a few on a tray at the end of a meal. Special orders and grocery stores are their primary clientele. Using a recipe that has been updated in recent years to the vegan-friendly use of palm oil, the fragile cookies are a combination of the oil, cake and pastry flours, and sugar.
Shapes range from the standard folded cookie with the fortune inside, to both large and small flat rounds. Flavor offerings are also available. Tropical extracts yield vibrant colors for banana, strawberry, orange and lime. Blueberry has recently been added and new flavors such as hazelnut, kona coffee, Canadian maple and Earl Grey are on the horizon. While perfect cookies are bagged up for orders, the so called “mis-fortunes” are sold in the small storefront by the pound.
The machines used to make the cookies were custom built by a UC Berkeley engineer over 50 years ago. These second generation machines were first designed in the 1940’s to replace more primitive ovens invented the decade prior. The machines have to be meticulously cleaned at the end of every day. Over an hour is spent doing so, and power drills are brought out to take apart each plate for cleaning.
While Oakland claims fame to the invention of the fortune cookie folding machine in the 1970’s, The Fortune Cookie Factory has stuck with the process of hand folding to maintain a lighter more crisp cookie.
As I stood by and watched I was amazed that the women could meticulously insert the small fortune and fold the cookie twice while wearing the thick protective gloves that are needed to keep their fingertips from burning. The cookies are baked at the high temperature of 400 degrees. While the factory has one part-time employee who can quickly fold each and every cookie as it rotates by, most employees shift between folding cookies and simply removing the flat round ones for specific orders.
So while the origin of the fortune cookie is a bit of a mystery, there is no doubt that people young and old love the sound of the crack as one is opened up to see what good fortune awaits. I left The Fortune Cookie Factory with a couple of bags in hand. My family and I enjoyed a few after dinner that evening and both my husband and I exclaimed, “these are really good!” The quality is spot on and I now understand how and why this historic business in Oakland’s Chinatown has kept its doors open for so many years. I now notice their cookies proudly on display inside the doors of our local Farmer Joe’s Marketplace; a new treat to add into the rotation for my kids. I only hope that someday, as they step off the bus for a field trip, they will get to add the experience of this wonderful local spot to their own memory banks.
For more information about The Fortune Cookie Factory, including how to order and daily tours, please visit their website here.
All photos by Adrienne Schell, please do not use without permission.