How did fortunes get into cookies?
QUEENS, N.Y. — You can’t hear much more than the racket of clanging machinery at Wonton Food’s fortune cookie factory here, which is a sprawling brick building that takes up an entire square block. In this place, 4 million cookies are churned out every day, each with a fortune tucked inside.
Dozens of workers in white caps tend the production line around the clock, six days a week at the world’s largest producer of fortune cookies. Demand is high. After all, what would dinner at a Chinese restaurant be like if the cookies, with their bits of wisdom and philosophy, didn’t arrive with the bill?
The family-owned-and-operated Wonton Food was founded by Ching Sun Wong, 78 and semi-retired, who was born in China’s Guangdong province and came to the United States in the 1960s. Ten years later, he opened Wonton Noodle Co., a basement factory with a shop upstairs, in New York’s Chinatown. After running it for 20 years, he bought a small Chinatown fortune cookie factory. “The equipment was old-fashioned,” says Wonton Food manager Weilik Chan. “We designed and made new machines ourselves.”
Hoses pipe bright orange batter into machines with nozzles that squirt biscuit-size dollops onto hot moving trays. Molding plates descend to flatten and shape the cookies, which bake for a minute. Machines slice slips of paper with printed fortunes from rolls on spools and place one on top of each cookie. Steel fingers then fold them into its butterfly shape.
The fortune cookies, packaged under the company’s Golden Bowl brand, account for a third of Wonton Food’s business. Its key products are noodles, wrappers, and skins for dishes like egg rolls, wontons, and dumplings. The headquarters and a noodle factory are located in Brooklyn, and in addition to the Queens cookie factory, there are three other factories in the United States. Products are sold around the country and overseas.
In the 1990s, Wonton Food opened a fortune cookie factory in China, and closed it not long after. “They don’t eat fortune cookies in China,” says Norman Wong, 39, company CEO and the founder’s son. “It’s an American invention. It was foreign to them.”
“Japanese immigrants brought a similar cookie to California in the 1900s and started selling them in San Francisco,” says Jennifer 8. Lee, author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.” “Many Japanese ran Chinese restaurants in the 1920s. By the end of World War II, they were perceived as a Chinese cookie.”
Fortune cookies have thrust Wonton Food in the headlines. The messages inside their bite-size desserts have a number sequence. In 2005, a combination of numbers from a cookie was a winning pick for a Powerball lottery with 110 people from around the country each winning hundreds of thousands of dollars. Suspicious at the high number of winners, lottery officials investigated, learning all the winners played numbers that came inside fortune cookies made by Wonton Food. “We were swamped with reporters,” says Wong. “We got a lot of coverage.”
The Wongs are frequently asked who comes up with a fortunes such as “A bargain is not a bargain unless you can use the product” or “To conquer your flaws you must first accept them.”
The words of wisdom, after all, are the biggest appeal. “Fortune cookies as a cookie are not awesome so it’s really the fact that the cookies are speaking to you,” says Lee. A company executive, Donald Lau, wrote the sayings for years until he stopped about a decade ago. “He said he had writer’s block,” says Wong. To keep the sayings fresh and current, the company has turned to freelance writers and online submissions from the public.
Last year, Wonton Food was in the news again when The New York Post, NPR, and others revealed that the company received letters and e-mails from parents complaining about romantic fortunes in their cookies. “It was nothing racy. ‘You’re going to have a new romance in the near future’ to us would seem a harmless message. But some parents didn’t want their children reading this,” says Wong. So staff combed through the database of fortunes, discarding ones that could be offensive.
“We’re constantly looking for better fortunes and to improve existing ones. It’s an ongoing process,” says Wong.
One reads like the family story: “Your spirit of adventure leads down an exciting path.”