Tom Mihalek  /  AFP
The Hershey Foods Corp. facility on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, PA.
By Travel columnist
updated 7/8/2005 4:21:30 PM ET 2005-07-08T20:21:30

There’s no denying it: Americans love food.

Every region of the country has its own specialties, from grits in the South or Dungeness crabs in Seattle to clam chowder in New England. If you’re traveling to those areas, you can also visit the factories where some of the United States’ most popular food is manufactured.

Tours of plants where food is made are a treat, both educational and entertaining (and often delicious with give-aways and samples). Here are seven places located across the country where you can see some of America’s favorites — everything from breakfast cereal to hot sauce, ice cream to soda pop, and chocolate bars to fortune cookies — being made.

Fortune cookie factory
261 12th Street, Oakland, Calif.,(510) 832-5552

Surprisingly, fortune cookies don’t come from China. China doesn’t even have fortune cookies. This staple of Chinese eateries was invented here in the States about 80 years ago to be a inexpensive dessert.

For those who believe that each individual fortune is meant especially for the person who cracks open that fortune cookie, a visit here will show how the fortunes get inside fortune cookies.

These cookies start with a batter, almost like pancake mix, which is injected into a fascinating machine that separates them into small round patties. The machine then rotates these baseball-sized patties through a hot oven. When they come out the other side, a worker picks up each of the still-pliable cookie, and inserts a fortune, randomly selected from his or her lap, in the middle and folds the cookie like a tiny taco. Then the worker bends the cookie around a steel rod and sends it off to dry.

The tour costs a $1 and you get a bag of fortune cookies (with your special fortunes) as a going-away gift.

Tabasco Sauce
McIlhenny Co., Avery Island, La., (318) 365-8173

Somehow it seems appropriate that Tabasco Sauce is made down in the bayous of Louisiana, on Avery Island, in the middle of steamy, exotic nature.

Visitors learn from a short video about the production the sauce. Tabasco peppers are grown in fields spread throughout the South, plus Central and South America and are cooked and blended here to create the familiar Tabasco sauce that can be found virtually everywhere. But how do they get the sauce in the bottles with the incredibly small spout? The unique bottling technique actually injects the sauce into the bottles.

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The visitors’ area is permeated by the pungent fragrance coming from the plant, prompting lots of questions among the crowd such as, “I wonder what it’s like inside on the other side of the windows?” and “How can they stand it!”

For an extra treat, McIlhenny Company also offers an exotic jungle garden with alligators, raccoons and bears and other wildlife.

Hershey’s Chocolate World
Hershey, Pa., (717) 534-4900

When they began, Hershey tours used to go right through the factory, but the popularity of this almost fantasy chocolate-making factory soon overwhelmed the capacity of the plant to support visitors. So today, the tour is through a virtual factory to show you how the candy in made.

After climbing into a cocoa-bean cart, the tour begins. Visitors ride along and see how the beans are roasted and how the center is extracted. Vats of oozing chocolate are almost too much of a good thing, and the air is filled with chocolate smells.

Hershey has added a new factory works attraction where visitors can make their own selection of chocolates and pack them up. This section of the tour requires advanced reservations and is normally set aside for groups.

While it’s not the real factory, you’ll know everything about chocolate when you are done. And, as a special treat at the end, everyone walks away with a handful of samples. And, because Hershey is such a popular stop for vacationers, there is far more than a day of other activities in this town dedicated to chocolate.

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream
Route 100, Waterbury, Vt., (866) BJ-TOURS

Way up in northern Vermont is the modern Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory. Tours are given every half hour and cost $2. Visitors get a couple of samples and a keepsake Ben and Jerry’s button.

Visitors see a video about how Ben and Jerry started their business in an old gas station after taking a correspondence course in how to make ice cream. Then you walk on catwalks above the factory floor where the popular ice cream is blended, frozen, has chunks added and is packed.

Celestial Seasonings Tea
4600 Sleepytime Drive, Boulder, Colo., (303) 581-1202

At the corner of Sleepytime Drive and Zinger Street, this factory produces more than a billion tea bags every year. The tour takes visitors through the entire tea experience. Visitors learn the tea storage is important — different flavors and fragrances shouldn’t mix. No visitor will even forget the peppermint room with its intense mint aroma.

The free tour goes through the selection process, the bagging process, the packaging process and the individually-wrapped bags are then boxed.

At Celestial Seasonings you even learn about the company’s marketing approach to selling tea. And the factory has a wonderful art gallery featuring many of the original designs for their colorful packaging.

Dr. Pepper Plant
221 South Patrick, Dublin, Tex., (254) 445-3939

This is one of the last remaining old-time bottling plants. Though the plant is open daily, the bottling line is only open on Wednesdays (call ahead to make sure the bottling day hasn’t changed). If the bottling line isn’t working, it isn’t as much fun or noisy.

This machine rumbles and clatters just like you might see in a cartoon. It appears to be held together by bailing wire and duct tape — it well may be since parts are rare. The smells of Dr. Pepper waft through the air.

The Dr. Pepper they make here is the authentic old stuff, made with pure cane sugar rather than with syrup. The old returnable bottles are a step back in time as are the wooden cases.

There is a great collection of Dr. Pepper memorabilia. The tour costs $2 and plan to stay about half an hour.

Kellogg’s Cereal City
171 West Michigan Avenue, Battle Creek, Mich., (616) 962-6230

Here at Kellogg’s Cereal City, visitors will find an amusement park as they learn all about making the breakfast foods that generations of Americans have enjoyed. The virtual tour, at $7.95 for adults and $4.95 for children 3 to 12, costs more than most factory tours, but some folks stay for hours going through the displays and watching vintage commercials.

Kellogg’s has gone the extra step in creating a virtual factory experience complete with factory aromas and swooping grain transport carts.

Visitors see how Corn Flakes are made — corn is cooked, tempered, separated into individual kernels, then pressed into Corn Flakes. They hear the history of Kellogg’s, they learn about marketing plans and the grand tour all finishes with a Froot Loop Sunday.

For more information on factory tours, check out Watch It Made in the U.S.A. by Karen Axelrod and Bruce Brumberg (Avalon Travel, $19.95).

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.

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