A fortune in cookies

This thriving business is going Wong's way

I meet Derrick Wong, vice president of sales and marketing for Wonton Food Inc., and Richard Leung, a salesperson, in front of an anonymous-looking warehouse in Queens, New York. Though Wong is diminutive and Leung is bullish, they both wear polo shirts with chinos. Through the warehouse doors, there are boxes as far as the eye can see, stacked in pallets from the floor to the 30-foot ceiling, being transferred from place to place by an unsmiling carrier via forklift. There must be thousands of boxes in this 9,500-square-foot space. What is more astounding than sheer volume are the contents: fortune cookies.

For the believers among us, contemplating all of those fortunes in all of those boxes presents a conundrum. It's difficult enough at a Chinese restaurant to try to discern "which one is meant for me," but in the presence of millions of fortunes, the question takes on greater, existential proportions.

Nothing gets in the way of your vision of yourself in the future.
Next time you eat Chinese, pay attention to the cookie wrapper. You may very well find that the brand is Golden Bowl, a division of Wonton Food Inc., the largest producer of fortune cookies on the East Coast, and possibly in the country. This Queens facility produces cookies 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just trying to keep up with current demand. According to Leung, there has been significant growth of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. in recent years. As astonishing as it may seem, these guys produce and move 4 million cookies every day.

"This whole thing could only last us one and a half days," says Leung, motioning to the towers of cookies in our midst. "If a trailer doesn't come for one day, we're in trouble."

The dusty interior of the Golden Bowl offices resembles some kind of social club: dirty linoleum, fake wooden desks, garishly colored Chinese calendars, chimes, and basketball posters. For Wong, a mild-mannered man in his thirties, this is a family business. His uncle started Wonton Food Inc. as a noodle company and Asian dry-goods importer in 1973 on East Broadway in Manhattan.

Change is happening in your life, so
go with the flow!
In 1982, Wong's family, led by father Foo Kam, immigrated to the States from the Guong Zhou region of southern China and joined their uncle's business. In 1983, Wonton entered the cookie racket when it took over a small factory in Chinatown, moving its operation to Queens by 1984. Since the first 1,000-square-foot factory, the size has increased almost tenfold. Growth is due in large part to the work of Foo Kam and a team of designers that managed to build equipment that dramatically increased the volume of cookie production. The original factory's machinery was designed in such a way that only one cookie could be made at a time. The newer mechanism, still in use, allows for row upon row of fortune cookies to be made simultaneously.

Golden Bowl's operation is entirely automated. A batter of mostly flour, eggs, and sugar is mixed upstairs and transported through a pipe into the main facility, which feeds a machine that releases drops of batter onto heated plates on which the cookies bake like pancakes. A fortune is deposited onto the still-soft cookie disk that is then folded mechanically into its claw-like shape. This entire process happens almost instantaneously. The cookies are made in four flavors: citrus; the East Coast favorite, vanilla; the West Coast favorite, chocolate; and "fun fun fortune cookie," a novelty cookie that combines all three flavors. The idea for the citrus cookie, says Wong, came from the orange wedges served at the end of the meal in many Chinese restaurants.

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Wonton Food may have started as a Chinese business, but it has evolved into a Chinese American one, a distinction that Wong makes readily. Their main products - chow mein noodles, fortune cookies, and a pre-assembled vegetable mixture for egg rolls - are all Chinese foodstuffs that cater to the American market. (Wonton even supplies noodles for the military's MRE meals. "Before we were going to Iraq, there was an increase in the order, and we got a letter from the government saying that no matter what, they needed us to be able to fill it," says Leung.)

While the roots of fortune cookies can be traced back to 14th-century China as a clandestine form of communication - Chinese soldiers transferred secret messages via moon cakes - the likelier origins were American. In 1918, David Jung, a noodle manufacturer in Los Angeles, handed out cookies that contained uplifting messages as a promotional gimmick. To this day the tradition persists. Golden Bowl has more than 400 distributors, selling their cookies all over the U.S., in Puerto Rico, Canada, and Europe.

All the effort you are making will ultimately
pay off.
In 1995, Golden Bowl tried, and failed, to sell fortune cookies in China.

"In the U.S.," says Wong, in faintly accented English, "people look for the cookie after the bill, and they ask for the cookie if they don't get it."

Wong claims that the company was the first to print lucky numbers on the backs of fortunes, and one of the first to feature "Learn Chinese." Golden Bowl also does personalized fortunes and advertisements. When asked how that works, Leung explains, "On the back we'll have a message that says you'll meet a dark and handsome stranger and so on and so forth," says Leung, "and on the back we'll have `a website`."

You will soon discover how fortunate
you truly are.
The engineers at Golden Bowl also designed and built their own fortune presses, which print 80 messages at a time (40 plates, one message on each side) in food-grade ink, producing hulking scrolls of fortunes chubbier than paper towel rolls.

So, where do the fortunes come from? As one might suspect, Golden Bowl writes their own and hires freelancers to help them. Their criteria? "Basically it's got to be happy," says Leung. "It's got to have some kind of meaning to it. Most , it cannot be offensive."

This story originally appeared in New York Press and is distributed by Featurewell.com.

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