It sounds touristy, but it is nothing like that. The Fortune Cookie Factory, also knows as the Chinese Cookie Factory, the Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory, or anything similar depending on the current sign, is on edge of Philadelphia’s Chinatown at the far end of Ninth Street, away from the central tourist area. And its purpose is clearly to make fortune cookies, not to entertain tourists.
All you see from the outside is a plain door with the name above. The cracked storefront window patched with duct tape is blocked inside by stacks of large corrugated cartons labeled with Chinese characters. Open the door, and it still does not look promising. Slide past the stacks of cartons and you will be at a plain wooden counter. The entire factory is about the size and shape of a single-car garage and just as dark. Tiny businesses just like this are common all throughout China. The space behind the counter is crowded with clattering black machinery tended by two or three women squinting in the unaccustomed sunlight coming through the open doorway.
But you will be greeted by a very friendly Chinese woman who will happily sell you large, clear plastic bags of the rejects sitting on the counter for the ridiculously low price of $1.50. These are malformed cookies with and without fortunes, but they taste just as delicious as the perfect ones. You can also buy the fortune cookies in the unfolded, round form (no fortune) that resemble Italian pizzelles. I call them “flatties” because they do not seem to have an official name. Flatties are more compact to carry home. There is no weight nor nutritional values on the bags, but you are certainly getting a bargain, and if you are concerned about nutrition, you are in the wrong store.
They can make special batches with your own fortunes, as for a wedding or birthday. Like most Chinese businesses, they will try to accommodate customer’s requests with the motto, “If you got the money, honey, I got the time.” (“But when you run out of money, I run out of time.”) That’s a 1950’s C&W song, not about fortune cookies.
A few years ago, I caused a panic when I asked if I could take a photograph of the process. Five women ran out the back door while another jumped up waving her arms shouting, “No photo! No photo!” Today, they do not mind.
I once asked why they had so many rejects and was told the folding process is very sensitive to temperature and humidity. Too cool and they will not fold, too hot and they will slump. Each day requires a different adjustment. The machinery is very old and came from Portugal, not China.
The familiar fortune cookie as we know it was invented in America in the beginning of the twentieth century, probably by an American-Japanese, and is unknown in China except as a novel American confection. Like the hot dog and the ice cream cone, many claim to be the inventor.
Note 4/24/2016: The Fortune Cookie Factory is still there and now looks much better. Here is a photo from last February. Inside now looks more like a regular store, and no one runs out the back. The window has been fixed. The bags of flatties and rejects can be seen on a shelf inside the door. They now call the flatties “pancakes.” That is my reflection in the left window taking the photo with my tablet.
Note 1/21/2017: As I walked up 9th Street, today, I could see the same yellow sign, but the windows were dark. The factory was clearly closed. I shielded my eyes and peered in through the window. It was empty, except for moving dollies and cleaning supplies scattered on the bare floor. The clattering machinery was gone. The wooden counter was gone. The corrugated cartons were gone.The friendly woman manager was gone. Someone had put their time and money into fixing up the place, but it failed anyway. I suspect it was too far from the tourist area. Maybe it will reopen under new management, but I doubt it. The machinery was heavy and difficult to keep adjusted. And where do you get new fortune cookie folding machinery? The Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory was not so lucky after all. I was the lucky one to have discovered it in its heyday.
I never dreamed I would outlive the store. It seemed eternal.