Ever wonder how the fortune gets into the fortune cookie? How toothpaste gets into the tube? Or how sheet metal is welded into a shiny new car or motorcycle? Having traveled thousands of miles and personally visited hundreds of factory tours since 1992, we invite you to explore some manufacturing mysteries of the world. Since most of the tours are free, and many give free samples, factory tours and company museums remain the best vacation value in America. Come along for the ride!
The Toronto Star featured an article on me and some of the factory tours I have written about. I am quoted in a CNN Travel feature about nine great factory tours. We also wrote an article for the magazine Leisure Group Travel and was mentioned in Travel & Leisure.
I also have a podcast where I explore local Massachusetts business and find out how their products are made!
Your guide to factory tours,
Author and Factory Tour Consultant
During a week spent in Quito, Ecuador, we took a day trip to Mindo, a small town in the cloud forest of the Andean foothills. Located about two hours by car from Quito, Mindo is a convenient outpost for adventurous ecotourism. Popular activities there include hiking, rafting, tubing, rock-climbing, ziplining, mountain biking, birding, butterfly observing, and “herping” (reptile-watching).
My daughter had already visited Mindo with friends while spending a college semester in Quito, so she was the perfect guide. We spent the morning observing and learning about the area's dozens of hummingbird species from a man who planted a small forest with hummingbirds' favorite plants.
The focus of our visit was El Quetzal de Mindo, a lodge and restaurant with its own chocolate factory. Before seeing the chocolate-making operation, we lunched in the small, quirky eatery, conveniently located across from the El Quetzal factory. Amid the restaurant's vibrant decorations, we had local quinoa in every form imaginable—from quinoa burgers to quinoa juice to quinoa soup to quinoa pudding. All of the offerings there are vegetarian and vegan, which was perfect for my animal-loving and environmentally friendly children.
The Chocolate Tour at El Quetzal de Mindo
El Quetzal offers tours of its chocolate-making process—from bean to bar—as well as a high-end gift shop, restaurant, bar, and lodge. The tours cost about $10 per person, are offered in English or Spanish, and run seven days a week, 9:00am–5:00pm.
Early in the tour, our guide cracked open a cocoa pod to show us its fleshy seeds and introduced us to the plant on which cocoa pods grow.
We then saw (and smelled!) the fermentation of cocoa beans.
Next we saw thousands of cocoa beans laid out to dry.
After drying, small batches of cocoa beans are roasted to give them a caramelized, nutty flavor. Specialized metal machines and screens crack and winnow away the cocoa beans' thin shells, leaving behind the meaty cocoa nibs.
The cocoa nibs are then ground and refined into smooth, melted chocolate. The chocolate is then poured into molds and wrapped by hand in the delicious bars and novelty products that are sold in the company's gift stores and across the Andes.
To reward us for listening to the 40-minute tour without stuffing our faces with every bit of chocolate we laid eyes on, the tour guides offered all visitors a steaming cup of tea and the richest, most decadent chocolate brownie you could ever have. The brownie comes with a little cup of pure, unsweetened melted chocolate, to which you can add a variety of seasonings, including honey, salt, and chili. Chocolate enthusiasts are also offered trays with samples of different percentages of cacao, with a motley assortment of fillings and spices.
On a rainy, raw May afternoon, which felt more like winter than spring, I warmed up by taking the self-guided factory tour of Cape Cod Potato Chips. The company is located in Hyannis, Massachusetts, midway along the southern coast of Cape Cod. Its factory tour is, in fact, a great activity for any rainy day. (If you are on Cape Cod on March 14, you may want to make a special trip to tour the factory, as that date is both National Potato Chip Day and likely to be rainy in Massachusetts.)
As you enter the facility, an impression of the company’s history is immediate. On the left, a stained-glass panel in the window depicts a Cape Cod Potato Chip bag. On the right is an original Cape Cod Potato Chip bag, including its price sticker, from 1980. After answering any questions you may have about these interesting items, the receptionist who greets you asks you to sign in and then hands you a tour brochure before you get started.
Your self-guided tour occurs in a corridor running alongside the factory. Framed sketches and diagrams of the production process adorn the walls. Through the windows on your right, you can see the production activities themselves. Wearing hairnets (and even beardnets, where appropriate), employees are busy with a variety of production steps. Sliced potatoes tumble in hot oil. Chips glide upward on a conveyor belt to be salted. One worker randomly stabs potatoes with a knife and then cuts them in half. Not far away, another employee stands over the vibrating conveyor belt to spot and remove dark, blemished potato chips.
Some impressive miscellaneous facts:
At the end of the tour hallway, you reach a gift shop, where you can buy many varieties of potato chips, along with t-shirts, hats, and other Cap Cod Potato Chips merchandise. As a thank-you for your visit, you even get a free snack bag of chips.
During a recent trip to visit the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I made an excursion to take the Ford Rouge Factory Tour in Dearborn. While driving there from Ann Arbor on I-94, I knew I was near Detroit when I saw the famous Uniroyal Giant Tire (made for the 1964 New York World's Fair) at the side of the highway.
The Ford Rouge Factory Tour starts at the Henry Ford Museum, where you take the 12-minute bus ride to the Rouge plant. First, in the Legacy Theater, watch an 11-minute film chronicling the history of the Ford Motor Company, including rare archival footage. Learn that initially it took 12 hours to assemble a Model T car, known informally as Tin Lizzy. Famously, Henry Ford experimented with the movement of work to man rather than man to work—the advent of the assembly line. By 1915, it was taking only 53 minutes to put together a Model T.
The Station 2 Manufacturing Innovation Theater presents a loud, dramatic experience that seeks to replicate the feel of being on the Rouge factory floor. Bright lights flash. Stamping, booming sounds encompass you. The floor beneath you rumbles during the final testing. At the front of the theater, a model car rises from below the ground. Two robots, one on each side, demonstrate the steps of production.
Ride the elevator to the observation deck, 80 feet above the ground. In the distance, you can see the smokestacks of power stations that turn paint fumes into electricity. But not all is industrial. The Dearborn Truck Plant's final assembly building has a green, living roof. The sedum plants that grow there collect and filter the water runoff from storms or melting snow. The vegetation also provides habitats for nesting birds and keeps the factory and its surroundings cooler than they would be under a conventional roof made of synthetic materials. At 10.4 acres, Ford's green roof is one of the largest living roofs in the world.
I visited my daughter, Hilary, who is studying abroad this semester in Quito, Ecuador. We went to La Casa de Suizo, along the Napo River in the rainforest of eastern Ecuador. In addition to beautiful nature walks, delicious food, and a visit to an animal rescue center, we had the opportunity to visit an indigenous Quechua village. There we met friendly locals who taught us about their artisanal handcrafts.
Carving a falcon in wood takes a whole day. With a machete, Samuel rapidly swats at the soft, light balsam wood to create the general shape of a falcon. Once he has arrived at the rough shape, he switches to a carving knife. Seated, Samuel hunches over the balsam wood, which rests on the trunk pedestal. The wood is so soft and light that he almost effortlessly carves the beak, the claws, and the body of the falcon. After being baked to remove moisture from the wood, the carving is painted. Upstairs, you can purchase some of his art.
Ceramics is the work of mujeres — women, whose craft is taught when they are young girls. Wearing pink flip-flops and a floral tank top, Lourdes sits at a small wooden table and explains in Spanish her Quechua background and the importance of ceramics to the Quechua culture. Dipping her fingers in muddy water, she grabs a clump of gray clay (only small quantities of clay can be dug at one time from the nearby riverbanks).
She pats it back and forth between her hands to form a ball and then rolls it on the table to create a coil, tapping each end to flatten it. Then she rolls out another clay coil. Next she pokes a hole into the main ball and squeezes and presses the sides to form a very thin bowl. She wraps one coil along the top rim and squeezes and pinches it to adhere it to the bowl's rim. Then she attaches the second coil.
Once the bowl has dried, but before it has been fired, Lourdes dips a rock made of hardened colored clay in water and demonstrates the painting of red or black hues on the bowl. Using minuscule brushes made from black human hair, she paints intricate geometric patterns. After each cup air-dries for one day, to prevent cracking, it is placed on a handmade rack and baked over an open fire in the corner of the same room. You can purchase some of Lourdes' creations — $3 for a tiny bowl to $25 for larger, more intricately painted bowls. Exact change is much appreciated, as change is hard to obtain in Ecuador.