South-Central PA has several different snack-food companies (making things like pretzels, chips, and so on), and a few of them offer factory tours. We visited the Utz factory and the Snyder (of Hanover) factory.
The Utz factory makes potato chips, while the Snyder factory makes a whole bunch of different snacks (but primarily pretzels). The Utz factory is much smaller and offers a self-guided tour with recordings to listen to at several different stops along the assembly line. The Snyder factory requires you to make reservations 24-hours in advance (which we didn’t do), and they provide a guide for groups of about 20 people or so.
I really enjoyed the Utz tour a lot more than the Snyder tour. I guess one of the things I liked was that it was self-guided, and therefore self-paced. I could spend as much time as I wanted at any particular spot on the line. I was particularly fascinated to see the automated process of unloading raw potatoes from a truck. I was also interested in the process they have developed to screen their chips for quality control. Some chips turn out darker than is acceptable (to Utz), and they have a machine that optically scans each and every chip and blows the darker ones off the main line, rejecting them.
One of the things that surprised me to learn, but which makes total sense, is that they have to use smaller potatoes to make the chips for vending-machine-sized bags of chips. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but I guess I assumed that these were the same chips as are in the full-sized bags. But the small bags wouldn’t accommodate large chips very well. So they use small potatoes, resulting in small chips for the small bags. Interesting!
I was also interested to learn about how they get their potatoes. Starting in May, they buy potatoes from Florida. As the spring and summer progress, they get fresh potatoes from locations further and further north along the Atlantic seaboard. By August and September they are buying from the local farmers. As they move into later September they are buying from growers in New York and New England. During early fall they are filling their warehouses so that they have an uninterrupted supply of potatoes to take them from late September into May of the next year.
As I was watching people working on the assembly line I was thinking about the complaint that we seem to be hearing more and more frequently about the income gap between “workers” and “management.” I was thinking about the complexity of the machinery needed to run these factories, and the responsibilities that management carries to ensure that everything keeps running smoothly and that the company stays profitable. If an assembly line worker has a bad day and makes a few mistakes, there may be a few bags of chips that turn out wrong. If the CEO has a bad day and makes some bad decisions, everyone’s job is put in jeopardy. When the CEO does her or his job well, the entire population of workers is kept safely employed for the long term. Maybe I’m ignorant, but it seems fine to me that the CEO makes a bunch more money than the assembly line workers.