Vibrations from the heavy machines made the floor beneath our feet rumble. Through the plate-glass windows, we could see giant machines at work, sprinkling salt on potato chips and weighing pretzels before they were placed in bags.
Our guide at the Snyder's of Hanover factory in Hanover, Pa., Chris Long, showered us with facts and tidbits as we watched the high-tech process of creating snack foods.
We learned, for example, that Snyder's has about 1,000 employees and that the journey from raw flour to finished pretzel takes about 45 minutes. We learned that pretzel dough gets pretzel-shaped by being pushed through metal with pretzel-shaped cut-outs.
But mostly, my fellow tour-takers and I watched the machines. We saw raw potatoes bobbing in a whirlpool of water that scrubbed off their dirt and skins. We saw machines that sliced the potatoes, and machines that added seasonings.
We saw fryers that held 1,500 gallons of cottonseed oil, and pretzel ovens that were 150 feet long. We saw potato chips and pretzels bouncing gently along conveyor belts to weighing buckets. And we saw the finished and weighed chips being sealed into plastic bags.
York County specialty
Hanover and the surrounding area in south-central Pennsylvania boasts an impressive concentration of snack-food factories, and many are open for tours.
"There's quite a history of snacks and snack food" in the area, said Anne Druck, president of the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "You don't go wanting for a chip in York County, that's for sure."
At Snyder's, tours attract about 200 visitors a week in the summer, Long said. "We get everyone from senior bus tours down to preschoolers."
People are amazed that so much machinery is needed to make something as simple as a potato chip, he added.
The Snyder's and Utz factories, both in Hanover, offer free snacks at the end of the tour. Other factory tours allow snacks to be sampled hot off the assembly line. Either way, the tours provide a fun glimpse of how snack foods are produced.
It's mesmerizing to watch the geometric rows of pretzels emerge from the oven, or to see bags of chips mechanically sealed at lightning speed. In fact, much of the process takes place with little human intervention, except when it's time to pack the bags into cardboard boxes for storage and shipping.
The Utz potato chip factory, a few miles from Snyder's, offers self-guided tours. Known as the "chip trip," the tour guides visitors with videos and audio explanations of what they are seeing. As you walk along, push a button marked "warehouse," for example, and you will watch boxes being transported along conveyor belts as you learn that organized in the room below are more than 150 different Utz products and package styles.
The tour begins when you park alongside the giant delivery trucks in the factory parking lot. Inside, you're surrounded by the smell of potatoes and oil as you come upon photos of Bill and Salie Utz, who started the company in 1921.
As at Snyder's, the tour takes place on elevated walkways. From behind glass, you watch as potatoes are washed, sliced, fried, seasoned and packaged. You can see the entire production process in order, from raw potato to boxed finished product.
So how did this area become a geographic center for snack-food manufacturing? Nobody knows for sure.
Agriculture doesn't explain it. Though Snyder's makes a point of noting that all its pretzel flour comes from within a 25-mile radius, the potatoes for chips come from Georgia and the Carolinas.
"I don't know if I can give you specific reasons," said Druck, of the convention and visitors bureau. "A lot of people say it's the large influx of Germanic people," and also the fact that the area is close to major population centers such as Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia.
(More than snack foods are made here. York County is home to Harley-Davidson, as well as many other manufacturing companies. In 2000, the county began marketing the region as the Factory Tour Capital of the World.)
According to Ann Wilkes, spokeswoman for the Snack Food Association, potato chips were invented in Saratoga, N.Y., in 1853, by a chef at a posh resort. The chips made their way onto the menu, and then were packaged and sold as Saratoga Chips.
Before long, entrepreneurs in Pennsylvania used their Pennsylvania Dutch cooking skills and entrepreneurial energy to create their own versions of the chips.
Pretzels have a much longer history, dating to southern France or northern Italy in 610 A.D., Wilkes said. "The reason it's twisted - that represents arms praying, and monks made it as a reward for kids who were saying their prayers."
In 1861, Sturgis, which is near Hanover in Lititz, Pa., became the first commercial pretzel bakery in the United States. Another local company, the Reading Pretzel Machinery Co., invented the pretzel-twisting machine in 1935.
Getting there: Driving from Baltimore to Hanover, take I-83 north to Exit 31, Middletown Road, then drive toward Middletown. This will become Route851. About 3 miles into Pennsylvania, turn onto Blooming Grove Road (Route 216), which leads to Hanover.
Snyder's of Hanover, 1350 York St., Hanover, PA 17331
717-632-4477, Ext. 8592
Free guided tours are offered Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Make tour reservations at least 24 hours in advance.
Utz, 900 High St., Hanover, PA 17331
Open for free, self-guided tours Mondays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. No reservations required.
Sturgis Pretzel House, 219 East Main St., Lititz, PA 17543
Tours offered Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $2. Visitors can roll a pretzel from dough, and can eat a soft pretzel right off the assembly line.
Herr's, 20 Herr Drive, Nottingham, PA 19362
Free hourlong tours Mondays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Reservations are requested. At the end of the tour, you can eat warm chips off the assembly line.
Martin's Potato Chips, 5847 Lincoln Highway West, Thomasville, PA 17364
Free guided tours on Mondays at 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Call for a reservation.