You can still find a bit of prophecy tucked into the golden fortune cookies made at Tsue Chong, the cookie-and-noodle factory in Seattle's International District. Unlike typical fortune-cookie messages...
You can still find a bit of prophecy tucked into the golden fortune cookies made at Tsue Chong, the cookie-and-noodle factory in Seattle’s International District.
Unlike typical fortune-cookie messages, which make generic observations about a person’s sunny personality or penchant for patience, Tsue Chong’s premonitions can veer into more specific territory.
“You will soon vacation in a place of cool climate,” reads one. “You will receive something unexpected in the mail,” predicts another.
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But the cookies can also state the obvious. “You love Chinese food,” one fortune says.
Reading too many can make your head spin. Timothy Louie, the fourth-generation Louie to run the company, said that though he likes eating the cookies, he never reads the messages inside.
When asked why not, he shook his head.
“Come on,” he said, and left it at that.
Such divinations are just business at Tsue Chong, a factory started in Seattle in 1917 by Timothy’s great-grandfather, Gar Hip Louie. Back then, Tsue Chong, which means “to gather prosperity,” made only noodles for the area’s restaurants and Asian community.
Even now, 75 percent of the business is noodles — 17 kinds, from fried chow mein to those so thin you can see the light through them. Timothy’s 80-year-old father, Henry Louie, still works with other men in the giant noodle-preparation rooms in the warehouse, flouring wide sheaths of dough and feeding them into giant flattening machines.
“He’s old school,” Timothy Louie said. “He wants to be out here, working with the employees.” Only five of the factory’s 30 employees are assigned to cookies. The rest make noodles.
Fortune cookies are pretty much an American creation, although legend says the idea originated in 13th or 14th century China, where people hid secret messages to each other in moon cakes to avoid detection during the Mongolian occupation.
Timothy Louie isn’t sure about that, but he does know that local demand for the cookies grew in the 1950s, which is when his family began making them at Tsue Chong. The company was already making and distributing noodles in the Northwest under the Rose Brand name, and it was easy to add cookies to the mix.
These days, the cookie-making is mostly done by women on the top floor of the factory, a crimson-colored building near Dearborn Street. Only six ingredients are needed: sugar, pastry flour, eggs, water, coconut-flavored shortening and butter-vanilla flavoring.
Tsue Chong has nine older cookie-making machines and a new, $400,000 industrial model imported from Japan. Each can drop a shot of batter on a three-inch griddle, fit a metal lid on top and send it down a runway of gas flames.
The cookies take just a few minutes to cook, and are flat as a pancake but still pliable when they come out. The machines place a small paper fortune on the piping hot wafer, fold the cookie in half and then half again, cool it and drop it into a box. They can make 8,000 cookies an hour.
Before the company automated the process, people did all of the folding and fortune insertions. A fast person could prepare 12 cookies every minute.
There are no highs and lows in the fortune-cookie business. Chinese restaurants need them throughout the year. Tsue Chong is trying to expand to grocery stores and drugstores, although the retail piece is still less than 10 percent of its business. It also makes cookies with different flavors, including mocha, lemon, mint and strawberry.
Its main customers are restaurants throughout the Northwest, including Alaska and Montana. Tsue Chong sells some 200 cases of cookies — 650 per case — every day, and also runs a small retail store on the same block as its three-story factory.
People have come to expect fortune cookies after Chinese meals, said Paul Lee, who owns the House of Hong restaurant in the International District. Lee said he prefers Tsue Chong’s cookies because they are consistently good, so much so that diners ask to order more. The cookies from other factories Lee has used sometimes were missing fortunes, and nothing says bad luck like a cookie with no promise.
“Everybody comes to a Chinese restaurant and at the end of the meal they want to have some fun,” he said.
Tsue Chong also customizes orders for weddings or corporate events. One company recently requested cookies with inspirational messages that read “Your amazing dedication is making other people examine their priorities,” and “You need to stop working and relax, baby!”
A customer planning a marriage proposal once asked Louie to wrap a diamond ring into a cookie. He did, but only with the man there watching the entire process.
Louie wanted to become an engineer when he began his studies at Whitworth College in 1979. But by the end of his second year, he decided to become involved in running the factory and switched to the University of Washington to study business.
The company could be his one day. For now, it belongs to the older generation — his father, two aunts and an uncle.
One aunt, Bessie Fan, said she likes making products that bring people happiness.
“It makes you feel like you’re building a community,” she said. “Let’s face it, food is a great community builder. It’s just like glue.”
Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or firstname.lastname@example.org