A daughter once skeptical of her family's Howard County-based fortune cookie business is now leading its successful online venture

Cracking the cookie market

December 23, 2005|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

Each time Chisin Yeung presented a business scheme to his teenage children, they were careful to respond respectfully, even if they dreaded his ideas.

But when Yeung announced more than a decade ago that the family would launch a fortune cookie factory in Howard County, his daughter Ashley could no longer hold back her discontent. While her three siblings accepted Chisin Yeung's grooming them for the family venture, Ashley Yeung embarked on a finance career in Hong Kong.

"I thought he was crazy; we didn't know anything about fortune cookies," she said. "I did everything I could to avoid joining the business. He's such a hard worker, and he never stops. I guess I didn't want to live my life that way."

Despite Ashley Yeung's skepticism, the cookies became a huge success. And today, the most reluctant of business partners is leading the newest division of the family enterprise, putting her own spin on the tradition.

The Lucky Fortune Cookie Inc. may be the only fortune cookie manufacturer in Maryland and one of a handful on the East Coast. And Ashley Yeung's online Fortune Cookie Depot, which started three years ago, is among a new crop of custom cookie sellers.

The cookies used in both businesses are made in a nondescript warehouse in Jessup, with a sign so small it's easy to pass it by.

On a recent afternoon, the scent of sweet dough wafts through the chilly stockroom, where cookie boxes are stacked to the rafters. In the production area, a handful of workers shuttle among seven cast-iron machines. Surrounded by sacks of sugar and tubs of the pancake-like batter lies the company centerpiece: a trailer-sized steel contraption that produces 8,000 perfectly folded cookies an hour.

The batter is pumped into the machine, where it is molded, shaped and cooked into toasted disks resembling sugar cookies. The wafers are carried down a metal slide, then the fortunes are slipped in before the cookies are pressed and transferred into a box.

The fortunes themselves, lottery numbers included, are purchased from a wholesaler in Atlanta. The Yeungs estimate that nationwide, most of the tiny slips of paper containing pithy and sometimes not-so-clever sayings come from a handful of producers.

Lucky Fortune's biggest client is a wholesale distributor in New York, which sells the cookies to restaurants around the country. Every week the company purchases a trailer-full of cookies, some 700,000 crispy treats.

If the production process is dull, the Internet arm of the business is its stylish cohort. Fortunecookiedepot.com offers cookies in eight flavors, including raspberry and pina colada, and specializes in customized orders, popular with wedding proposals and trade shows. Recently, the company completed an order for Southwest Airlines for a half-million cookies used for a promotion at 22 airports, Ashley Yeung said.

The cookies cost pennies to produce, but for a small operation, earning a profit depends on establishing regular customers. The profits are small and the competition fierce. There are many established factories that have produced the after-dinner treats for decades.

Ashley Yeung, 34, looks back on the early days with awe.

"The first two years were the hardest," she said. "It was a nightmare. You're short on inventory, short on money, you need to go to everybody's door and make a good impression and make sales, but, meanwhile, you don't have any money yet."

Not that Ashley Yeung did any of the grueling early work. When her parents launched the business in 1993, she was a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Younger sister Sue was attending the University of Maryland. So it was brother Allen and oldest sister Jennifer who took cues from their parents to lay the foundation.

But no one really knew where to start. Chisin Yeung, who moved the family from Hong Kong to the United States in 1986, did not speak fluent English. For years he operated a wholesale noodle company in Baltimore, but he hoped the cookie business would have a wider appeal.

The family started with one cookie machine and a rough recipe. But no one understood how to use the device, and the dough never seemed to come out right.

"I remember going to the supermarket to get the right ingredients to make the right cookie," said Jennifer Yeung, 36. "Sometimes I can't believe my father. He didn't know how to start. But he stuck to the idea."

The Yeungs were all born in China, spending 10 years in Hong Kong before moving to the United States. But none of them had a clue about how to make the "Chinese" dessert.

After all, fortune cookies are a purely American invention, dating back about 100 years. The origins, however, have been hotly debated. San Francisco lays claim to creating them in 1909, while some believe a Chinese-American restaurateur in Los Angeles invented the cookie in 1918, inserting Scripture inside and passing them out to the poor.

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