At Hershey's Chocolate World in Hershey, Pa., visitors can make their own candy bars using factory equipment. Originally designed as a "worker's paradise" by founder Milton Hershey, the company town has become a tourist destination.
At Hershey's Chocolate World in Hershey, Pa., visitors can make their own candy bars using factory equipment. Originally designed as a "worker's paradise" by founder Milton Hershey, the company town has become a tourist destination. Jamie Tarabay/NPR
Imagine Google wrapped in chocolate.
What the Internet giant is to its employees today — the extra benefits, the comfy workspace — Hershey was a hundred years ago.
A theme park, a theater, low-rent housing and cheap public transportation were all things Milton Hershey brought to the dairy region of Pennsylvania when he created Hershey, the chocolate center of America.
At the heart of the town was the chocolate factory, a brown brick building nestled in the shadows of two smokestacks, where cocoa goodness wafted out into streets and homes.
That factory on the corner of Chocolate and Cocoa avenues, however, will soon be closing, and the chocolate making will move to another facility being built just outside the town.
The Hershey Co. says it needs to close the historic factory, and cut 500 jobs, to remain competitive in the global market.
A Worker's Paradise
When Milton Hershey broke ground on this factory in 1903, he saw more than smokestacks and a brick building.
"He didn't build a factory and say, 'Oh, what do I need to do with my workers? I'll build a town,' " says Pam Whitenack, head of archives at the Hershey museum. "They went hand-in-hand and were developed simultaneously."
Visitors enter Hershey's Chocolate World in Hershey, Pa.
Visitors enter Hershey's Chocolate World in Hershey, Pa. Carolyn Kaster/AP
Whitenack says Hershey wanted to give his workers more than a paycheck. He wanted to create a worker's paradise. Inspired by another famous chocolate maker of his day, Cadbury, in England, Hershey provided amusement parks, community centers and family events.
A lot has changed. At Hershey's Chocolate World, visitors can make their own candy bars. The amusement park and other recreational activities Hershey originally built for his workers now cater to tourists. The chocolate factory is no longer the biggest employer in town; the Hershey Medical Center is. The number of workers who actually make chocolate continues to shrink.
"You know, they put in new equipment that ran faster, took less people to operate. It was shrinking because of that," says Dennis Bomberger, a union representative. Bomberger started working at Hershey in 1967. He was 18 years old and made Hershey's Kisses.
Bomberger explains how they're produced. "It's on a belt, and the molding thing goes down on the belt, and it basically lifts away from the belt. And, you know, as it pulls away, it gets in the shape of the kiss," he says. "The new plant is going to be making them exactly the same way. It's just newer equipment."
Hershey is spending $300 million on a new facility being built just outside town. Six-hundred workers from the old factory will move there; the rest are being replaced by machinery. Hershey is reshaping itself to fend off global competition. It has a huge new competitor in Kraft, which recently bought the British Cadbury company.
Bomberger understands why the historic factory has to close. It's old and cannot accommodate new equipment.
"The ceilings are low, and they do have a lot of columns .. they'd have to go around," he says, "not that I don't think they could run this plant."
Standing near a ticket counter at Hershey's Chocolate World, company spokesperson Kirk Saville says Hershey is doing this to stay competitive.
"We're creating a cost-effective, efficient facility that will enable us to compete with global players and meet the needs of customers and our consumers," Saville says.
Hershey had wanted to move production out of the Pennsylvania town altogether but decided to keep it here when the union agreed to the job cuts.
That's small consolation to some workers.
At the Parkside Grill, where factory workers come at the end of their shifts for the barbecue sandwiches and beer, the mood is one of uncertainty. It's still unclear who will stay and who will lose their jobs. There has already been one round of voluntary buyouts.
"I hate to say it, but I think Milton's probably turning over [in] his grave, seeing things that have happened in the last few years," says Bob Laird, a local businessman whose fiancee works at the factory.
Laird sees the factory closure and job cuts as a sign of corporate greed, and says it's a rejection of Milton Hershey's original vision of providing for his workers. Hershey biographer Michael D'Antonio disagrees.
"Poor Milton Hershey has been turning in his grave so many times since he died that I imagine he's quite worn out," he says. "He understood that all things change."
D'Antonio says the legendary confectioner was, after all, a businessman and made decisions based on the market and the bottom line.