“Today is a disastrous day.”
This tiny, printed pearl of doomsday wisdom used to pop cheerfully out of many a freshly snapped fortune cookie made by Wonton Food, the family-run, Asian epicurean empire operated on the eastern edge of Williamsburg. Others warned, “Time to get some professional help,” and “Your luck is just not there.” But like a recently dethroned Oprah book pick, these ominous observations have been anything but autobiographical.
Talk about good fortune. Thirty-five years ago, Ching Wong, then in his early 30s, immigrated from southern China and set up shop on East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown. There he and a few employees made wonton wrappers, lo mein and fried wonton strips, which he sold to restaurants and distributors along with imported cans of bamboo shoots, chestnut slices and the like.
By 1989 the business had outgrown its home, so he relocated to Brooklyn and his extended family arrived from China to help. Ten years later Wong built a fortune cookie factory just up the BQE. Today the business is the largest producer of crunchy bean sprouts, pliable wonton wrappers, crispy noodles and fortune cookies on the east coast. These days, those ubiquitous folded cookies bear positive pronouncements with as much hope as Obama oratory.
The Williamsburg factory operates around the clock, seven days a week. Amidst flour-dusted air heavy with the scent of fresh bean sprouts and frying dough, the staff churns out around 130,000 pounds of noodles and wonton wrappers a day—47 million pounds a year. Forests of tiny, pale bean sprouts grow in vats in the photosynthesis-unfriendly dark of a room lit only by small green lights, where sprinklers gently spray water from the ceiling above.
Katz’s Delicatessen once urged New Yorkers to “send a salami to your boy in the army,” but U.S. soldiers today are more likely to eat Wonton’s Brooklyn noodles as part of their daily ration. The military is one of Wonton’s biggest clients, which means, somewhere, General Petraeus may be tucking into a large meal of Williamsburg noodles right now.
“There are only a few certified military suppliers,” explains Derrick Wong, Ching’s nephew who began working at the factory at age 15 and today, 40, is vice president of sales and marketing. “They have their own tests and bring their people in to inspect, on top of regular health department inspections.” Exactly what the noodles are tested for is some sort of state secret. “They take our products to labs and don’t tell us anything except that we passed.”
In 1998 Wonton also counted McDonald’s as a client, when it was a good time for the great taste of Mulan-themed happy meals.
“The Mcdonald’s inspectors are even tougher than the government’s,” smiles Wong.
As for the fortune cookies, Wonton’s factory produces around five million prognostic sweets a day. Wong and a team of writers create the predictions; the head soothsayer is white, a tall, skinny, retired professor whose name Wong won’t reveal. Sometimes, Confides Wong, the professor writes something unsuitable, “Good for adults, but not for the kids.”
In addition to prophecy and motivation, each fortune lists six lucky numbers, which Wong and his staff select from a basket, and which sometimes guide cookie eaters’ lottery ticket purchases. In October 2005 there were 110 winners of the Power Ball lottery; each collected around $100,000 in prize money, and Wong claims they all used numbers from his fortunes. “I got a call from the lottery commission,” he remembers, “they had some questions for me.”
Wonton is the East Coast’s largest producer of bean sprouts, wonton wrappers, crispy noodles and fortune cookies. The Williamsburg factory operates around the clock, seven days a week.