People who have visited the Dreyer’s Ice Cream manufacturing plant in Union City say the experience is like being on the set of the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And after seeing that childhood classic, who hasn’t wanted to fly around with a lovably nutty and wild-haired dessert mogul such as the one played by Gene Wilder? Unlike Willy Wonka’s famed chocolate and confectionery company, one does not need a golden ticket to gain entry to the offices of Dreyer’s — all you have to do is call the main office and leave a message for a guy named Steve.
Dreyer’s, it turns out, is not very similar to the place at the heart of that magical musical. It looks like a suburban office park, and the singing and dancing Oompa Loompas have been replaced by hairy, hard-hat-wearing Teamsters with butt cleavage. Nonetheless it remains an attraction for anyone vaguely interested in the production or consumption of ice cream. Taking the two-dollar tour on one recent morning were ten very excited seven-year-old consumption experts from Walnut Creek, who were accompanied by four bored-looking moms who looked like they’d rather be listening to Dr. Laura.
When Ryan, the lab-coat-attired tour guide, who looked more like Lee Atwater than Gene Wilder, came out and introduced himself, it cheered up the kids, who were growing tired of kicking rocks around in the parking lot. Ryan lined us up in a straight line and made us promise not to push, dance, sing, or scream. Most of us even agreed to abide by the rules. To anyone whose primary interest here was the consumption and not production of ice cream, the beginning of the tour was boring. But either my young companions were actually interested in the history of Dreyer’s, or they all were given Ritalin just prior to the tour. Either way, there was hardly any fidgeting or yawning. The kids hung on Ryan’s every word.
We walked up a flight of stairs and were shown a jolly mural with an artists’ rendition of Dreyer’s founding fathers. The smiling visages were those of William Dreyer, a German immigrant, and Joseph Edy, his business partner. We learned that Dreyer’s was first located on Grand Avenue in Oakland and that its doors first opened in 1928. We were informed that Dreyer’s is the number-one packaged ice cream in the United States but is sold under the “Edy’s” brand name east of the Mississippi, because of the competing ice cream brand known as “Breyer’s.” Dreyer’s makes ice cream for Starbucks, Mars candy, the Healthy Choice line, and Godiva chocolate. The first flavors it ever sold were vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, and in 1929 it invented the flavor Rocky Road. With the Great Depression right around the corner, this turned out to be a prescient name.
We were shown a large window that looked into the packing room. Hundreds of cartons of ice cream zoomed past on the conveyor belt. Pointing to a large machine, Ryan said, “That’s the metal detector. Who knows why we have that?” Although no one raised their hand, several of the boys stared at the device with longing and fascination. “That’s there just in case there’s a piece of metal that falls into the ice cream,” Ryan explained. “We wouldn’t want to eat that, would we?” The children shook their heads in agreement, but several looked as if they might burst into tears when the device failed to detect any foreign objects. All of us immediately began imagining what would have happened if only Dreyer’s had been considerate enough to place some kind of fun metal object in one of the ice cream containers — a stray bolt perhaps, or a big bloody machete.
After the tour, we were led downstairs to the “scoop room,” which was an ice cream parlor with about twenty tables and an entertainment center that held a large TV set and VCR. Could this be the moment we were all waiting for? Tragically, Ryan then switched on the TV and we were treated to the propaganda, er, educational video — “From Moo to You.” There was footage of a cow being milked, trucks going to and from the plant, and a guy stocking Dreyer’s at a Safeway. Then the camera panned to the official Dreyer’s taster, a man with an oddly maniacal grin.
Finally, Ryan informed us that we were allowed to have two scoops of the regular ice cream and a special bonus of some freshly made mint chocolate chip ice cream that had not yet been frozen. The children — well, you can imagine — stampeded over to the ice cream counter and shouted out their requests. Cotton candy was the big favorite, although it’s not clear whether this was because it’s not yet available in stores or because the idea of simultaneously eating candy and ice cream was irresistible to the kids. Subscribing to the latter rationale, Food Fetish ordered one scoop each of cotton candy and dulce con leche. The swirly purple-and-pink cotton candy ice cream was pretty, and not as gross as expected. The dulce con leche was okay, but lacked the creamy butterfat taste of Häagen-Dazs. The mint ice cream was lusciously soft and tasted homemade. Meanwhile, the calorie-counting moms decided that they would rather have sorbet, thanks so much. Soon the room was filled with that ominous silence that occurs before a bunch of kids start freaking out from consuming too much sugar.
After the ice cream was eaten, Ryan announced that he would field questions from the audience. Hands were eagerly raised. “Can I have some more ice cream?” was the first question. “No,” Ryan blurted. “Next question?”
“Okay, how do you get to be the CEO?” demanded one ambitious if slightly scary little boy. “That job’s been filled,” Ryan replied. “Okay, I have time for just a few more questions.” Would-be CEO waggled his hand frantically in the air once more. “Pick me, pick me,” he demanded, in a voice straight from The Omen. Our patient host called again on the frantic lad. “Okay, my question is sort of weird,” warned the future Kenneth Lay or Antichrist. “If Dreyer’s made a metal ice cream, would the metal detector go off?”
Ryan thoughtfully stroked his chin as if he was thinking: “Oh God, not the metal-flavored ice cream question again.” Then, with eerie calm, he replied, “You know, that will never, ever happen because there will never, ever be a metal-flavored ice cream so we don’t have to worry about that. Uh, I’ll take the next question.”
A little blond-haired boy tentatively raised his hand. “What happens if something … like maybe a big piece of metal … falls into some of the ice cream?” he asked excitedly. The room erupted into hysterical giggles, as if cracking a tooth on a piece of industrial equipment would be even more hilarious than all the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons combined. Our brave tour guide sighed and looked like he needed an Excedrin Migraine in the worst way. A very long and tiresome explanation about CAL-OSHA rules and unions and safety requirements in the workplace ensued.
The Q&A was taking a weird turn. The more questions asked about imaginary metal ice cream and metal detectors meant that there would be precious little time for other, more important, adult questions, namely “What is the weirdest ice cream flavor Dreyer’s ever came up with?” which is precisely what Food Fetish wanted to ask. Ryan, as if psychic, suddenly announced that the weirdest ice cream flavor Dreyer’s ever sold was made with chocolate and chiles. The kids screamed “Eew!” in unison, but Food Fetish remembers that flavor fondly.
So Food Fetish moved on to other pressing questions related to the contest where children think up their own flavors. What were some of the most, uh, creative flavors ever invented? Ryan looked nervous, as if he had been sworn never, ever to speak of such scatological flavors such as scab, booger snot, poo poo, or pee pee ice creams or else he’d be sent to the Dreyer’s jail. “Hey, you know what?” he suddenly announced, a little too happily. “The tour’s about over.”