Family fortunes

Kenton Yee

Photo By Larry Dalton

Timing, they say, is everything. And a well-coordinated walk past New World Co. rewards passersby with a noseful of sweet, buttery, vanilla fragrance similar to the smell of waffle cones being prepared at an ice-cream parlor. The appetite-stimulating scent floats through the air on 10th Street, near the Fox & Goose, as the fortune-cookie bakery churns out 300,000 to 400,000 proverb-bearing treats each day. Kenton Yee, whose parents, Kenny and Yuk, bought the company 13 years ago, says his family doesn’t advertise. They rely on word of mouth and pedestrians to sustain their three-person business.

How are the cookies made?

The batter consistency is kind of like pancake batter. When it goes into our machines, it’s dispensed onto these flat trays, where it cooks in a circular oven. By the time it comes around the oven, it’s already cooked and pretty hardened. It’s flat and shaped like a pancake. It’s kind of scraped off that particular oven onto a different machine that uses air pumps to place the fortune onto the cookie while it’s still round, and while the cookie’s still hot, it’s able to pinch the corners and press down on it to get that shape.

What are the ingredients?

Basically, it’s just five ingredients: water, flour, sugar, margarine and vanilla flavoring. We don’t even use eggs. … I think we’re the only ones who don’t use preservatives, food coloring, baking soda or anything.

Who do you distribute your products to?

Mostly it’s either restaurants or warehouses that do distribution for us. In Sacramento and the outer cities, there are a lot of Chinese restaurants.

There’s been a lot of demand for supermarkets to carry fortune cookies. A lot of supermarkets have a Chinese-food section or a “hot-wok” section. We’ve been delivering to Nugget markets, a lot of Asian markets.

Is there a lot of competition?

To my knowledge, we’re the only one in Sacramento as far as fortune-cookie places. The other ones are located either in San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York.

I’m sure everyone’s had that experience where they’ve gotten a stale cookie. That’s more than likely the cookies from out of town because in order for those companies to be able to deliver to Sacramento, they have to sit them in warehouses, ship them and sit them in another warehouse in Sacramento before it’s distributed to a restaurant. You’re looking at a cookie that’s maybe two to maybe three or four weeks old when it gets to their clients, whereas for us, we get phone calls every day from this restaurant—"OK, we need cookies"—and they get them made fresh every day. That’s an advantage for our business.

The weather affects your work schedule.

Wintertime’s a lot easier. We’re open regular business hours, like 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. But when it comes to summertime, when it’s 100 degrees outside, with the ovens inside the business, it’s probably about 10 or 15 degrees more than the outside temperature. So, it’s almost unbearable to work in the afternoon in the summertime. During the summertime, we normally go in about 12 a.m. or 1 a.m., and we close before noon.

How many days a week do you work?

Typically six. If it’s a little bit busier, we’ll work a little later or open an extra day.

Do you ever close down and take a vacation?

No. I think last year was the first year where we took three [consecutive] days off out of the last 13 years. My parents work really hard. They’ve never had a vacation longer than three days.

Where do the fortunes come from?

Those come from a printing company. There’s several of them. They’re in New York and the Bay Area. We get them from several different sources so you don’t get the same cookie every time message-wise.

Are there any that are particularly memorable?

I read them almost every day, and it’s almost different every day. Sometimes it’s coincidence. Sometimes you read a fortune, and you find similar things in a fortune as to what’s going on in your life. I think that’s the fun thing about fortune cookies.

We do make some of the fortunes. A lot of people request fortunes for weddings or parties or conventions.

Are you sick of cookies?

I don’t eat them as much, but I still eat them every once in a while. Every time I go out to eat Chinese food, I always try it just to make sure, “OK, is this our cookie? Is it fresh or not?”

Even though it’s a free item you give the guest, I think it’s probably the most important item because it’s the last thing you will remember.