by David Greisman, photography by Phil Grout
In a state that has everything from Hershey’s to Herr’s, it is York County that has been called the Snack Food Capital of the World — and Hanover in particular stands out as Snack Food Heaven.
Utz and Snyder’s loom large. Hanover Foods Corporation — whose founder long-ago produced the Olde Tyme Pretzels that later came under Snyder’s banner — now owns companies in Hanover and York that produce chips, pretzels and other salted snacks. Revonah Pretzel also is in Hanover.
Wolfgang Candy and York City Pretzel Company are up in York, as is Stauffer’s, best known for its animal crackers. Frito-Lay has a plant in West Manchester Township. And Martin’s Potato Chips is over in Thomasville.
“Snack food puts us on the map, which is a nice thing,” said Hanover Mayor Ben Adams. “Otherwise it would be an average everyday American community. The workforce that Utz and Snyder’s-Lance both provide is just tremendous for the area.”
Indeed, companies that began as family businesses have expanded their area operations on several occasions. Utz has grown to become the eighth-largest employer in the county, the 42nd-largest in adjacent Adams County, and was within the top 300 employers in the entire state as of 2014. Snyder’s-Lance was listed as the 45th-largest employer in York County, with Hanover Foods at 46th and Stauffer’s at 49th.
Utz is the second-largest employer in Hanover Borough with about 1,270 employees, while Snyder’s is the largest employer in Penn Township with approximately 850, according to a joint comprehensive plan the borough and township released earlier this year.
As of September 2014, more than 2,700 people were employed in York County in the snack food manufacturing industry, according to Jeff Newman, an industry and business analyst for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s Center for Workforce Information and Analysis.
“That’s more jobs than 46 states had in the industry,” he said.
The largest employment industry in the county remains restaurants and other eating places, which has more than 11,000 jobs. But York County easily has the largest concentration of snack food manufacturing jobs in the country. Newman cited a statistic known as a location quotient, which shows that York County has more than 40 times the number of snack food manufacturing jobs than the average county in the United States.
That far surpasses second-place Kern County in California, which has more than 21 times the average. Pennsylvania has three more counties within the top 10 in the industry, including Adams County (which has part of Hanover’s postal area) in 4th place, Berks County in 7th and Lancaster County in 8th.
Such statistics become more meaningful when you realize what they mean financially for the region: jobs, tax revenue and a niche form of tourism.
And in the case of Chris and Kerry Greenholtz, a job in the snack food industry was literally in their backyard. Their grandfather and great uncle founded a company that later came to be known as Revonah Pretzel — Revonah, of course, is “Hanover” backwards — in 1935. It is now owned by Kevin Bidelspach.
“The family home is directly in front,” said Kerry, 44, speaking one morning after his very brief commute to the bakery, which was built in 1938. “As soon as I could walk, I was down here running around, getting involved in everything, being a nuisance. I got involved on payroll when I was 16, but before that I had rolled my first pretzel in kindergarten.”
Kerry, who rolls and bakes pretzels, returned to Revonah earlier this year. He said he drove a forklift for Utz when he was younger. Chris, 57, believes he first worked at the bakery 25 years ago, but has been back for about a decade.
“I used to think every town had pretzel factories in them when I was a kid,” Chris said. “You used to think that was a common thing. And then you get older and realize it isn’t.”
Some believe the reason there were so many snack food companies in Central Pennsylvania is because of the German-speaking immigrant population that arrived, bringing a tradition of pretzel making with them. The Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company in the Lancaster County borough of Lititz dates back to 1861 and markets itself as the country’s first commercial pretzel bakery. Meanwhile, certain types of potatoes that make for good chips grow in the state.
If there’s a temptation to joke that there must be something in the water, then one can’t help but smile when Bidelspach, Revonah’s owner, brings that up as one reason for the plethora of salted snack food companies.
“The water underneath Hanover makes the biggest difference,” he said. “It works best for the baking and manufacturing of food items.”
If the Snack Food Heaven that is Hanover, York County and Central Pennsylvania is a product of the food made by the people who came here, then now there are people who come here because of the food.
Many of the companies have factory stores and tours, inviting visitors to see and hear how the food is made, as well as get a taste. Such tourism isn’t just a one-time benefit, but can also create brand recognition and create future customers. Martin’s, Revonah, Snyder’s, Utz and York City all offer tours.
“It’s a good marketing tool. People leave here with a smile on their face,” said Butch Potter, who owns Martin’s Potato Chips. “Eating the fresh product, there’s just nothing like that.”
The York County Convention and Visitors Bureau calls the county the “Factory Tour Capital of the World,” touting places where people can go see the manufacturing of products beyond salted snack foods, including ice cream, clocks and watches, violins, furniture and Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
“People aren’t going to come two hours to York to take one tour, but they might come to tour Harley, to experience something at Wolfgang, to take a tour at Utz or Snyder’s,” said Ben McGlaughlin, CEO of Wolfgang Candy Company, which recently discontinued factory tours but still seeks to provide its visitors an experience with a museum, retail store and information on how its products are made.
“It’s great for people to understand the story behind Wolfgang. We tend to trust brands that we understand,” he said.
McLaughlin, like many of these companies’ owners and executives, is carrying on a family tradition. His family now has a minority stake; he is Wolfgang’s fourth-generation. Potter’s parents bought Martin’s Potato Chips in 1971 from Harry and Fairy Martin, who got their start in 1941 selling homemade chips at farmer’s markets. His younger brother, David, is also an owner and vice president.
Bidelspach, Revonah’s owner, came to town when his father went to work at Hanover Foods in 1967. Utz’s board chairman is from the third generation of family members to run a company that began in a kitchen in 1921. His son-in-law is now CEO, marking the fourth generation. Snyder’s was for decades led by a member of the same Warehime family that runs Hanover Foods.
These and other local brands continue to fill shelves and stomachs, giving Hanover and York County outsized influence in a bite-sized industry.