Jim Farfaglia Interview Nestlé in Fulton, New York: How Sweet It Was

In 1898, Switzerland’s Nestlé Company was searching for a location to build its first milk processing plant in the United States. Upstate New York’s many dairy farms sealed the deal for a factory to be built in Fulton New York. Soon another Swiss company requested space at the factory to produce a product that had taken Europe by storm; the milk chocolate bar. Over the next century, factory technicians invented treats we’ve all come to know and love including the Nestlé Crunch Bar, Tollhouse Morsels in Nestlé Quick.

With 1500 workers churning out 1,000,000 pounds of candy per day, Fulton became known as the city that smelled like chocolate.

Now, author Jim Farfaglia has put together the most comprehensive, detailed look at the history of Nestlé in Fulton. It’s titled “Nestlé in Fulton, New York: How Sweet it Was” (American Palate, A Division of The History Press, website: www.historypress.com )

Jim Farfaglia spoke with us about his book.

Q – Jim, is there a Nestlé chocolate bar that’s being produced today?
A – Well, a very good question to lead off with. The only chocolate product that Nestlé’s makes anymore is the Tollhouse Morsels, which are used for chocolate chip cookies. They sold all their candy products and brand names to an Italian candy making company so, you can still buy a Nestlé candy bar but, it’s not made by the Nestlé Company anymore.

Q – When I go into a supermarket I don’t see any Nestlé chocolate bars on the shelf. Nestlé told me to ask the store manager about ordering them.
A – Some stores carry them and some don’t. Around Halloween I saw them in the Fulton area. I just hit it right I guess or just be the type the store that buys it. A lot of times you can buy a variety of candy bars in a bag and there’ll be few Nestlé bars in there.

Q – Nestlé’s really produced a thinner type of chocolate bar. It was different then they’re competition.
A – They really produced chocolate differently. In the book I have a chapter where I talk about going from the cocoa bean to the chocolate bar in the steps it takes. Nestlé’s has this other step that very few other chocolate companies did where they refined it a lot longer and I think it made it smoother, blending the ingredients more. I think they made a superior chocolate. That wasn’t the only reason I wrote the book. I think they had a superior chocolate.

Q – I would guess that you’re the official or unofficial Nestlé historian.
A – Oh, my gosh, no. Please don’t say that! (Laughs). Not by any means, no. I wrote about local history. I wrote about this because Nestlé had their factory in Fulton. My book really focuses on the Fulton Nestlé experience which was the first Nestlé factory in the United States. Nestlé was a Switzerland-based company. So, I guess I have a pretty good handle on Nestlé in Fulton but Nestlé’s has become a worldwide Corporation and has factories all over the world now. So, I’m by no means a historian in that way, no.

Q – You got the cooperation of not only the locals put the founders of Nestlé’s as well.
A – Well, by founders I guess you can say I spoke with a grandchild of one of the first Swiss Nestlé workers to come over that started the milk production factory. I contacted Nestlé USA the corporate offices to ask permission to use photographs. I had access to a lot of the old photographs, the old archives when the factory closed in 2003. They were digitized and people gave me that. I got permission to use that but, I don’t want to come off like I am a historian per se. I like to write stories from local folk perspective.

Q – I’ve never seen a book on Nestlé prior to your book
A – There’s been a few internalized books that Nestlé produced themselves which I did research and read. But, you’re right one of the things the publishing company that I work through had me do was to research what other books are out there and that’s relatively few books about chocolate production in general, so, it’s sort of an untapped market in a way but I don’t know of another book that’s accessible by the general public about Nestlé that either worked there or know the internal workings of Nestlé Corporation.

Q – And chocolate is so popular!
A – Yeah. It’s associated with things like Valentine’s Day. There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in chocolate. In the book I do a little about the research of a chemical in chocolate that’s also a chemical in your brain that sort of the happiness chemical. I’m blanking on the official word of it right now. When you eat a good chocolate, it’s sort of triggers a natural high. There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in chocolate.

Q – Why did Nestlé close that Fulton plant? It was there for ever and a day.
A – Yeah. This is my opinion which is based on research of some of the archives in newspapers and also from talking with people I interview a lot of people when I write my local history books because I want to talk to the people that lived it. So, I interviewed about 75 or 80 former employees. It’s just my opinion of why Nestlé closed based on all of that; two main reasons, one is I think in the 60s and 70s if you remember that era, chocolate started to get a bad rap. It was considered more of a junk food, high in calories, high in fat. I think Nestlé’s saw the writing on the wall that people were maybe going to start limiting their chocolate intake and some people were going to start eliminating entirely and they (Nestlé’s) didn’t want to depend so heavily on chocolate as their main product. As you may know Nestlé’s owns thousands of products, bottled water, Carnation milk, and dog food. They’ve really diversified their product line. So, they were going to pull back and I think they decided they were not going to put all their eggs in the chocolate basket. That was number one. Number two was being that Fulton was the first Nestlé factory in the United States it was by far the oldest and most of the machinery and the building themselves were 100 years old. To Nestlé’s credit they did a lot of feasibility studies and they looked at how can we make this 100-year-old factory up to modern standards for production? They just tried every angle they could to make it a feasible business venture if you will or to continue in business and it just wasn’t going to work out with the numbers. The other factories that were making chocolate in the United States were half as old as the oldest factory. I think those were the main reasons why they closed the factory. Now, that being said, I also need to say but Nestlé didn’t think about was when they closed that factory they lost the knowledge base of those workers some of whom had worked 30, 40, 45 years making chocolate and chocolate making is an art. You can’t just throw of bunch of ingredients together and make the same quality as someone who’s been doing it for 45 years. Nestlé lost that. You talk to old-timers and they’ll tell you the chocolate just doesn’t taste the same anymore.

Q – Nestlé wasn’t able to transfer the workers?
A – Some people did do a transfer but that’s a pretty huge knowledge base and some of those people were aged out to. They were ready to retire. Training new people to learn the techniques of the art of chocolate making that would have been some investment that just didn’t happen.

Q – Were some of the people you interviewed for this book of yours bitter about the closing of the factory?
A – Before I decided to write a book or what’s the message I want my book to say I try to gauge what the general feel is out there. So, when I’m interviewing all these people there were very few bitter people. There were people who miss it who were sad, but Nestlé was good to its workers in Fulton. They paid them a good wage. They paid health benefits. A lot of people say my house was built by chocolate, if you know what I mean by that. They were able to raise a family and have a mortgage on the salary that Nestlé paid and people are choosing to remember that. That being said, yes there are some bitter people and some people made a very strong case to me as to why I should write a book about how bad they were to Fulton. But, if I was to take the pulse of the 80 people I interviewed, it was by far more positive about Nestlé. So, I address the closing in the book. I talk about the reasons. I talk about the devastation it did due to those families that lost their jobs but, I don’t dwell on that because it really was a good thing for Fulton. I’m a history writer so what happened when the buildings closed in 2003 there was a lot of media coverage. They covered it pretty heavy. The demolition that happened to those buildings over the last couple of years was drawn out. They found asbestos. Once they figured out they couldn’t bring in another chocolate company to make chocolate there they decided to tear the buildings down and make it a new campus for new businesses, new industries and new factories. It was tough because there was asbestos in those buildings. They had to get that cleaned up and it was just long and drawn out. It was like a three-year four-year process of knocking those buildings down. It looked like a war zone there for a while. So here’s my point, with all the bitterness and all that devastation I wanted to write a book that would capture the history of it in its glory days. Most of the famous chocolate products that Nestlé made were invented right in Fulton. They had their own Research Department, laboratory where they tested all their new candy bars, Crunch Bar, Tollhouse Morsels, Nestlé Quick. So, there’s a lot of pride of what happened there. I didn’t want the bitterness to get carried away.

Q – And so, your motivation to write this book was what?
A – Well, here’s my motivation for writing the book. I’m a lifelong Fultonian . I’m watching these buildings come down. People would literally pull their car off the road and just watched the demolition and I was among those people and I got emotional. I had never worked there. My family had never worked there but I was feeling sort of a loss. I thought to myself what about people that work there? What are they feeling right now? That was my motivation. While people are still alive I want to capture their memories. I want to save this one more time I was overwhelmed by the positive story people had to tell. Actually, it was like a family. This is what just blew me away. They kept saying over and over again it felt like I was working with my family. I’m thinking how can 1500 people feel like a family? But, it really came from the top down, from management down. They really treated their employees like family. They did a lot of extracurricular things. I won’t go into it now but, it’s in the book, really fun things they could do with their family. Nestlé Corporation sponsored those events. There was never a charge for Nestlé families. I believe those values came from Switzerland. I think the Swiss founders brought that feeling over to the United States when they came here. In the later years when management shifted in Nestlé became more business minded-that ended. So, I don’t want to pretend that family feeling lasted to the very bitter end. By far, the people I interviewed were so happy to work there. And of course they were going to make chocolate which is kind of a happy thing anyways. (Laughs). They felt like it was an enjoyable experience which is tough when you’re doing factory work, right?

Q – Right.
A – One thing we haven’t talked about yet is those who lived in Fulton or who drove through Fulton, our whole city smelled like chocolate. So, I open and close my book with people’s memories of that. Think about growing up with chocolate in the air. Then all of a sudden that’s gone, that’s taken away. I think watching those buildings come down your losing some of that innocence of childhood or life where your city was like Willy Wonka. Such a cool thing to be in chocolate city. It’s a lot to lose. It’s a lot to see demolished.

Official website: www.jimfarfaglia.com

© Gary James All Rights Reserved

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