On any given day it can be foretold that the sidewalk along 10th Street between R and Q will smell like vanilla and hot sugar.
“You can smell it from two blocks away,” says one woman on her way back to work. “It smells like the good sweet smell of goodies,” says another. One man is here for the first time. “I’m just following the crowd because they say this is the place to come for a really good deal on fortune cookies.”
New World Bakery is Sacramento’s only place to come for fortune cookies. It’s just one room, about a thousand square feet in a plain downtown four-plex. Inside, the room is lit only by light bulbs that seem as ancient as the clackety cookie machines lined up along a wall like inky printing presses.
“These machines can get pretty loud. Over time, your hearing goes…” That’s Kenton Yee. He’s standing guard at one of the machines. He’s 30 years old and runs the bakery with his parents.
“The dough sits in a hopper,” Yee says. “It’s pumped through a piston that squirts out the dough, which has the consistency of a pancake batter into a rotating oven. It forms the shape to a perfectly round circle that’s only 1/8-inch thick.”
The fortune cookie machine was invented in the sixties in San Francisco, but it isn’t perfect. It’s got to fold the cookies twice, first in half to capture a fortune inside, then in half backwards, for that famous tortellini shape. Yee sees a cookie in trouble and steps up to nudge it in place, but a syncopated prong misses, and maims the cookie.
“With these machines being 30-plus years old,” Yee says, “you’re going to get one or two bad cookies out of the bunch.”
Fortunes have their own destiny. They hit their mark, or they don’t. Yee reads one that’s fluttered to the floor. “Don’t worry about the stock market. Invest in family.” Yee laughs. “Fortunes are made to cater to the times that you’re in.”.
Growing up the son of Sacramento’s only fortune cookie baker, Kenton Yee has answered the same two questions since he was in middle school. How does the fortune get inside the cookie, and who writes the fortunes? There’s only one way to get a slip of paper inside a cookie that’s too hot to handle.
“We let the machine do it for us,” Yee says. “There was a need to invent this machine because it comes directly out of the oven being 350 to 400 hundred degree and you have to fold the cookie within 5 or 6 seconds. You would basically have to have fingers of steel.”
As to who write the fortunes, Yee says people think he writes the Confucian riddles.
“I get that all the time,” Yee says. “As soon as people know what I do, they assume that I’m the one who writes the fortunes. I’m like, nope, it’s not me. It’s a printing company that does all the printing.”
New World Bakery has a thriving side business for customers to write their own fortunes. This is popular for graduations, weddings, retirements. And yes, New World’s a free speech bakery with X-rated fortunes. Yee jokes that ANY fortune can become X-rated. He reads an example: “A pleasant surprise is in store for you soon … in bed. I have no idea where that started. But you can see it working…”
Being around thousands of fortunes has had its own karma on Yee.
“Growing up with all these little antics about life riddles and what Confucius may think, it helps you have a different perspective on things, and having a positive perspective never hurts.”
Fortune cookies may mark the happy ending to Chinese meals all over the world. But there’s one place you won’t find a fortune cookie.
“I never see a fortune cookie in China. I go north, west. Never.” Kenny Yee is Kenton Yee’s father. He came to Sacramento from South China in 1975. Kenny Yee is Kenton Yee’s father. He came to Sacramento from South China in 1975. When he was partner at Jade Garden on J Street, he got into the American fortune cookie tradition, too – gave them away free -- the fortune cookie as yin to the yang of the bill. When the elder Yee began to bake them, that’s when he arrived on the FORTUNE side of the fortune cookie business.
“They make people happy, that’s all. That’s why, I’m thinking, American people, they like that thing.”
One place where New World Bakery fortune cookies are delivered fresh is at Jumbo Seafood Restaurant. On this night, the fortunes are having the desired effect. One is cracked open, and a customer reads:
“You have the power to write your own fortune!”
If you don’t like that one, there’s always more. New World Bakery makes 30,000 fortune cookies a day.