Braking for jelly beans
With the siren call of free samples, the Jelly Belly warehouse reels in visitors.
© Beth Gauper
An electric tram takes visitors around the Jelly Belly warehouse.
On the I-94 corridor between Chicago and Milwaukee, tourists get to go trick or treating all year-round.
In Pleasant Prairie near Kenosha, they get packets of jelly beans. In Chicago, they're handed chocolate and cheesecake. In Milwaukee, it's beer.
Everyone loves free samples, and factory tours are a fun way to spend an hour or two. But watch out: They usually end in an outlet shop, where you'll be sorely tempted to spend real money.
One of the most popular stops is just across the Illinois border in Wisconsin, where the folks who make Jelly Belly candy offer free tours nearly every day of the year.
It’s just the warehouse – the beans are made in northern California and Chicago – but the center works hard to make the tour fun and give visitors a lot to look at.
We showed up one summer Sunday and waited for 15 minutes, looking at framed magazine spreads about the company, before being ushered into the warehouse. Giant jelly beans hung overhead and jelly-bean mosaics of George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth were propped along the walls.
We put on white paper Jelly Belly hats, hopped into electric tram cars and took off around the warehouses with Liz, our tour guide.
The family story began when German immigrant Gustav Goelitz bought a candy store in Belleville, Ill., in 1869. The Herman Goelitz Co. specialized in candy corn, but in 1976, an L.A. distributor approached it with the concept for Jelly Bellies, single-flavor beans using natural flavors and fruit juices.
The "gourmet'' Jelly Bellies were a lot more expensive than regular beans, so they got off to a slow start. Then, Ronald Reagan became a fan. He was trying to kick his tobacco pipe habit and kept a bowl on his desk, passing them out to other politicians and reporters as he ran for president.
Soon Jelly Bellies were in the news. In thanks, the company made a red, white and blue mix for Reagan’s 1981 inauguration and commissioned San Francisco artist Peter Rocha to create a jelly-bean portrait, the first of a series that now includes Elvis, Princess Diana and many other politicians and celebrities.
© Beth Gauper
After the tour, guests can sample as many Jelly Bellies as they like.
Videos told us most of the Jelly Belly story as chugged past stacks of cardboard boxes. We learned how the centers are molded, cured, sent into a steam bath and given a “sugar shower.’’
Then they rest again before being tumbled in “engrossing’’ kettles, where they grow into beans under steady applications of sugar and a final layer of flavored syrup. They’re like polished gemstones when they emerge, ready to be stamped with the Jelly Belly logo.
The most popular flavor is very cherry, Liz told us, though buttered popcorn had the top spot for a while, and Reagan’s favorite flavor was licorice.
One of the hardest flavors to make was kiwi, she said, and occasionally the company goes wild, trying such flavors as macaroni and cheese, nacho and pickle.
A chorus line of dancing Jelly Bellies bade us farewell as we received our free packets of jelly beans and were ushered into the busy store, where we headed straight for the clearance table for bags of Belly Flops, slightly dented beans.
Then we parked ourselves at the Sample Bar, where a gloved employee patiently catered to our whims, handing us samples of chili mango, pomegranate, malted milk ball and buttered popcorn, which tastes just like the real thing.
And, like everyone, we had to try a few gross-out beans from the BeanBoozled line, which includes Booger, Barf and Moldy Cheese.
“I want a Baby Wipe,’’ said a father next to us. “I have four kids, so I want to see if they’re accurate.’’
He didn’t like them, but he didn’t say if they were accurate or not. We tried Pencil Shavings and the discontinued Ear Wax, both of which had a vaguely vanilla flavor.
The store carries many other candies and sweet products, and we ended up buying bottles of fruit soda in all eight flavors, including crushed pineapple and green apple. With our Belly Flops, we spent $16.35.
“Hmm, this wasn’t exactly a free tour,’’ my husband noted.
No, but we had fun. And our bags of free jelly beans helped us pass the time on the long drive home. I didn’t like most of the flavors – I kept getting cinnamon while looking for cherry – but it was fun trying to guess.
As Jelly Belly knows, we're all suckers for novelty. Who can resist more than 50 flavors plus Baby Wipe? As it turns out, not many.
Trip Tips: Factory tours with samples
Hours at the factories may vary by season; call in advance. Groups always should reserve, and some tours are by reservation only.
Jelly Belly Visitor Center in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. The free 35-minute tours are given from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily year-round, except holidays. No reservations are required. Waits usually are 15 to 30 minutes, but sometimes longer when school is out.
Just two miles over the Illinois border on I-94, get off at Exit 347. Head east on Wisconsin 165 for three miles, then turn left (north) on Wisconsin 31.
On the Saturday before Easter, it holds Easter Hoppenings, with the Easter Bunny, a magician, face-painting, balloon art and prizes.
Milwaukee brewery tours: Tour breweries: Lakefront, Sprecher and MillerCoors, $10-$11 including samples and tasting glasses.
For more, see Mad about brew.
Eli's Cheesecake, Chicago. It gives a free Tasting & Tradition experience at 1 p.m. daily in its cafe, with samples. It's just east of O'Hare at 6701 W. Forest Preserve Ave.
Long Grove Confectionery Co. in Buffalo Grove, Ill. Tours of this family-owned chocolate company, which produces many fun novelty items, are given Monday through Saturday, $2. Reservations are required, 847-459-3875.
Buffalo Grove is a northern suburb of Chicago, west of the intersection of I-94 and 294. It's just east of the village of Long Grove, which celebrates Chocolate Fest the first weekend of May.
Last updated on January 12, 2019