When Taylor Cowan and her younger sister, Jordyn, walked through the front doors of Haven's candy factory in Westbrook, Maine, recently, they had just one question on their mind: "Where are the Oompa- Loompas?"
The fictitious candymakers from Roald Dahl's book, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," were, of course, not working there. But within seconds, the Cowan sisters didn't seem to notice. That's because they were preoccupied with how the 91-year-old company makes its caramel corn, saltwater taffy, and milk-chocolate candies.
Unlike visiting Willy Wonka's wacky candy factory from the book, however, no "golden ticket" was needed for this tour. But there were two small requirements: Visitors had to wear hairnets, and "you've got to be a 'kid,' " says owner Andy Charles. "And my definition of 'kid' is anyone who's here and likes candy."
Inside the main kitchen, one of two designated candymaking rooms at the factory, master candymaker Art Dillon was busy making one of the day's featured treats: caramel corn.
The popcorn with a sweet, sugary coating is one of Haven's more popular items, particularly in December, its busiest month.
Mr. Dillon kept a close watch on a large popcorn popper along the back wall of the kitchen.
The popper is a noisy stainless-steel machine that resembles a clothes dryer with a circular opening in the front. Every few minutes, fluffy white pieces of popped corn squeezed out of that opening and into a large collection bin.
It's Mr. Dillon's job to pick out the "imperfect" or overdone pieces – and to throw them out. He also "tests" a handful of popped corn from every batch, "to make sure they taste OK," he says. "We taste everything we make."
When the popcorn bin was full, he took it to a 90-gallon vat on the opposite end of the room. There, a creamy caramel mixture – molasses, brown sugar, and butter – was heating up.
As soon as the hot caramel was poured over the popcorn, Mr. Dillon spread out the wet mixture on a long table under a cooling fan. "The fan helps keep the pieces from sticking together," he says.
While caramel corn was one of the main attractions on the tour of the candy factory, visitors also got to see how Haven's makes its pure milk chocolate and "enrobed" candies. An enrobed candy is any piece of chocolate that has a "middle" – from creamy fillings to fruits and nuts.
At Haven's, these candies are made on two machines that are called "enrobers." That's because "they wrap the items in chocolate, just like you can wrap up in a robe," Mr. Charles, the owner, says.
The kids each received a box of "middles" so they could participate in the making of enrobed candy.
They put their middles on a long conveyor belt at one end of the machine, and watched as their treats were whisked under a chocolate waterfall and through a cooling station at the opposite end.
The kids even got to add colorful sprinkles or chocolate powder to the tops of their candies at the "marking station." This is a small opening about halfway down the conveyor belt, where candymakers can add "toppings" to the candies.
Some candies, such as saltwater taffy, don't get any extra toppings. They don't need it.
Haven's annually produces about 35 tons of saltwater taffy, in 34 flavors. Their most popular flavors are molasses peanut butter and "beach ball."
"The beach ball taffy is striped with seven different flavors," says full-time candymaker Lindsay Green, who's In her early 20s. She helps make taffy in the summer, when Haven's produces most of the chewy candy. On the tour, she helped cut one-inch pieces of taffy for kids to wrap.
Although no one is certain how saltwater taffy got its name, many taffy companies, including Haven's, do add salt to their recipes. Haven's still makes and wraps it the way it did more than 90 years ago. It uses a fire-engine-red machine from the early 1900s.
Ms. Green demonstrated how strips of taffy are fed through the machine, which is called a "kiss wrapper." It cuts and wraps about 140 pieces of taffy a minute.
She enjoys making candy – and has even attended "chocolate school," where she learned how to make and decorate chocolate.
But she says the best part of making candy is getting to work with her hands and "being able to do all my holiday shopping in one spot."
One day, she might like to own her own company, possibly a candymaking operation.
At the end of the tour, the Cowan sisters' hands – as well as their mom's – were full of candy.
What about the Oompa-Loompas? "We didn't see them," Taylor said with a wide grin; half a piece of taffy in her mouth.
"But that's OK," her sister added. "The candy is good."