A week ago, while a convoy of chocolate chip cookies was traveling from batter to box, the 50 employes of the Tolley Cookie Co. here were told they soon would stop baking "the big cookies with the small-town taste."
After 27 years in the cookie business, Denver Tolley, 66, who had turned his small bakery into one of the region's biggest "soft" cookie makers, has decided to turn the ovens off and close the business.
After Friday, when the last batch of "home-style" cookies is boxed, Archway brand cookies will no longer be produced in the white, cement-block building just off Rte. I-95.
"This is more than the damn cookie crumbling," said shift manager Tom Toth, a cookie man for the last 25 years. "It's the hammer hitting."
Tolley is not selling out because business is bad. Cookies have never sold better than last year, when America's cookie sales topped $1.7 billion.
Though Tolley will not divulge his share of the market ("It sounds a little too much like bragging"), he does say he decided to sell his business "while it's on the rise."
His decision to sell out to Archway Cookies Inc. of Battle Creek, Mich., means that the firm will have to truck cookies from an Ohio bakery into the five-state area Tolley now serves. It also means that many of Tolley's 50 bakery workers will spend the Christmas holidays hunting for new jobs.
"It's gonna be hard to find any kind of job around here. Most of the factories are laying people of," said Janie LeComte, who has been working at Tolley's for almost nine years. "Not many places want a woman over 40."
"It's hard to start over when you're 49," agreed Toth, who has been offered a position by Archway if he is willing to move to Ohio or Florida. Archway, which claims to be the largest "soft cookie" company in the United States, has agreed to keep Tolley's 55-member sales staff and three truck drivers to service the area.
But Tolley's conveyor-belt workers, all of them women, and many with more than 20 years' experience at the plant, are no longer needed.
"People around here stick to a job," said Dorothy Sullivan, who has been packing cookies at Tolley's for 16 years. Jean Stiles has been there 20 years, Lillian Shelton for 24, Grace Sullivan started with Tolley 27 years ago and remembers turning cookies with a venetian blind slat.
It's been like a litte family here," said Sullivan today as she boxed walnut nougats with three other women, who have 65 years of combined experience at the factory.
Sullivan will not say the work is fun. Tolley's is more factory than baker. From the mixing of 2,000 pounds of batter to the packaging in cellophane and cardboard, work along th snake-like conveyor belt is not much different from jobs on an automobile assembly line.
"Men aren't worth a darn at this work," said Toth, passing 20 women who box approximately 1.8 million cookies a week. "It's too boring."
"It really depends on who you're standing beside and what you're talking about," said Shirley McCain, snatching cookies off the belt with the practiced ease of a Las Vegas dealer stacking chips.
Since we usually talk about sex," added Betty Robinson, "the day goes fast."
One advantage of the job, say workers, is they can bring hot dogs, pizza, or potatoes to heat in the 150-foot-long bakery oven. One disadvantage is they don't get paid very well.
"Wages are a bad subject," said Sullivan.
"The thing that doesn't hit us too well," said LeComte, "is people who have been working here 27 years get paid the same as first-year people."
Denver Tolley would not discuss his company's finances. "I'll pass on that one," Tolley said.
Most of Tolley's cookie crew said they would gladly continue working, for whatever salary, rather than join the growing number of unemployed in the area.
"I've got no regrets; I just don't like not having a job," said LeComte, who said she made a pre-New Year's Day resolution not to take a job as a waitress.
Hugh Whittaker, a baker at Tolley's for 11 years, has already found another job as a cement-truck driver. "We'll miss the people around here," he said, "more than the place."