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It's A Sweet Job

Alamo's John Nelson gives us a private tour of his Red Vines Plant.


John Nelson is the Willy Wonka of the East Bay. No, you probably won’t find the softspoken Alamo resident in a top hat and a purple suit anytime soon. But like Wonka, the chief manufacturing officer of the American Licorice Company dedicates himself to producing treats that inspire a loyal following.

How do you eat your Red Vines? Fresh? Aged for a few days? Do you bite the ends off to make a straw? In any case, you probably don’t know that it takes three days to produce a batch. You can’t rush a Red Vine.

On day one, employees—not Oompa Loompas—at the American Licorice Company plant in Union City mix flour, water, corn syrup, and the secret flavoring known as Original Red in giant kettles, where the ingredients cook for two hours. After cooling overnight, the dough is twisted into ropes that then sit in a drying room for up to 24 hours. This drying process gives Red Vines their distinctive texture. On day three, the vines—up to 200,000 pounds of them a day—make their way into their classic jars and other packaging. Then it’s on into the mouths of millions and into our pop culture.

Red Vines have appeared in songs, movies, and television shows including Friends and The Simpsons. That’s great publicity, but for Nelson, the greatest satisfaction comes from running a safe factory with happy workers. Willy Wonka would be proud.

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