Willy Wonka Rides Again

Screenshot of David Klein and his partner in a video titled “Saturday Morning so good to me!”




An old friend (his name, coincidentally, Charlie) bought my kids and me a present recently: A chance to find a golden tag and then to win a candy factory.

Fans of the Willy Wonka movies and books know the basic plot, but it has been updated for real life. In this version, David Klein, a 73-year old businessman from California, has decided to give away one of his candy factories to the lucky winner of two rounds of scavenger hunts.

Klein was the inventor—or one of the developers, according to who you talk to—of Jelly Belly jelly beans in 1976. He was bought out of the venture in 1980, in what he considers a hostile takeover. Over 20 years he and a partner split a total of $4.8 million, which stopped paying out in 2000. Klein was unhappy with the deal.

The Jelly Belly Candy Company, with production facilities near San Francisco and Chicago, and in Thailand, was listed in 2013 by a trade publication as 66th in their “Top 100 candy companies in the world.” It nets $190 million per year.

Klein has attempted a couple of comebacks on his own, including coffee-flavored jelly beans, popcorn coated in ice cream and sprinkles, and another candy company, in Florida, that makes all sorts of sweets including “edible sand art” and Crime Scene Candy® Blood and Blood Clots™. It is a production facility for this company that is, presumably, being “given away.”

The way the contest works is that 1,000 tickets per state will be sold at $49.98 each. A ticket allows someone to receive clues to find the golden dog tag hidden somewhere in their state. The dog tag comes with a $5,000 prize, Klein says. The winner from each state will be eligible to compete in the next round of scavenger hunt to win the factory.

There is little information at the contest’s website about any of this, including what clues will look like, or what sort of physical process will be needed to recover a dog tag. Evidently not all the dog tags have been hidden. There is no stated schedule yet for most states’ hunts, but tickets for some states, such as Illinois, are sold out. The first state to begin its hunt will be Georgia, this week.

Klein says the winner of his factory will get his expertise on operations and a candy making course at University of Wisconsin-Madison. There is no word if the factory can be sold by the winner, or even what “the factory” means, since Klein has said the prize means “full ownership of the building,” leaving open the possibility that candy recipes would have to be created from scratch.

What there is, if you have some time, is a YouTube channel for The Gold Ticket, with a dozen videos posted of “The Candyman” and his partner Stephanie talking, on average for an hour. Klein clearly relishes the attention and tells rambling stories, such as how his father called the neighbor woman Hedy Lamarr.

Neither I nor my kids have any interest in actually running a candy factory for the rest of our days. Seeing as how Wonka used foreign laborers, I am guessing the hours are long and the work tiring. But you can bet we will be doing our best to win.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.