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Bean Scene 

In which we tour the Jelly Belly factory and gag on the Harry Potter flavors

Wednesday, Sep 3 2003
With Halloween still weeks away and Easter just a scrumptious memory of melting chocolate bunnies, we needed a sugar fix to get through these delicious dog days of summer. Nothing keeps Dog Bites running strong like a candy snack, and, lucky for us, San Francisco is one of the sweetest cities this side of Hershey, Pa.

But we were tired of Ghirardelli Square and its tourist mobs, and frankly we'd seen all the See's we needed to for a while. We were yearning instead for a very specific confection that not only tantalizes the palate, but can open the sweat glands as well -- and may even have played a central role in the decision-making process of our nation's 40th president. To quell this craving, we hit the freeway to see just what in the name of Willy Wonka was cooking at the Jelly Belly factory up in Fairfield.

The famed beanery is inconspicuously situated in the Solano Business Park, just downwind from the Budweiser brewery on Interstate 80. We pass a boring building labeled Professional Hospital Supply and turn onto Jelly Belly Lane; we know we've arrived upon spotting the festively decorated Jelly Belly RV and Volkswagen Bug in front of the visitor center. After marveling at the cartoon Jelly Bellies plastered on the walls, eyeing an elaborate gumdrop mobile, and lamenting the dearth of singing Oompa Loompas, Dog Bites dons a Jelly Belly-issued baker's cap and heads for the tour.

Our guide, Janelle Rinken, begins by explaining the three main stages in making Jelly Bellies: cooking the candy centers, creating the crunchy shells, and -- our favorite -- "polishing it for a jewellike finish." For the uninitiated, Jelly Bellies are very flavorful beans that have also figured prominently in right-wing politics: Ronald Reagan got famously hooked on jelly beans as a substitute for smoking. In a somewhat unsettling 1973 letter to the candy maker, then-California Gov. Reagan wrote, "It's gotten to the point where we can hardly start a meeting or make a decision without passing around a jar of jelly beans."

According to Rinken, after Reagan was elected president in 1980, he requested red, white, and blue Jelly Bellies for his inauguration. In response, the company sent Very Cherry and Coconut flavors for red and white, and took the extraordinary step of creating a new Blueberry flavor to serve as the previously unavailable blue bean. Rinken didn't mention if Jelly Bellies played any role in the Iran-Contra affair (perhaps by inducing temporary sugar psychosis in the chief executive), but we have our suspicions.

San Francisco artist Peter Rocha capitalized on this presidential advertising by approaching Jelly Belly for supplies to create a bean-by-bean portrait of Reagan on a big slab of wood. Jelly Belly agreed, the portrait was a hit, and Rocha went on to glue together scores of similar renditions of subjects ranging from icons (Elvis and the buffalo penny) to outcasts (Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson). In 2000, Rocha retired and passed the gig to his nephew Roger Rocha, who's created another 20-odd pieces. Roger Rocha, a San Francisco sign painter by trade, enjoys the work because "paints are toxic and jelly beans are not." His pieces usually take about a month and a half to make, and require roughly 15,000 beans.

Another artist, Stevie Famulari, decided to go the Rochas one better, creating a Jelly Belly mural at the factory for Easter. "We had a bet going on how many Jelly Bellies would disappear over the week it was up," says Famulari, who divides her time between S.F. and Albuquerque. "About 20 percent were removed; it's funny because [bean snatchers] get free Jelly Bellies on the tour."

Famulari's favorite beans are the rather unconventional flavors based on the magical beans in the Harry Potter books. Dog Bites had the distinct displeasure of sampling several of these and immediately spitting them out. From the moment the beans hit our taste buds, we realized that Sardine is as bad as it sounds, Black Pepper belongs on a fresh salad in hell, Dirt tastes pretty much like its namesake, and Vomit makes us want to, well, hurl.

"They developed Parmesan Pizza [beans] years ago," Famulari explains, "but it tasted like shit so they shelved it. Then for Harry Potter, they re-brought it out as Vomit. If you put it in your mouth and just think, 'Parmesan Pizza,' you can stomach it." Well, not really.

Famulari goes on to reveal that "whenever they do Sardine, they only do it at night and they have to use masks, because the flavor is so strong." Nonetheless, she insists that the Harry Potter flavors "taste bad and great at the same time."

Back on the tour, Janelle Rinken declares that the most popular Jelly Belly flavor is Very Cherry, followed by upstart Buttered Popcorn. Although new flavors are closely guarded trade secrets, Rinken does let slip that Jelly Belly has concocted a Garlic flavor for the Gilroy Garlic Festival. "If that goes through," she says, "we'll sell them here." For our part, Dog Bites can't wait until they come up with a French Fries flavor and start hawking it at Giants games.

The factory tour is free, but Dog Bites makes a sizable investment in Rinken's pension plan during a stop at the Jelly Belly gift shop. We purchase 6 pounds of misshapen candy rejects called Belly Flops, a bag of Harry Potter beans to gross out annoying co-workers, and a large gummy rat to shut up the neighbor's cat. Along with numerous free samples, we've acquired more than enough candy to keep us wired for the next few weeks. When we go back up to resupply, we hope to have figured out a way to pull off the biggest coup of them all, a feat never achieved even by several Democratic Congresses: taking a bite out of Reagan's smile. -- M.J.F. Stewart

A Piddling Matter

In the early morning of Feb. 11, after a night out in the Mission, Aleksander Prechtl staggered into an alcove at 3120 Mission St., his bladder full of dollar drinks. It was 1:20 a.m., not a restroom in sight. Prechtl unzipped, and within moments, as a police sergeant later wrote, "there was a stream of liquid (urine) flowing down the sidewalk."

Six months later, Prechtl stood on the hard linoleum of the Hall of Justice's Department A, awaiting trial. The 23-year-old -- an Oakland resident, the frontman of a punk band (Battleship), a law-school aspirant, and Line 158 on last Thursday's docket -- was wearing dark slacks, a pale dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a maroon tie. His dyed black hair had been yanked into a severe part. He held a hand-drawn diagram of the crime scene, three Polaroids, and several pages of legal documents.

Infractions like this don't usually linger in the justice system -- you piss, you pay up, you find a darker alley next time. But Prechtl saw a case built on circumstantial evidence (urine). He saw imprecise police work and arbitrary enforcement. He saw a $339.90 fine, just for piddling on a wall. He was bent on fighting. "Oh, yeah, I was totally pissing," Prechtl said. "But that's not the point. The point is, can they prove I was pissing? I feel cops get away with too much."

Not long after he was cited, Prechtl began to build a case. He got a library card and checked out a book, Fight Your Ticket in California. He took a class that offered help with traffic violations and the like. He read the penal code. He secured a witness, a friend who was standing nearby. And he scrutinized the details of Sgt. Dennis Meixner's report: "As I was driving by 3120 Mission St.," Meixner wrote, "I saw cited Prechtl standing in the inset doorway urinating against the wall. ... When I asked Prechtl why he was urinating in public he said he thought it was alright because everyone does it. He said he had just left a local bar but couldn't explain why he did not use the bar's bathroom facilities instead of the public sidewalk. ... I was about 15 feet away from Prechtl when I saw him urinating."

"Which is bullshit," Prechtl said as he gestured at his map, two taped-together sheets depicting the stretch of Mission Street between Cesar Chavez and Precita. (He had also drawn a cop car, complete with tires and light bar.) "He had to look over three lanes. I measured the lanes. Each lane is about 9 feet, so those three lanes together, plus 14 feet of sidewalk, make 41 feet. And that doesn't even count the 3 feet of the inset doorway. He was [at least] 41 feet away, which is a big distance to see someone at night and say you saw a stream of urine."

The day of his trial, Prechtl was prepared. He knew what he would ask the cop, how he would corner him, press him for details he surely wouldn't recall. His star witness had flaked, however. "She went to Burning Man and didn't tell me until a week before," Prechtl explained. "It left me in a bad situation -- my witness is a friend, and I never subpoenaed her."

At 1:35 p.m., the bailiff read his name.

"Present," Prechtl replied.

"Officer Meixner?" the bailiff called out. "Officer Meixner?" Officer Meixner wasn't there. (It turned out he had recently retired.) "OK, come on up."

"Line 158," the clerk said, "dismissed."

It was 1:36. "God bless the USA," Prechtl said on his way out the door, adding later he was glad he didn't have to discuss his "urinating habits in front of 50 people."

As Prechtl left the Hall of Justice (and before he mussed his hair and replaced his dress shoes with a pair of torn Chuck Taylors), a young guy -- looking confused and sounding Russian -- approached him. Apparently, the guy had been charged with shoplifting and wasn't all that clear on his court date, the meaning of "second offense," or the nature of a misdemeanor. He needed help. "Are you," he asked Prechtl, "an attorney?"

"No," Prechtl said. "I'm a criminal." -- Tommy Craggs

About The Authors

Tommy Craggs


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