I recall the first time I saw a three-wheel bike in a cookie/cracker bakery many years ago. As a novice to the industry, I wasn’t quite sure what a bicycle was doing in a food processing plant. With a somewhat puzzled look on my face, I asked the plant manager who was showing me around about the three-wheeler. He turned to me with a knowing smile.

After walking the length of the baking oven and then cooling tunnel, say 300 ft., it quickly became apparent why. The three-wheelers provided supervisors, foremen and quality assurance folk a quick and safe way to get from point A to point B.

Consequently, when Melvin Gordon, this year’s 2009 Kettle Award recipient and chairman and ceo of Tootsie Roll Industries, pointed out to me that the company’s Chicago headquarters and manufacturing facility encompassed 2.2 million sq. ft., I was thinking about one of those bicycles.

Luckily, as any of you who have met Ellen and Melvin Gordon know, these candymakers come from the old school of hospitality: They treat their visitors like royalty. So when Ellen offered to take me around the facility, a former government building that was used to build engines for B-25s bombers and then Tucker Torpedoes (automobiles), I thought I’d be hoofing several miles.

However, upon leaving the offices and entering the production area, Ellen directed me to a golf cart and asked me to jump in. Not only was the tour of this enormous facility fascinating - seems I can’t get enough of watching confections being produced using the latest technologies - it was downright easy.

Moreover, Ellen had a firm grasp of every process, zipping in and out of the three production areas with aplomb.

As she pointed out, the Gordons embraced automation and technology almost from the “get-go.” Both executives are intimately involved in the review and final approval of such major investments.

And as Melvin relates in this month’s cover story, that kind of knowledge enables ongoing innovation within product development, be it product extensions or completely new items.

It’s clear that incorporating automation and technology into processing has been one of the hallmarks of Tootsie Roll’s success - the ability to produce quality confections economically and efficiently. It’s also clear that the company relies upon its suppliers, ranging from ingredients and processing to packaging and logistics, to help them better compete.

During the Kettle Award Reception and, subsequently, in my interview with Melvin for this month’s article, the chairman expressed thanks to the suppliers, which have been the company’s “co-workers,” so to speak. Together, working as a team, “they’ve been a great help,” diligently participating in a collaborative effort on new ideas and practices, he added.

Coincidentally, readers have an opportunity to check out what new ideas and practices suppliers have in this month’s Leaders in Innovation section. There, executives from a broad range of equipment and ingredient sectors provide brief commentaries about how their companies view innovation and, appropriately, cite examples of those breakthroughs.

Knowing the confectionery industry, I realize that many of you already have close working relationships with “partners” in the industry. Good thing, too, as our parent company’s research arm, Clear Seas Research, reveals in its recently completed survey that the industry is poised to launch a plethora of new products next year.

As we slowly extricate ourselves from the Great Recession, it’s encouraging to see that the belt-tightening many of us have had to undergo hasn’t stopped the industry from innovating.

Oh yeah, one last thing, just to complete the circle: Both my photographer and I really appreciated the golf cart. It’s the only way to go when you’re touring a facility that covers 50 acres.