Story by Lindsay Andrews
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is one of the most exciting competitions in sports. Fans love filling out brackets each March, competing against friends and family to see whose picks prevail, and rooting for their favored teams to make it to the championship round. It was in that spirit that the PA Chamber saw a new opportunity this past spring to showcase Pennsylvania-made brands and engage Pennsylvanians in good-spirited rivalries, launching its own bracket-style competition to determine the “Coolest Thing Made in PA.” As we would learn, Pennsylvanians are among the most passionate fans in the country when it comes to the companies and products they love – and for good reason. The Keystone State boasts some of the best brands in business.
Taking a cue from a similar contest by the Indiana Chamber each fall, the PA Chamber decided to pit companies with a Pennsylvania presence against one another in a bracket-style competition in which the public voted via Twitter polls for their favorite Pennsylvania-made product. In our own unique twist, we launched our competition at the same time March Madness was taking place, adding to the excitement. In addition to the obvious bragging rights, we determined that the PA Chamber’s inaugural “Coolest Thing Made in PA” champion would be honored at the PA Chamber’s 2024 Annual Economic Summit in the presence of statewide business leaders and elected officials. PA Chamber staff internally determined which member and non-member companies would be among the inaugural 32 “Coolest Thing Made in PA” contestants – making sure to include regional and industry diversity in the field – and randomly seeded participants against one another.
“We included the classic brands that many people think of when they think of Pennsylvania. We included Pennsylvania-made steel, Hershey’s Kisses, Zippo lighters, and Crayola crayons,” PA Chamber President and CEO Luke Bernstein said. “And, people voted with their stomachs, as Yuengling lager, Mrs. T’s pierogies, and Primanti Bros. sandwiches were clear early favorites.”
“One thing we realized at the outset,” Bernstein added, “based on the number of Tweets we received about products that were not included, was that we need to expand the field to 64 next year!”
Turning Out on Twitter
The PA Chamber announced the competition and participating companies in a press release on March 13. The first round of voting kicked off at noon the next day and ran for three days on Twitter – and participation was nothing short of astounding. Just 24 hours into the contest, more than 10,000 votes were cast. In addition to the incredible social media response, news outlets statewide were also getting in on the fun, reporting on the contest across radio, television, and newspaper outlets.
In a press release issued on the second day of voting, Bernstein commented about the overwhelming immediate response and wondered where the results would lead. “We are incredibly excited to see the immediate outpouring of positive responses … Will it be the Sheetz MTO or the Astrobotic lunar lander? Hershey’s Kisses or Aurora self-driving cars? Pennsylvania has some of the most famous and beloved brands in the nation, and we can’t wait to see who comes out on top.”
As the competition narrowed over a three-week time frame (from March 14-31), the PA Chamber issued a statewide press release at the start of each week announcing the remaining competitors and the start date and time of the next rounds. Each round was also heavily promoted on social media by the PA Chamber, participating companies, and media outlets.
Contestants sometimes became the focus of the story. For instance, a semi-final face-off between neighboring companies Yuengling lager and Mrs. T’s pierogies became known as the “Battle of Schuylkill County,” prompting social media comments between the respective fan bases. In the final round on April 3, Mrs. T’s and its loyal “#PierogySquad” of followers took on the Pittsburgh-based Primanti Bros. sandwich for a closely watched championship, with Primanti Bros. winning with 53 percent of the vote. And, in an action befitting a company that just won the “Coolest Thing Made in PA” title, the Primanti Bros. restaurant celebrated its victory by treating its customers to a free beer at every location across Pennsylvania on April 5.
The PA Chamber celebrated its inaugural “Coolest Thing Made in PA” contest as a resounding success. It fulfilled the PA Chamber’s two goals – first, it familiarized more Pennsylvanians with the PA Chamber; and second, it gave the PA Chamber an opportunity to elevate Pennsylvania and its brands as the advocacy organization works to position the commonwealth as the ideal place to locate, grow, and expand business. All told, the contest generated more than 32,000 Twitter votes, more than one million social media impressions, 60 stories across digital and print media, and 50 across broadcast news that reached approximately 1.2 million people. And, the marketing value and engagement it attracted was completely organic – a testament to the simple power of a great idea catching fire across social and traditional media.
“We could not have been more thrilled with how the contest played out and the response it received,” Bernstein said. “We also made the early, easy decision to ask the public who they want to see added to the field when we expand to 64 companies in next year’s contest. There’s no denying that Pennsylvania brands are the best in the business. We were glad that this fun, engaging contest showed the world what we already knew.”
Asher’s Chocolate Pretzels
Asher’s is among Pennsylvania’s most beloved chocolate-making brands. Family-owned since 1892, Asher’s has been putting out delicious signature chocolate treats for five generations – and its chocolate-smothered pretzels are one of the Souderton, PA-based-company’s best-sellers. https://ashers.com/
Astrobotic Lunar Robots
To the Moon! If space is your final frontier, Astrobotic Technology wants to get you there. The company, headquartered in Pittsburgh, is in the business of delivering instruments, technologies, ideas, and new ways of living to the moon and beyond. This year, it will send the first U.S. spacecraft to the Moon since the Apollo. www.astrobotic.com/
Aurora Self-Driving Cars
The future of driving innovation is in automated vehicles, and Aurora is a leader in the field. Aurora’s presence in Pittsburgh made them an easy choice for the “Coolest Thing Made in PA” contest, as the company specializes in self-driving technology that won’t only increase efficiency and mobility on America’s roads but will move people and goods more safely, too. https://aurora.tech/
Made in Meadville since 1886, Channellock Pliers get the job done for all types of hands-on projects. The company prides itself on having pioneered the original Tongue and Groove pliers for hardworking Americans who Channellock continues to support today by manufacturing a product by the same rigorous standards, each and every time. https://channellock.com
A global leader in lasers for industrial, communications, electronics, and instrumentation markets, Coherent Corporation is headquartered in Saxonburg but operates in more than 20 countries worldwide. From automotives to healthcare, optics to thermoelectrics, and more, Coherent’s client base spans industries in pursuit of a better life for future generations.https://www.coherent.com/
Who hasn’t had the joyful childhood experience of holding and coloring with a Crayola crayon? This global brand is a featured item in households and classrooms alike, and its crayons are famously made in the Lehigh Valley, just as they were when they first rolled off the assembly line in 1903. The high-quality, affordable wax crayon is such a “draw” (see what we did there?) that there’s even an incredible tourist attraction! The Easton-based Crayola Experience is a family must-see. www.crayola.com/
The sandwich that recently came out on top in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s own search for the best cheesesteak – in the birthplace of cheesesteaks – had to make our list. The ingredients are simple, but the Dalessandro’s team knows that quality is key. For us, it’s wiz wit! https://dalessandros.com/
Duolingo Language Learning App
Did you know that one of the most downloaded education apps in the world is headquartered in Pittsburgh? Duolingo was founded in 2011 and launched in 2012. It has since become the most popular way to learn a variety of languages around the globe. Tres chouette, n’est pas? https://www.duolingo.com/
Eat’n Park Smiley Cookies
That there’s literally a smiley face cookie above the logo should tell you all you need to know about the popularity of the Eat’n Park smiley-face cookie. It’s a staple at the end of one of the restaurant’s home-cooked meals, and an iconic symbol that brings happiness to customers. What’s even better – the chain donates almost half a million of the cookies every year to support community events and fundraisers. Now that’s something to smile about. https://www.eatnpark.com/
Harley Davidson Motorcycles
Is there anything cooler than the thought of getting on a Harley and driving on the open road? This classic, American motorcycle company has been producing bikes and parts out of a vehicle operations factory in York since 1973. Visitors to the facility can take a tour and even get a behind-the-scenes look at the people, processes, and products – right on down to witnessing how every motorcycle is tested prior to shipping out to its proud new owner. https://www.harley-davidson.com/
As perhaps the most instantly recognizable candy in America (or even the world?), the Hershey Kiss was first produced by Milton Hershey and the candy company bearing his name in 1907 – and it’s still made here today! Fun fact: The delectable, bite-sized chocolate used to be wrapped by hand, including the small tissue paper identification tag inside the foil wrapper (did you know that’s called a “plume”?) before the process was automated. Read more about the history and legend of the world-famous Hershey’s Kiss and grab some recipes here: https://www.hersheyland.com/kisses
Lockheed Martin Spacecraft
As a global engineering and innovation company, Lockheed Martin touches many industries – including space exploration! King of Prussia and Newtown are both home to Lockheed Martin’s breakthrough space technology development that includes state-of-the-art lunar and deep space capabilities. https://www.lockheedmartin.com/
Martin’s Potato Rolls
The famously tasty Martin’s Potato Roll is made in Chambersburg. Known for its fresh-from-the-bakery taste, the company allows no more than four days for its product to remain on store shelves – though it flies off before the allotted time, anyway! Dubbed the No. 1 branded potato roll in the U.S., Martin’s has become the foundation of some of the nation’s premier sandwiches – including the famous Shake Shack burger. Yum! https://potatorolls.com/
Martin & Co. Guitars
A Martin isn’t just a guitar – it’s playable history, stretching back to 1833. From its humble origins around campfires in the Civil War to the hands of musical greats including Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Willie Nelson, and more, a Martin guitar is a musical work of art proudly produced out of a beautiful, historic factory in Nazareth. Check out factory tours, visit the company’s museum, and purchase one of the beautifully handcrafted guitars on the Martin & Co. website: https://www.martinguitar.com/.
Meta’s the Metaverse
Meta, formerly the Facebook company, has changed the way the world connects, finds communities, and grows businesses. It now boasts a strong presence in Pittsburgh, where a crucial segment of the company’s Reality Labs team is based, developing lifelike avatars that allow people to interact in virtual reality as naturally as they would in the real world. Think about being in Harrisburg and watching a movie with your friend in Seattle as if in the same room. The future is being brought to life in the Steel City! https://about.meta.com/
Mrs. T’s Pierogies
A pillowy dumpling filled with savory or sweet fillings, pierogies are a Pennsylvania classic – and no other brand is more well known for making them than Mrs. T’s. Born 65 years ago out of a kitchen in Shenandoah, the family-owned business is now the largest provider of pierogies in the country. Its following is so loyal, in fact, that Mrs. T’s Twitter supporters (dubbed the “pierogy squad”) powered the brand all the way to the championship round in the “Coolest Thing Made in PA” contest, coming in a close second. www.mrstspierogies.com
Musselman’s is a PA tradition of neighbors helping neighbors supply fresh, home-grown fruit for a great-tasting product. Since 1907, Musselman’s has been making applesauce (along with apple butter and apple juice) as part of a cooperative of 100 farming families across 15,000 acres of fruit orchards. https://www.musselmans.com/
Steel is just one of those products that comes to mind when you think “made in PA” – we even have a professional football team bearing the name! Several companies make steel in Pennsylvania for domestic and international use – U.S. Steel, the Ellwood Group, Cleveland Cliffs, Tenaris, and ATI among them. No matter your loyalty to any of the products on this list, steel has long been among the coolest things made in PA.
Pampers Baby Diapers
Consistently rated among the best diapers in America for reliability and safety, parents the world over choose Pampers diapers, many of which are made at Procter & Gamble’s Mehoopany plant, the company’s largest manufacturing site in the U.S. It’s not just the diapers, but the company’s promise to infant and maternal health that had us place the diaper in our contest. https://www.pampers.com/
Pixelle Microwaveable Popcorn Bags
Pixelle Specialty Solutions is the largest, fastest-growing manufacturer of specialty papers in North America, making the paper products that we use every day – including in our snack purchases! Next time you place a popcorn bag in the microwave, consider that the bag was likely made just down the road in picturesque Spring Grove, along with many other household paper products. The plant and its long-term presence in the Keystone State were the subject of a recent story in the PA Chamber’s member-centric blog, The Current. https://www.pixelle.com/
PPG Paints and Coatings
Founded in 1883 as Pittsburgh Plate Glass, today PPG is a global supplier of paints, coatings, optical products, and specialty materials that leads in innovation, sustainability, and color across a variety of industries. Even though PPG is a global entity, it still calls Pittsburgh home and employs 17,000 people in the U.S. and Canada. https://www.ppg.com/
Primanti Bros. Sandwich
The champions! When the “Coolest Thing Made in PA” contest kicked off, the Primanti Bros. social media team hit the ground running with a picture of Toni, the restaurant’s manager and brand ambassador, flexing an Arnold Schwarzenegger-sized muscle at the prospect of facing off against the competition. The company continued with a series of engaging and hilarious posts that got its fan base in the game and generated votes. The result? A 2023 “Coolest Thing Made in PA” title, thanks to social media prowess and the delicious combination of meat and slaw between two thick layers of Italian bread. https://primantibros.com/
Rock Lititz Super Bowl Stage
If you were in awe of the floating platforms that Rihanna and her dancers performed on during the Super Bowl LVII halftime show, you can thank Lititz-based production company Rock Lititz. The company built the platforms and coordinated the rigging that held everything together. This production team shines bright like a diamond! https://www.rocklititz.com/home
Rutter’s Iced Tea
On a hot day, few beverages are more refreshing than a Rutter’s iced tea. The York-based company’s distinctive, popular line of original and flavored iced teas are sold by the gallon or individual bottle, synonymous with summertime, and available at a PA grocer or Rutter’s near you. https://www.ruttersdairy.com/
Seltzer’s Lebanon Bologna
Nestled in the quaint town of Palmyra, Seltzer’s meats have been smoked the same way for over a century – in tall, wooden smokehouses over hand-tended fires. Lebanon bologna is prepared with Pennsylvania Dutch quality and pride in an area in Pennsylvania where “good food and plenty of it” has long been a way of life. https://www.seltzerssmokehousemeats.com/
You can’t go very far in Pennsylvania without finding a Sheetz. The Altoona-based, family-owned convenience store chain has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 1952. The store’s food program is famous – and its Made to Order, or MTO, sandwich – is among the most popular items. During the contest, the company assembled its “Sheetz freakz” fan base to vote for Sheetz – and the MTO made it all the way to the semifinals. https://www.sheetz.com/
Troegs Nugget Nectar
In the world of craft brewing, beer enthusiasts nationwide are familiar with Troegs’ offerings – and Nugget Nectar is among its most famous. The dry-hopped imperial amber ale is offered each year between January and March, featuring a combination of flavors including grapefruit, pine, mango, and creamsicle. If you haven’t tried it yet … hop to it. https://troegs.com/beer/nugget-nectar/
Utz Potato Chips
Bill and Salie Utz started the Utz snack company in their Hanover kitchen in 1921, making about 50 pounds of potato chips an hour. That classic, beloved recipe and the recognizable bag with the cartoon little girl has propelled the company to where it is today – a national chain that produces more than 3.3 million pounds of snacks per week (about half of which are potato chips) with no plans of slowing down. https://www.utzsnacks.com/
Locomotives are powerful, incredible machines, and Pittsburgh-based Wabtec is in the business of manufacturing them and their components – along with other rail and transportation solutions that are improving safety, efficiency, and productivity for businesses of all industries around the globe. https://www.wabteccorp.com/
A drive down I-83 South takes you past the famous York Barbell company headquarters, with the strongman lifting the barbell over his head. York Barbell specializes in manufacturing and distributing quality strength and fitness products that enhance athletic performance and improve customers’ quality of life. It’s a business philosophy that sums up the mission advanced by York Barbell’s founder – the weightlifting champion Bob Hoffman – when he opened the company’s doors in 1932. https://yorkbarbell.com/
The rich, amber lager from America’s oldest brewery is an American classic, and no “Coolest Thing Made in PA” list would be complete without Yuengling beer has been brewed in Pottsville since 1829, and its famous taste – a roasted caramel malt with a subtle sweetness – has led to its rise in popularity across the nation. https://www.yuengling.com/
Durable, refillable, and built for a lifetime of use, Zippo lighters have been wonderfully made in Bradford since the 1930’s. Whether it’s the classic steel look or any variety of unique, artisanal designs, there’s a perfect Zippo for every customer. https://www.zippo.com/
Lindsay Andrews is director of member communications for the PA Chamber.
This article originally was published in the July 2023 edition of Harrisburg Magazine.