See’s: Best in Candy

I’m a fan of Desert Island Lists. Strip away everything you can live without till you arrive at the single thing you love but also need. My Desert Island chocolate is See’s. Keep your Godiva and Cadbury and the famous Belgian Leonidas. Forget that bespoke Parisian guy who makes the most expensive candy per ounce on the planet and does wondrous things with passionfruit cream. There is chocolate, and then there’s See’s.

I’m a fan of Desert Island Lists.  Strip away everything you can live without till you arrive at the single thing you love but also need.  My Desert Island chocolate is See’s. Keep your Godiva and Cadbury and the famous Belgian Leonidas. Forget that bespoke Parisian guy who makes the most expensive candy per ounce on the planet and does wondrous things with passionfruit cream. There is chocolate, and then there’s See’s.

As a child growing up in Appalachian North Carolina, my father kept chocolate in the drawer of his bedside table and ate a single piece every night at bedtime. We five children associated adulthood with the ability to eat chocolate at will and couldn’t wait to be grown up. Our default family weekend was an overnight road trip (nine hours each way) to the Hershey plant in Pennsylvania where we’d tour the factory, be plied with samples and visit the gift shop—our true destination—which was the only place in America that sold the giant “novelty” 10lb Hershey bar that was four inches thick, the size of a doormat and required a hammer and chisel to eat. That bar generally lasted us a month, at which point we’d pile back into the station wagon and return to Hershey. We were such frequent visitors that my siblings and I knew the factory spiel by heart and tortured tour guides by reciting it along with them.  

As I got older and experienced a greater variety of chocolate, it became clear that my love of Hershey’s was less for its quality and more for the nostalgia and sense of family it offered. And as a company, Hershey grew too big too fast, moved away from what it did well—making chocolate—and began snapping up other companies, producing random things like cough drops and cookies and compiling a dismal record on union-busting and enforced child labor. 

In my 20’s I was smitten with Teuscher champagne truffles, flown to the U.S. from Switzerland twice a week and exclusively sold in tiny jewel-box storefronts in Beverly Hills and on Madison Avenue. The champagne truffle was a gustatorial paradox:  the sparkling lightness of a somehow-bubbly cream enrobed in a thin chocolate shell. What made Teuscher chocolates such a huge step up from Hershey and its ilk was its ephemeral nature. The company’s refusal to use preservatives meant the clock was ticking the second a box was put on an airplane. They were insanely fresh. On the down side, I could rarely afford them and other than the champagne truffle, the rest of their candies were just okay.

I was a California resident for almost ten years before I tasted See’s. I often passed their La Cienega factory going to and from LAX, but until a store opened in The Grove they hadn’t been on my radar. See’s doesn’t advertise, nor do they need to.  For over 100 years, these locally made chocolates have had such an intense following that they’ve become a family tradition for multiple generations. See’s candies are made from fresh ingredients sourced almost exclusively in state. Like Teuscher, See’s has never used preservatives, and for most of its existence the company has been family-owned and operated.

See’s was founded in 1921 by immigrant Charles See, 25 years before Roald Dahl published his great children’s novel about an English Charlie equally obsessed with candy.  In some ways, See’s story is as much a fairytale as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Charles See got his start in candy in 1914 in Toronto as a sales rep for U.S. chocolate manufacturer, Merckens, but dreamed of someday owning his own candy store.  In 1920 he moved to Los Angeles with his wife, two young children and elderly widowed mother, Mary. Mary See provided Charles with the golden ticket to launch his dream via her recipes for homemade confections like Maple Walnut Creams, Victoria Toffee and Hand-Dipped Bon Bons, and you will find her framed portrait in every single See’s store in existence and on the company’s signature black-and-white boxes.  Mother and son opened their first storefront and candy kitchen at 135 Western Avenue. A hundred and one years later, See’s now operates 247 locations nationwide, employs 2600 hundred people (7000 in peak holiday season) and still makes much of its candies the old-fashioned way, by hand.

 Charles’ vision for his store was simple: produce his mother’s chocolates with the highest-quality ingredients and sell them at a fair price to bring the customer back. But his vision of chocolate was more complex: confection as connection. Candy-buying’s purpose was to celebrate life’s milestones-- births and weddings and anniversaries. To mark our shared traditions, like Valentine’s and Mother’s Day. To offer sweet consolation in times of bereavement and loss. People might buy boxed candy for their own enjoyment but the essential nature of chocolate is communal. A thing to be shared and gifted. To this day, every See’s store has a small wooden desk with pens and envelopes where the customer can handwrite a gift card to accompany their purchase.

See’s famous motto was and is “Quality Without Compromise.” Charles insisted on the finest butter, sugar, cream and nuts that money could buy.  According to historian Margaret Moos Pick, Charles was such a stickler for purity that his early suppliers were forced to add a whole new tier to their sales pyramids: above “Premium Quality” sat “See’s Quality.” During the Great Depression, rather than downgrade the quality of his ingredients Charles cut his prices and offered consumers bulk rates. In WWII when butter and sugar were rationed, instead of adjusting his mother’s recipes or putting people out of work by closing stores, he produced a limited amount of candy and divided it equally among his shops; when the daily allotment of candy sold out, employees were told to close their doors and go home.

Candy contains so few ingredients that each one must be perfect and consistent across batches.  Given that See’s uses neither preservatives in its fillings nor chemicals like potassium sorbate to extend the shelf life of its candy, ingredients must also be fresh, and optimally, by extension, local. Apart from C&H grain sugar from Hawaii, almost all See’s ingredients are sourced in California. Grade AA butter from Challenge Dairies in Dublin, California has been the only butter used in See’s confections for 98 or its 101 year existence. Guittard in San Francisco has exclusively supplied See’s their couverture, or processed chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa butter, for 78 years. Cream, nuts, and raisins each come from a single purveyor, all of them in-state.

See’s current President and C.E.O. Pat Egan, tells me that in March of this year a heat wave wiped out the entire raspberry crop of their long-term supplier. Rather than use an inferior berry, the company suspended production on their raspberry cream truffle indefinitely until something of an equal or superior quality could be found. Some years back, when a barrel of honey’s flavor profile was deemed minutely different from its predecessor (bees are free-ranging and can’t be depended upon to draw their nectar from the same flowers from one season to the next) See’s sent a team to “honey school” to learn how to blend honeys to create a See’s standard.

See’s pride in their candy is exemplified by an early practice Charles initiated of welcoming all customers into his shops with a free sample. If chocolate is a vehicle for human connection and a gift, it makes sense. And it’s an excellent business practice.  If you eat the (free) chocolate of your choosing in the store, it’s humanly impossible to leave without buying more.

 Although See’s is no longer a family-owned and operated business it’s very much a business that feels like family. A huge number of the workers in the factories have been with the company for more than thirty years. All employees are gifted jeweled lapel pins that indicate their years with See’s. You will routinely see these on the uniforms of candy-sellers in their stores. (Factory workers get them too, but jewelry isn’t worn on the floor for obvious reasons.)  A single ruby indicates five years with the company; a single diamond, twenty.

After the death of Charles See’s son, Laurence, the family-owned business was sold in 1972 to multibillionaire Warren Buffett. Buffett was so impressed with See’s product and integrity that he offered three times the book value of the company and made no changes in its management or practices except to fund its expansion. Elon Musk famously trolled Buffett for his protectiveness of the See’s brand, claiming he could “beat” Buffett in the candy arena, but dropped the challenge when he couldn’t find a superior product.

See’s remains a storied brand, deeply woven into California life. Sonny and Cher first laid eyes on each other in 1962 in a See’s shop where she was selling candy. The See’s conveyer belt at the La Cienega Boulevard factory was also the shooting location for the most-watched episode of 1952’s “I LOVE LUCY” in which Lucy and Ethel get jobs hand-wrapping bon bons at a candy factory but are forced to stuff candies in their mouths and bras when the belt speeds up and they fall behind. And though Roald Dahl gave us the fantastical river of chocolate that runs through his Willy Wonka’s fictional factory, in 1994 a truck driver fell asleep outside the See’s plant while emptying his tanks, and on that wondrous day the streets of Los Angeles literally ran with chocolate.         

The world we live in changes so rapidly, but never in a See’s candy store. Here the black-and-white checkered floors, ruffled window curtains and the salesladies in their 1940’s-era white dresses with black piping and neck bows make me feel as if I’ve stepped into an old black-and-white movie, or simply, back to a time when life was sweeter. Chocolate is connection. See’s always tastes of memory and of childhood, even if it wasn’t yours.

Desert Island lists are brutal. They require exactitude. Give me only one chocolate for the rest of my life and I’ll take See’s Milk Bordeaux, a confection so popular among its devotees that stores often sell out their daily allotment before the close of business. The Milk Bordeaux is an airy, brown sugar buttercream covered in milk chocolate and topped with homemade sprinkles. It’s the perfect balance of textures and flavors and no other candy company produces anything remotely similar. I hate the cliché, but it’s so fresh it literally melts in your mouth.

Comments(2)

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Lynne

9 months ago

Creative combination you made: “C&H grain sugar”. A combo of cane + granulated.

Sarah

over 1 year ago

This article brought tears to my eyes. My favorite is the Dark Bordeaux! I grew up eating See’s and it’s wonderful to learn so much more about the company.

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