Growing up in the Bay Area, See’s Candies was always around: a box wrapped in red-and-gold paper nestled under the Christmas tree, an assortment of truffles unveiled at the end of a dinner party, a butterscotch lollipop just because.
At a certain point, it disappeared from my family’s house. We discovered new artisanal chocolates from small producers. Some looked like vividly colored jewels, others were filled with exciting flavors like passion fruit or jasmine tea. Single-origin chocolates began to appear. They grew darker and darker, more and more bitter.
When I started working at a different newspaper a few years ago, I was amazed to find a thriving culture of See’s Candies. Every winter, the production manager would bring in more than a dozen pounds of See’s for the office to share, unleashing a festively competitive spirit as we tried to snag each box’s lone Bordeaux, the See’s best-seller filled with brown sugar buttercream and coated in chocolate sprinkles.
It made me wonder, how has See’s remained so beloved in the Bay Area when chocolate trends have moved in the opposite direction? And how is it continuing to expand when retail is suffering like never before?
The nostalgic vibe and old-fashioned service at See’s keeps people coming back to stores, with just 10 percent of the company’s sales occurring online. See’s opened nine new stores this year, including one in Livermore, and plans to continue expanding with an emphasis on California.
For CEO Pat Egan, who joined the company about a year ago, the magic of See’s comes down to quality control and its unique position as a 98-year-old brand.
“We make it all pretty much, and we sell it all pretty much. We’re not farming this out to anybody else,” he said. “We are the keepers of the ingredients — we have these relationships that go back not just decades but half a century.”
Apart from some airport kiosks, See’s doesn’t franchise. The company owns and operates nearly 250 stores, with the majority in California. It runs three factories: one for lollipops in Burlingame and others that make chocolates in South San Francisco and Los Angeles.
See’s doesn’t make the bulk chocolate, which it melts down and turns into confections. That comes from Burlingame’s Guittard Chocolate Co. Most ingredients are also locally sourced, including almonds and walnuts. See’s proudly touts that it doesn’t use preservatives, waxes or fillers.
Yet Egan said he sees tastes trending toward darker, less sweet chocolate. Customers have been asking for more dark, and See’s has listened with new items like a Dark Chocolate Santa this year. Most of See’s treats, however, remain made from milk chocolate.
It’s hard to imagine See’s ever venturing into the depths of single-origin truffles or matcha tea-flavored candies, and Egan said the company is unlikely to do anything too “cutting edge.” But he pointed out that See’s experiments with limited-time sweets, such as one in the fall made of layers of apple caramel and cinnamon marshmallow covered in milk chocolate called the Caramel Apple Scotchmallow. It’s unusual for See’s, which mostly relies on a rotation of nuts, caramel, buttercream, brittle and nougat fillings, but still feels like a classic flavor combination — not to mention it’s very sweet.
“People still want sweet stuff — they really do — and we’re just fine with that,” Egan said.
On a tour of the See’s South San Francisco factory, I saw massive tanks holding 54,000 pounds of liquid milk chocolate. Extruders piped out perfect cylinders of buttercream fillings. Conveyor belts carried hundreds of thousands of truffles under small streams of chocolate, building layer by layer. Here, too, was tension between old and new, with cream beaters from the 1930s sitting near machines with digital touch pads.
See’s is making upgrades gradually — better technology is one key change Egan envisions during his tenure. But a number of tasks are still done by hand. Humans have to plop little Christmas trees made of icing onto dark chocolate Butter Patties. They also studiously mark the fudge with a proprietary rake-like tool, and dip Walnut Rolls in caramel and nuts by hand.
“Robots can’t pack the Bordeaux,” said production manager Bob McIntyre, pointing to the chocolate’s delicate and messy coating of sprinkles.
If new technology comes into the See’s stores, customers won’t notice, said Egan. That’s because the retail locations are supposed to feel like a trip back in time — to 1921, when Charles See opened the first See’s Candies in Los Angeles using recipes from his mom, Mary See.
The stores’ decor hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s always a checkerboard floor and a long counter displaying chocolates on little pedestals. The employees wear old-timey, black-and-white uniforms with ties or big bows, and they greet every customer with a free sample — and multiple free samples when asked. See’s gives out about a million pounds of free samples a year, and Egan said that will never change.
Will a younger generation that’s more interested in artisanal products continue the tradition of See’s? I asked my old colleague Nick Wong, the former production manager, about his family’s love for See’s. He said it’s been a holiday staple his entire life. It’s the default gift for visiting family members as a California-made treat. This year, his mom bought him 18 pounds of chocolate and peanut brittle to bring to work.
Nostalgia might keep things going, he said, and the fact that See’s is far more affordable and accessible than the higher-end stuff makes a big difference, too.
“I love my Scotchmallow every single year,” Wong said, referring to the honey marshmallow and caramel treat enrobed in dark chocolate. “It’s not fancy chocolate, but it’s still delicious.”
A See’s box of
Chronicle staff favorites
We tasted the bulk of the options at See’s Candies and asked Chronicle staff which chocolates they always choose first.
The dark chocolate helps ensure the stretchy, gooey honey nougat — interspersed with roasted almonds — doesn’t taste too sweet.
Apple Pie Truffle
This is Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Audrey Cooper’s favorite treat from See’s. Yes, the Apple Pie Truffle. Yes, it’s coated in white chocolate. Believe it or not, it’s satisfyingly tangy.
After eating a lot of See’s, the reliance on almonds and walnuts can get repetitive. This cluster of crunchy pecans, laced with caramel and coated in milk chocolate, is a nice change of pace.
Another favorite of Cooper’s, this treat offers the crowd-pleasing combination of chewy caramel and almonds.
Dark Molasses Chips
Culture writer Peter Hartlaub described See’s as “the main currency” in his family since he was born. These thin rectangles of crispy molasses wafers with a honeycomb-esque bite are his top choice.
The Bordeaux is probably the single item most people associate with See’s, with a soft, creamy center and lots of chocolate sprinkles. Features managing editor Kitty Morgan always goes for the dark version.
A childhood favorite for many, the scotchmallow is easy to love with layers of soft marshmallow and gooey caramel enrobed in dark chocolate.
Design director Elizabeth Burr loves this combination of crunchy peanut brittle and chunky peanut butter coated in milk chocolate, and it’s easy to see why.
Cafe Au Lait Truffle
Food writer Janelle Bitker remembers feeling sophisticated as a kid eating a coffee-flavored truffle. Its creamy, rich center still satisfies today.
Dark Chocolate Butter
Like a richer, more buttery companion to Bordeaux, the Dark Chocolate Butter gets a rave review from wine critic Esther Mobley.
Features copy editor Bernadette Fay loves all of the nut-based candies at See’s — her husband buys her a box of See’s Peanut Brittle Nuts and Chews every year — but for chocolates, the
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