‘Tis The Season

Every year at Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter our church sells See’s candy. I am a big supporter in large part because of my sweet tooth. However, it took me years to become a See’s aficionado, having grown up in the East where See’s was nowhere in evidence and the standard chocolates were Whitman’s Samplers and Russell Stover’s—not even in the same league as See’s and generally inedible.

See’s is a California company started in 1921 by Charles See, his wife Florence, and his widowed mother Mary when they migrated from Ontario, Canada to southern California. Their first shop was opened in Los Angeles. By the Depression, the company had grown to 30 shops and it now has 211 stores, with 110 being in California.

Unlike many candy companies, See’s uses all local and fresh ingredients (with the exception of vanilla and pine nuts) and no preservatives. The chocolate is made by Guittard (a fine chocolatier whose chocolate bars can be found at upscale grocery stores). This makes the candy taste exceedingly good, but poses problems for shelf life. (I have found that the candies freeze quite well, however.)

Another person smitten by See’s when he first tried the candy in 1971 was Warren Buffett. He bought the company through his Berkshire Hathaway group in 1972 for $25 million. Sales in 2011 were $376 million with an estimated $83 million as profits.

Remember the classic “I Love Lucy” episode with Lucy and Ethel frantically wrapping candies on the production line and losing the battle? Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance actually trained at See’s for this episode, but probably not at 4:00 a.m. when plant workers usually arrive to stand at their stations, just like Lucy and Ethel, wearing the signature white lab coats with their first names embroidered on the front.

Assisting these workers are machines, a few which are 100 years old and still going. These machines are complemented with brand-new robots such as Tweety and Sylvester, which stretch out and flip the peanut brittle. Production stops at 2:00 p.m. and the cleanup crew starts at 3:00 p.m., often working eight hour shifts.

Unfortunately, See’s only gives tours to the likes of Cher (who worked at See’s before becoming famous) and Bill Gates, special friend to Warren Buffett.

See’s is now launching an ambitious plan to spread the candy eastward. Although you may have seen See’s in airports in the West, no shops appear east of Chicago. In the next three years, See’s plans openings in Eastern and Southern states such as Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Washington, D. C., and Maryland. Previously, in the ‘80s, See’s expanded to St. Louis and Texas, but they struggled against the locally popular Fannie May (not the mortgage company) and were forced to retreat. Will the expansion work this time? Will See’s be as popular if it can be found everywhere? Well, it works for Starbuck’s so maybe See’s has a chance, especially with Buffett’s stamp of approval. I, for one, will continue my support, stocking my freezer to get through the down period between Easter and Christmas.

© Cynthia S. Meyers, 12/2013

This article was published when Cynthia Meyers of Cynthia Meyers CFP® was with Financial Telesis. Cynthia Meyers has not been with Financial Telesis since 8/11/14 and has no further affiliation with that organization.