Not long ago I wrote a column bellyaching about society’s changing times. All things must change, I said, and usually when they do change, they change for the worse. Well I’m happy to report that, in at least one case, I was wrong. There is one major company whose product has not changed for the worse; as a matter of fact it has not changed at all. This company continues to maintain the same high quality and high standards that have been their hallmark for almost 100 years.
Amazing, right? And to make matters even more amazing, the company is headquartered in my crazy state of California, a state that is not usually known for preserving history, maintaining good traditions or keeping a lid on changes. That wonderful company is See’s Candies, the best tasting chocolates in the world. See’s continues to manufacture candy as delicious today as it was when I was a young kid growing up in the ‘50s.
So how is it that a major company (let alone a candy company) can manage to produce a product without compromising quality for 97 years? How have they been able to maintain the same deliciousness for so long? I wondered if the company’s founder, Mary See, might be able to shed some light on this question for me. I decided to go to the source, the See’s website, for answers.
Mary See’s sweet little portrait has been proudly displayed in the See’s stores and on their candy boxes for decades, always smiling out at us in that cute grandmotherly comforting fashion. Of course we all just assume that Mary See was the genius behind the confections, but suddenly I was struck with a horrible thought. What if I discover that Mary See is a fake? What if she really never existed? Suppose she was a purely made-up character like Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima?
For me learning that there isn’t any Mary See would be as shattering as Virginia learning that there isn’t any Santa Claus. I’d be crushed! Should I go to the website or not? With certain things sometimes it’s better not to know. Finally curiosity got the better of me, taking a deep breath I bit the bullet, and logged onto the See’s site.
Yes, Virginia, there was a Mary See. (Whew!)
She was born Mary Wiseman in Ontario, Canada in 1854, and married Alexander See at age 20. The couple had three children. She and her husband ran a hotel and during that time Mary developed her own homemade candy recipes. After Mary’s husband passed away in 1919, her son Charles suggested that she move to sunny California with him and his wife. Charles planned to start his own candy company, selling sweets made from his mother’s recipes. So the son started the company, but it was his mother’s recipes that inspired him to do so.
In the beginning, according to the official See’s website, Mary made the candy herself in the kitchen of their home in Pasadena. Mary’s original recipes are still used today in some of the company’s candies including Peanut Brittle, Victoria Toffee and Chocolate Walnut Fudge. She took pride in her homemade candy and used only the finest and freshest ingredients—a tradition continued by See’s to this day.
See’s Candies was founded in 1921 with their first shop at 135 North Western Avenue in Los Angeles. Charles grew his company from that first shop to 78 shops across California, never compromising on the quality.
Charles passed away in 1949 and his son, Laurance A. See succeeded him as president. In 1951 Chuck Higgins, another unsung hero in keeping the quality standards so high, joined the company. Laurance told Charles to “Learn See’s version of how to run a quality candy business.” He did and he eventually became president and CEO. As president, Chuck made sure to taste every new candy that was introduced, dubbing himself “Chief Taster.” He remained president and CEO of See’s Candies for 34 years until his retirement in 2006.
Thankfully, even though the company was sold in 1972 and is now run by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, the quality has remained unchanged. I think they got the message that you don’t mess around with something so many people love.
Today the company has over 200 stores across the country with a net income of over $90 million. That would qualify as a successful business, a business that didn’t have to change to remain deliciously successful.
Let’s hope See’s Candies never changes.
Greg Crosby is a writer and cartoonist and former executive at the Walt Disney Company.