A Peek Inside the See’s Candy Factory

Milk chocolate orange creams get an 'O' put on top of them by hand.

I’m a “nuts and chews” gal. Always have been. Always will be.

Like so many of you out there, See’s Candy has been a constant in my life, through so many Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Christmas celebrations. The familiar white box, with its old-fashioned cameo photo of founder Mary See, was a sweet staple in my family’s house.

As a child, I sometimes got scolded by my Dad for pinching the corners of all the candies in the box to see what fillings they held inside. As an adult, I was in awe of my friend Lori, who had the uncanny ability to discern what each piece of candy was, just by looking at it.

With my long ties to the candy, it’s no surprise that I jumped at the chance when recently invited to tour See’s three-story factory in South San Francisco. (Sorry, you sweet tooths out there: See’s doesn’t offer regular tours; they are by invitation only.)

The aroma of sugar, chocolate and butter hits you the moment you walk into the quaint lobby, with its frosted Deco light fixtures and spic-and-span, black-and-white checkerboard floor. Lest you get famished while you wait for your tour guide, there is a domed glass serving dish in the waiting area that holds candy samples you can help yourself to.

Just-made orange bonbons

This is one of two See’s factories. The other, about the same size, is in Los Angeles. This is the busy time for the candy company, as 350 employees in the San Francisco factory alone gear up to turn out chocolate Santas, and other Christmas treats. The candy with the longest shelf-life is made first (lollypops, which are good for 100 days); the ones with the shortest shelf-life are made last (cream-centered bonbons, which keep for only 15 days).

All seven production lines operate during the fall/winter holiday season. On a given day, the San Francisco locale churns out anywhere from 42,000 to 72,000 pounds of candy a day.

See’s has more than 200 retail stores now, as far east as Chicago; as well as airport kiosks and temporary holiday storefronts.

The See family no longer owns the company, which it began in 1921 in Los Angeles. In 1972, they sold it to investment manager Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. Nope; you won’t find Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet wandering around here, nibbling on molasses chips and divinity. But he does have a fondness for the candy, says my guide, Production Manager Robert McIntyre. Indeed, you will find See’s Candy at Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meetings, usually peanut brittle — Buffet’s favorite — in boxes with his likeness on the cover.

Despite no longer being family-owned, See’s has managed to retain its venerable quality. Computers operate much of the equipment now, but the bonbons are still dipped by hand. A high-tech chemistry lab on site tests for potential bacteria in every batch of candy before it is released for sale. At the same time, some of the candy, such as the fudge, is still made using Mary See’s original recipes.

Why has See’s Candy endured in popularity all these years, even when so many gourmet chocolates now have popped up on the market?

“It’s consistency. It’s quality. And it’s a certain mystic,” McIntyre says. “We don’t change our stores. They are old-fashioned. You grow up with See’s, and when you’re an adult, it’s still the same. The candy is also a reasonable price (a 1-pound box is $15). You get value in what you’re purchasing.”

Testing the quality of a batch of candy just off the conveyer belt.

See’s also has a liberal return policy. You can demolish half a box of candy, and still return it for a full refund, no questions asked, McIntyre says.

And let’s not forget one of the most endearing traditions that has existed from Day One: With every purchase in the store, you get a piece of candy to nibble on at no charge. Ahh, if only everything we bought came with a freebie like that.

This machine sprays chocolate up through a grate to coat the bottoms of the cream centers.

As we walked around the factory, I couldn’t help but picture that indelible scene from “I Love Lucy,” with Lucy and Ethel stuffing their faces with chocolate, trying to cover up the fact that they were falling farther and farther behind while manning a conveyer-belt of candy.

I reaped the rewards, but didn’t have to go to work like that duo did. Instead, as we walked around, McIntyre kept encouraging me to sample any candy being made. (Hey, it’s tough work, but someone has to do it.)

McIntyre admitted he can’t resist whenever employees are churning out Café Au Lait truffles. I can see why. As I pulled one out of a just-packed box and bit into it, the coffee-cream center was still so fluffy, and the cup-of-Joe flavor really resonated.

Just a bit of butter goes into the candy....Just a bit...Uh huh....

A special propriety blend of chocolate is made by Burlingame’s Guittard especially for See’s. All the nuts are carefully sorted to make sure no shells are lurking. Any sub par candies that stick together (called “Twins”) go to the employee store, where they can be purchased at a heavy discount. Any candies that fall on the floor during the production process? They go to a co-op of Central Valley farmers, who feed them to their pigs. Talk about porking out!

If a supplier runs out of a particular ingredient, See’s won’t make the particular candy rather than substitute something else. A certain type of date from the Middle East no longer was available when farmers there stopped growing them. So See’s stopped making its date-nut candies rather than switch to a different variety.

“Our consumers all have their favorite pieces of candy,” McIntrye says. “They can tell if something has been modified or changed. And they get upset.”

New Pie Box assortment

It can take only about four months from idea to production to create a new candy, using existing equipment. New for Thanksgiving this year is the “Pie Pack,” a round pie-shaped box filled with pie-flavored truffles: pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie, and cranberry-orange pie.

The most popular candies are the milk Bordeaux, king caramel, and the nuts & chews assortment.

Not all candies are winners, though. The gourmet truffles, which were introduced one Christmas season, didn’t last beyond that. Perhaps a little too posh for See’s customers who prefer no-nonsense, fuss-free sweets?

After all, it’s really that satisfying taste of nostalgia that we enjoy most in See’s candy. And it’s what keeps us coming back for more. I don’t know anyone — no matter how old they are now, or how finicky their tastes have become, or how far away they live from California now — who doesn’t just want to dive in when that familiar box is opened up.

It’s a taste we simply can’t resist.

A Recipe Using See’s Candies: See’s Scotch Kiss Sweet Potatoes

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Date: Wednesday, 29. October 2008 5:58
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36 comments

  1. 1

    What a great post! We love going to See’s candies to snack on samples. And you’re right -those candies are still affordable. I like the dark chocolate covered almonds the best.

  2. 2

    My favorite chocholate growing up was See’s and it remains my favorite to this day. What a “treat” to see the inner workings of the factory.

  3. 3

    ignore my last post misspelling…I think I had “chocolate” on my fingers!

  4. 4

    See’s was the only chocolate people would eat in Hawaii where I grew up. My mom loves it so much and believes in its California origins so that she would always buy a box of Sees when she visits San Francisco. I would say, “Mom, they have stores in Hawaii.” And she’ll just reply, “but they’re made fresh here!” (BTW, those Halloween chocolates are just too cute!)

  5. 5

    Hi Caroyln!

    You “sold” them to me!! These confections “bon bons” are extremely delicious..if they’d have a branch here.. I’m the first in queue :)

  6. 6

    Thanks for taking inside See’s candy factory! Is that second to last picture of butter?!

  7. 7

    Great post! See’s Candies are always passed around on the holidays. And it’s too bad they don’t give factory tours (my husband begged when we vacationed in San Francisco 6 months ago but gave us samples, though.) Now it felt like I was just in the tour. Thanks!

  8. 8

    I know, I wish they offered public tours, too. But I can see how much liability and work that would involve. There’s a lot of heavy equipment there, and a whole room of huge cauldrons full of hot liquified sugar and butter. That could get dangerous in a heartbeat.

    And yes, Hillary, if you roll your cursor over that photo, you’ll see that indeed it says that it’s butter. A whole lot of butter. ;)

    I think ever since I was a kid, my favorite piece in the box has been the rectangular one with dark chocolate on the bottom, and caramel-covered walnuts all over the top. Whenever I open a box of See’s, THAT is the piece I reach for first. Some things never change.

  9. 9

    thanks for the post. I love See’s. I can recognize some of the chocolates by sight, but not all of them.

  10. 10

    did you get to try the seasonal pie truffles? Any inside pictures of them? Are they any good? What about the Halloween chocolate & orange cream – any good?

    So jealous!

  11. 11

    What a fun post – I am a loyal See’s fan pretty much since I was in the womb!!! Thanks for sharing the inner workings of a National Treasure~~

  12. 12

    oh i love your post, and covet your private tour… my husband is an engineer and has been there for work on several occasions over the years, but NEVER returns with pics and keeps me in the know like your post! i swear i was breast fed on see’s. i know every piece from sight, even blindfolded i bet… my mom used to play bridge with the family when i was a kid, she would come home with doilies filled with my favorite pieces. gosh, i remember when sees cost $1.85 a pound… we just got a see’s in my town a year ago, right next door to my bank, twice a month i am loading up on my addiction, no longer is it just for special occasions, its often my b,l&d! also love the see’s kiosks at the airport, we always grab one and dine on them where ever in the world we travel, nice to take a bit of home with you~ thanks for sharing your tour!

  13. 13

    Cathy and Jain, I’m with you in practically eating See’s since conception. My Mom used to tell me that she knew when she was pregnant with me that I was a girl. When she was pregnant with my two older brothers, she craved sour foods. With me? See’s Candy!

    I didn’t get to try the new pie candies. But I did try the Halloween chocolate and orange creams. Yum! They are sooooo cute, too.

  14. 14

    I have one word for you, and one word only (though it’s hyphenated): toffee-ettes.

    ‘Nuf said.

  15. 15

    Oh My God! Seriously cool! I grew up just down the street from the Los Angeles See’s Candy Factory! I should stop by and ask for a tour! Thanks for the great post!

  16. 16

    MMMMMMMM, bordeaux. I want one in my mouth at the moment of my passing, and then I want several pounds tossed liberally over my body before the casket is closed for good. Morbid, a tad. But a mere token of the adoration I hold for this heavenly morsel of eye-rolling goodness from Madame See. Yes, she made me see. “See,” she said. “This is good.” Amen. Love the blog, Carolyn. All the best, Luis

  17. 17

    I laughed at your dad scolding you for pinching the corners to see what was inside. Me, I wasn’t so subtle. I tooka small bite. My mom would make sure the chomped ones were taken out before offering my dad the box. And yes, she scolded me for the bad manners.
    If only I had had Lori’s talent.

  18. 18

    So glad you mentioned the I Love Lucy episode, I went there from the first image in your post! I love chocolate, esp. if there’s caramel anywhere nearby. ps I didn’t pinch the corners, poked a hole in the bottom instead and hoped that no one noticed.

  19. 19

    I grew up with See’s, with the dark molasses chips being my favorite.

    A number of years ago I had the opportunity to go on a tour of Dilettante Chocolate up in Seattle, with the same tasting whatever is handy opportunity (sadly also not a public tour as I recall).

    Now I’m hungry, even though I just had lunch…

  20. 20

    I am sorry you have such a miserable job, Carolyn. (I am soooooo jealous!!)

  21. 21

    I’m a nuts and chews fan myself. Growing up, though there were “other” chocolates you could buy (think Whitmans samplers), See’s was always preferred. I still get my mom some sugar free stuff from there to put in her Christmas Stocking.

  22. 22

    I am so jealous !
    For somone who is not a huge chocolate fan,
    I LOVE SEE’S CANDY !!! I So want to go. !!

  23. 23

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  24. 24

    As I life-long See’s fan, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the most effective way of getting any shopping done with my twins (now 18 months), is to swing by See’s and get them each a lollipop. It goops-up the stroller, but it buys me a whole hour of whine-free shopping!

    I’m so disappointed that they don’t do tours. I was going to as for a trip to San Fran and a tour for my 40th!

  25. 25

    Taado, I bet you when your kids grow up that will be one of their fondest memories of childhood. They’ll tell their friends, “Mom used to always get us those lollipops!” Little will they ever know that there was a reason for that. Too cute!

  26. 26

    omg…love reading your post, my mouth is watering right now. I always remember seeing the factory in South City and wishing I could go inside…you lucky duck you ;)

  27. 27

    [...] get in an even sweeter mood, read my post from last year all about my private tour of the South San Francisco candy factory. Share and [...]

  28. 28

    I rec’d some Cinnamon hearts for Valentine’s day. Now that I am hooked I cant find any, and was told that I cant get them until next year. I want them now, can you special order them?

  29. 29

    Trudy: Unfortunately, a lot of See’s selections are seasonal. So, I don’t think you’ll be able to special order the cinnamon hearts, since they only go into production of them near Valentine’s Day. So sorry. But just think — you have something to look forward to. And after such a long wait, they will taste even better than you remember them.

  30. 30

    its my first time to have see’s candy.im here in philippines and my cousin send us a box of see’s candy..geezzz…i really love it…its sad that i cant have those candies always…my daughter also love the nuts so we..its very lucky of u guys having it anytime…more power to See’s candy…

  31. 31

    [...] A Private Tour of See’s Candy Share and [...]

  32. 32

    [...] My Private Tour of See’s Candies Factory Share and [...]

  33. 33

    Really enjoyed reading about your tour of the See’s Candy factory. I live vicariously through you–meeting and interviewing such talented chefs and eating at such wonderful restaurants. (Being INVITED to dine at many of them, no less, and attending grand openings, etc.) I know your writings enrich my life as, I’m sure, many others as well) In my next life, I want to come back as Carolyn Jung!

  34. 34

    I used to get the pink See’s bonbons from my mall’s Sees Candies store all the time…and their free samples were the best.

  35. 35

    Nuts & Chews!!!

  36. 36

    Seeing those chocolates and candies makes me craving for more for my ref. I really love chocolates and candies. Thanks for sharing this site.

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