This retailer has never changed its color palette. The typeface used for the logo dates back a century. The clerks still give free samples to every customer, as they have for years. But a strong e-commerce model now strengthens the 250 brick-and-mortar stores, and new products are launched every month.
It’s See’s Candies at 100, a company that has mastered the recipe for business success by combining 20th century customer service with 21st century business acumen – and dressing it all in nostalgia.
“I like to say that we sell joy and it never goes out of style,” said CEO Pat Egan.
The company celebrates the big 1-0-0 throughout the year with a century-old assortment of chocolates, commemorative mugs, toy boxes and trucks, limited edition candies, #TwitterParty virtual prizes and numerous loving memories.
“I come in happy. I’m leaving happy, ”said Vinny Kalia, a customer turned employee, summarizing his work days since becoming a See’s sales associate at the North San Jose store just a few months ago. He remembers his grandmother taking him with him when she bought his favorite, See’s Peanut Brittle, one of the original recipes. “It brings back so many memories. I feel like a 5 year old boy.
Because Mary See remains the face of See products and stores, many customers know both the history and the popular Bordeaux sweets. But a dive into the history of the company dispels some myths and sheds light on some fascinating chapters.
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First of all, the woman behind this sweet tradition was not a Californian by birth. She was an Irish Canadian, born in Ontario. She and her husband ran a resort and raised three children. When she was widowed at the age of 64, she moved to the United States to live with her son and family in Pasadena.
Her son Charles A. See was already in the chocolate business but saw the potential of his mother’s homemade confectionery. Using his recipes for Victoria Toffee, Maple Walnut Creams, and Chocolate Walnut Fudge, he founded the first store in Los Angeles in 1921. (That’s right, San Franciscans. Although the head office is located in the Bay Area For decades, See’s didn’t expand north until 1936. But rest assured: all this succulent chocolate comes from Guittard, based in the Bay Area.)
See’s survived the Depression years using a strategy of slash prices and discounts for volume purchases, according to a company story written by author Margaret Moos Pick. The company had already started offering mail-order and Los Angeles delivery via See’s motorcycle – with a sidecar decorated as one of the “dainty white shops.”
During World War II, then-general manager Ed Peck argued that it would be wiser to stop making candies like California Brittle than to reduce the amount of then-rationed butter used in each batch. In the end, he recommended maintaining the level of quality but rationing sweets instead, allocating each store a certain amount.
When the candy was gone, the doors would close for the day or the week. One store posted this note at holiday time: “Sold out. Fresh sweets on December 27. Give war bonds for Christmas.
The post-war years saw rapid expansion for See’s. Mary See’s grandson Laurence, a Stanford graduate who took over when her father died, saw the potential of California’s booming suburbs – and shopping malls. The first center opened in Town & Country Village in Sacramento, the next in Lakewood Mall near Long Beach.
By the late 1950s, See’s had 124 stores and a new Northern California candy factory in southern San Francisco. In the 1960s, stores expanded outside of California.
And in 1972, the family sold the business to Warren Buffett, the famous Berkshire Hathaway investment guru, who called the lucrative See “the prototype of a dream business” – a business that ” provided us with a lot of money for acquisitions and opened my eyes to the power of brands, ”he told shareholders.
From the 1980s until this century, See’s continued to embrace trends in consumer tastes, from premium truffles to kid-friendly sour candies to sugar-free chocolate. On the business side, the company offered online sales, opened kiosks in airports and shopping malls, expanded its volume sales program, and installed double counters in many stores to speed up transactions, especially during the holidays.
Then, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing See’s to halt production as it had only done once before – during World War II.
The day before the shelter-in-place order in California took effect, forward-looking customers flocked to stores in See to purchase hand-decorated chocolate eggs and gift boxes while they could. One of them was Ingrid Kambe, who said: “It would be traumatic without our Easter candy from See!
During the shutdown, See’s donated 100 tons of candy across western states to hospitals, healthcare workers, first responders, food banks and nonprofits, according to Egan.
A few weeks later, he announced that the company had reconfigured the way candy was made and sold safely, with fewer employees in the production shops. Social distance sales resumed in May outside the front door in a limited number of stores.
“We ask you to be patient as we pick up the pace,” he said.
By the end of the year, See’s had significantly increased its online sales to customers ordering from home. In-room shopping was back, although the number of customers was limited. And employees had started handing out the legendary free samples again – prepackaged for added security.
In this centennial year, as the pandemic draws to a close, See’s is organizing ribbon cuts for new stores in Southern California and Las Vegas. The most recent opened on May 7 at Seal Beach on the Orange County coast.
For those keeping track, this is store # 251 for Mary See, the kind grandma with a knack for making candy.