Our golden ticket tour of the See’s Candies factory

Story by Jessica Koslow | Tour photos by Jake Ahles

Buttery brown sugar caramels destined to become Milk Butterchews began as strips before they’re cut into bit-size pieces, arranged by hand and enrobed in milk chocolate (top row, middle left). California Brittle (center), Butterscotch Squares (center right), and chocolate-covered Mint Scotchmallows for St. Patrick’s Day (below) are also made in L.A. before being shipped to Carson for final packaging.

Every year for Valentine’s Day, my father-in-law gives my husband and me a large, red, heart-shaped box of See’s Candies chocolates — specifically, the Nuts & Chews. He also mails boxes to his two out-of-state daughters. It’s a tradition he takes very seriously, and he’s not alone: See’s Candies’ single best day for sales is always the one before Valentine’s Day.

In anticipation of the holiday, I dream about the California-grown almonds covered in dark Guittard chocolate. I tell myself I’ll only eat two pieces a day, knowing it will be incredibly difficult to have such discipline — I’ll probably eat more. And I’m not alone: More than 17 million people eat See’s each year.

When I moved from Venice to Inglewood a little over a year ago, La Cienega Boulevard became one of my main thoroughfares. It was during one of my commutes, sitting in slow-moving traffic and swinging to KJAZZ, that my eyes fixated on a building with a familiar, classic logo: See’s Candies.

I began to fantasize about what happened behind closed doors. Was it just like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in the classic Gene Wilder movie? Could Oompa Loompas be singing and dancing inside?

The factory is not open to the public, but I was able to secure a press tour. I immediately thought of the words printed on the five golden tickets Wonka hid in his candy bars: “In your wildest dreams you could not imagine the marvelous surprises that await you.”

Meet Dave and Lou Ann

Chocolate makers get up early, so See’s scheduled my tour for 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday so I could catch all the action. Unlike guests at Wonka’s factory, I was asked to follow health and safety protocols: no jewelry, no open-toe shoes, no bare arms, no fingernail polish, and on and on.

Upon entering, I had to put on a white lab coat and hair net. My first takeaway: See’s runs a tight ship, and all of those rules made me feel good about the quality of the product. After all, that’s how the phrase See’s Quality came to be.

Instead of being greeted by a wacky gentleman in a velvet top hat and cane, my tour guide is Dave Chapman, a sweet gentleman with 30 years on the job who knows the ins and outs of the operations and greets every worker by their first name.

The chocolate factory (with a charming adjacent candy shop open to customers) has been standing in this location since 1949. The place doesn’t look all that big from the front; that’s because it’s not wide, but very long, covering 145,000 square feet.

Many See’s employees have been with the company for more than 30 years, and today they’re still smiling. Lou Ann Myerchin has worked at the factory in various capacities for more than 55 years (more than because she took time off to have her children).

Today, she’s shuffling around the caramel centers that fall from a shoot in the ceiling onto the conveyor belt, ready-
ing them for the waterfall of chocolate that’s about to pour down upon them.

12 Million Pounds of Chocolate

The main factory floor is the length of a football field, and one piece of chocolate takes 30 minutes to travel the length of the belt. Even the floor looks delicious — I’m sorta tempted to lick the smushed brown butter caramel pieces off the floor.

The sweet aroma of chocolate follows me through every room. Women are handcrafting rose petals out of icing. Others are dipping bonbons into a double boiler filled with melted coconut
mixture, then placing them delicately onto wax paper.

Chapman appears as delighted with his job today as the day he started. He rattles off facts, dates, techniques and ingredients as we stroll through the buzzing rooms and checkered black-and-white floor hallways, which are patterned after Mary See’s original kitchen floor in Pasadena. Charles See founded the company in 1921, using his mother Mary’s recipes, many of which are still used today.

The chocolate is made in San Francisco, Chapman recounts, where people with “golden tongues” approve batches of Guittard chocolate, which are then melted down and delivered in tanker trucks to this Baldwin Hills factory. The chocolate is transferred into two 80,000-pound silos standing outside the factory: one contains dark chocolate, the other milk chocolate. This chocolate is piped into huge tanks inside the factory, refilling them when they get low.

See’s uses a lot of chocolate each year: more than 12 million pounds. It all comes from Guittard, a fifth-generation artisanal chocolate company based in Northern California that’s been making chocolate since 1868.

Quality controls are everywhere at the factory. A quality assurance team greets the trucks when they arrive and runs a range of food safety and sensory analysis tests. There’s a special machine on every conveyor belt scanning the chocolates as they travel down the line. If anything other than pure natural ingredients is detected, a light flashes and the chocolate is whisked down a chute and melted down to identify the foreign substance.

“We wouldn’t want you biting into anything you didn’t want to,” says Chapman with a fatherly smile.

A Secret Formula for Success

Chapman talks a lot about temperature. It’s one of the keys to making their chocolate taste so good — and not melt in your hands. Like when Wonka bragged about being the only factory that mixed chocolate by waterfall, See’s secret formula is in their temperature regulation at every step of the chocolate-making process, he says.

In case I was wondering why we didn’t see any lollypops — one of the most-requested candies at their shops — Chapman explains that those are made in their own nut-free facility up north. See’s also owns another factory and headquarters in South San Francisco, and this Baldwin Hills factory sends all of its finished goods to be packed in Carson.

Happily Ever After

As 2020-2021 approaches, See’s will be celebrating its 100th anniversary.

In the opening scene of the 1971 Wonka film, a candy shop owner is singing and storytelling about Wonka to a crowd of kids. He says, “Do you ask a fish how it swims? Or a bird how it flies? Of course not. They do it because they were born to do it … just like Willy Wonka was born to be a candy man.”

This statement couldn’t ring more true of See’s Candies.

As I walk to my car, thinking of all of those Nuts & Chews I’ll be devouring in a few weeks, Wonka pops into my head again. This time, he’s giving Charlie his last words of madcap wisdom: “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted. … He lived happily ever after.”

Edible flowers for Easter Chocolate Butter Eggs (upper left, below)
and maple pecan bonbons are masterpieces in progress at the See’s Candies factory in L.A.