Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Monday, June 15, 2009

Inside a Happy Habit: A Factory Tour of See's Candies

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 11:25 AM

click to enlarge posemary.jpg
Janine Kahn
Our tour guide, Jim Paine.
"We have so much going on here that you really need to go through everything four or five times to remember it all!" warned Jim Paine, longtime production manager at See's Candies' headquarters in South San Francisco.

Paine probably didn't intend for that to be the tease it was. But the fact was, SFoodie was inside the closed-door factory by special invitation, and odds weren't so hot we'd ever be back: We had to make the most of the moment. Surely it was never this hard to get into the fabled disco Studio 54, though both could be called palaces of dizzying decadence. The next 90 minutes were a bit like a whirlwind trip through a disco: impressions formed, then quickly vanished through sheer giddiness.

Entering into a giant storage area for white chocolate, nuts, and other fillings, Paine asked us how much time we had for a tour. It was a question we'd been waiting for all our lives.

"Until the police have to be called to cart us away!" we thought, mentally noting the corner where we'd set up camp. Instead, we said we'd love to be there as long as he could stand us. He introduced us to a smiling employee named Mary who happened to be passing by, a fortuitous coincidence given the company's matriarch (Charles A. See founded the company in 1921, and chose his mother Mary as its icon).

"What are your favorites?" we asked Paine, thoroughly unprepared for his answer.

"Actually, I'm not much of a sweets eater."

click to enlarge IMG_2234_thumb_500x387.jpg
Janine Kahn
The door to See's corporate offices.
Wild. If we worked there, we imagine we'd be constantly high from our own supply. See's Candies has been a happy habit of Californians (and beyond) for four score and eight years, a purveyor of nostalgic, quality confections that are arguably some of the greatest bargains in all of Candyland. It was both eye-opening and comforting to see that the factory was very much as imagined, with a healthy interplay between human and machine yielding the distinctive pieces.

In one room, giant tanks of sugar and corn syrup and large copper kettles were cooking up cherry buttercream for the Mayfairs. Paine told us that, though OSHA loves to tell them it's not particularly fond all of the open flames, the company will continue using this old-fashioned method until researchers have found an alternate technique that doesn't compromise results.

click to enlarge sees_truffles_thumb_500x333.jpg
Courtesy See's Candies
Truffles on the line.
Once the buttercream had sufficiently cooled, it was poured with cherries into stand-alone mixers, each with the capacity to produce around 5,000 finished centers. We learned that See's Northern California operation is responsible for all the creams the company produces. That, and the fact that they quickly melt in your mouth when off-the-line fresh.

There were separate rooms for truffles and brittle and bonbons, and for enrobing and cooling confections, a fascinating labyrinth of sweetness. In one, a group of hair-netted ladies in white (the uniform hasn't changed much since I Love Lucy days) fussed over the coming-out party for Scotch kisses, outfitting the honey marshmallows with what Paine called their caramel jackets.

click to enlarge See_s_Candies_Enrobing_thumb_500x333.jpg
Courtesy See's Candies
We climbed to the third and top floor of the factory, internally known as "the penthouse." There, 55,000-pound tanks of milk chocolate and 20,000-pound tanks of dark chocolate shot their contents down through a series of tunnels to the two lower levels. This is the master control center for couverture, custom-made for See's by Burlingame chocolate company Guittard.

Paine likened the operation to a chess board, where thinking ahead is essential. "This is a fun place to work," he said, offering a rare smile. "I make a game out of it."

click to enlarge seesstoreIMG_2238_thumb_500x375.jpg
Janine Kahn
The factory's adjoining shop.
While See's Candies HQ isn't open to the public, its fabulous factory store -- home to some of the freshest product the company offers -- waits with open arms (210 El Camino Real at S. Spruce, South San Francisco; 650-583-7307).

click to enlarge seesIMG_2244_thumb_500x357.jpg
Janine Kahn
See's Candies HQ.


  • Pin It

About The Author

Tamara Palmer

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook

Slideshows

  • 24th Annual Autumn Moon Festival
    Crowds gathered September 6-7 for the 24th Annual Autumn Moon Festival in Chinatown. Visitors enjoyed arts, crafts, cultural exhibits, food and a dog fashion show. Photographs by Dhoryan Rizo.
  • Felton: Touring the Redwoods
    Blue skies meet redwood canopies in the mountain town of Felton, located just north of Santa Cruz on Highway 9. Once a bustling logging community, the town is now a mix of mellow locals and serene wilderness. Visitors can enjoy the redwoods in nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and splash in swimming holes in the San Lorenzo River. For a bite to eat stop by Rocky’s Cafe for fruit-laden pancakes, barbeque at the Cowboy Bar & Grill and poolside burgers at the Trout Farm Inn. Other stops worth checking out include Roaring Camp Railroads, the Mount Hermon zip line tour, and the educational Bigfoot Discovery Museum. For beer or cocktails a log cabin bar has you covered.