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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

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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).

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Janine Kahn
See's Candies HQ.

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