See's Candy: A Sweet Success Story

Kelly Wallace, Librarian, History Department,
graphic of chocolates in a heart box, raw chocolate and stacked chocolate candies in wrappers

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.” ―Charles M. Schulz.

While making a living selling chocolate and candy making supplies in Toronto, Charles See dreamed of escaping the blustery cold of Canada and starting his own chain of candy shops in sunny Southern California.

In the spring of 1920, he moved to Pasadena with his wife, two sons, and his recently widowed mother, Mary See. The See home still stands at 462 Marengo Avenue. No longer a residence, it has been converted into professional office space.

portrait photo of Charles See

Photo of Charles See from the 70th anniversary issue of See Breeze
Portrait photo of Mary See
Photo of Mary See from the 70th anniversary issue of See Breeze 

In 1921, Charles See opened the first See’s Candy shop at 135 Western Avenue in the neighborhood now called Koreatown. The two-story Italian Renaissance revival building was painted in the sparkling white that would become known as "See’s white." The black and white décor and checkered floor were inspired by Mary See’s kitchen in the Pasadena bungalow. The kitchen was in the back of the shop, where the candy was made using Mary’s recipes and top quality ingredients. Customers were greeted with a free sample, a tradition that continues to this day. By the mid-twenties, there were a dozen See’s stores across Los Angeles, including one at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. 

Truly a California tradition, See’s did not expand outside of California until it opened a store in Phoenix in 1961. Today 110 of its 211 stores are in California. Californians would often, and still do, take boxes of candy with them when visiting friends and family who live out of state.  

See’s Candies has made its mark on popular culture, most famously in the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethel go to work in a candy factory and end up stuffing chocolates in their mouths and bras when they cannot keep up with the conveyor belt. This episode is considered the second most famous in the series, trailing only "Vitameatavegamin." Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance spent a day at the See’s factory, learning how to make candy from Production Manager Forrest Jordan. 

In 2001, a special limited edition See’s Barbie doll was introduced at a shareholders meeting. Enthusiastic shareholders ordered 10,000 of the dolls. The See’s Barbie, wearing the traditional uniform and offering a free sample is now a collector’s item. 

photo of a special edition See's Candy Shop worker Barbie

One of the candy maker’s most famous employees was Cher, who at age sixteen had a job at a See’s shop when she met Sonny Bono.

From its humble beginning in the original store on Western Avenue, See’s today sells 26 million pounds of candy per year. They give away one million pounds of free samples a year. See’s now makes its candy in two large facilities in Los Angeles and South San Francisco, but the quaint black and white shops all still have a clock, a portrait of Mary See, and sales staff in white uniforms with a large black bow tie.    

The story of See’s Candy is a typical Los Angeles success story—immigrants moving to Southern California in search of a new beginning, opportunity, and good fortune—the California dream. 

Further Reading

Book cover for See's Famous Old Time Candies: A Sweet Story
See's Famous Old Time Candies: A Sweet Story
Pick, Margaret Moos.