What’s it like being the king of a chocolate empire? Pat Egan became the president of See’s Candies in 2018 (and the CEO in 2019) after leaving an energy company also owned by Warren Buffett’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway. He believes he’s a quick study but admits he used flashcards to ensure he could distinguish between the more than 100 pieces of candy See’s offers. And he’s visited every single See’s Candies store (there are more than 240).
We recently interviewed Egan to ask him about his time at See’s Candies, how the company develops new flavors and who comes up with all the samples. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you remember the first time you tried See’s Candies?
I don’t know that I can remember the particular piece but I can remember the shop — the Hillsdale shop in San Mateo, where I lived until I was 10. We still have a shop there. It must have been around Easter time because I can remember bunnies and decorations and eggs. When we moved to Portland, Ore., I can remember there was a shop in Washington Square Mall. I used to hang out at the mall and stop by See’s to get my free sample and buy something for my mom or my family.
Is there a research and development team? How does the company come up with new flavors?
We have an R&D team. The flavor ideas come from a combination of [sources]. … I always ask what customers are requesting [and] we have a marketing and merchandising team that stays on top of trends. We don’t introduce a lot [of new product] so we want to make sure it stays. It’s a rigorous process with food scientists and we have to make sure the pieces all match our profile. We are the largest confectioner of our kind that doesn’t add preservatives.
Can you walk me through the introduction of one of the new pieces issued each month during this centennial year?
We have to look at the equipment that we have. For the salted caramel piece, which we introduced in August, we make great caramel and we have great dark chocolate, but we had to alter the caramel a bit to balance best with the salt. We went through a number of salt vendors because the size and appearance of the salt needed to be right. It was a selection process that took us several months. Because we’d never had salt on the outside of a piece before, we had to retrofit a piece of equipment that was made for bread-making that would sprinkle just the right amount of salt as it was coming down the enrobing line.
How much have the recipes changed since Mary See was making the candy?
We’ve still got Victoria Toffee, walnut fudge, peanut brittle, Maple Walnut Cream, and some of the simpler pieces are pretty much almost the same recipe. We started using Challenge Butter in our third year of operation. We’ve used Guittard chocolate for decades as well as Mariani nuts and Blue Diamond nuts. A lot of our ingredients are sourced out of California. Our honey comes from southeastern Washington state. Our cherries are from Michigan, raisins from California, berries are from Pacific Northwest.
How does See’s choose its locations?
It’s sometimes good to have a grocery-anchored spot where there is another reason for customers to come through. Malls have upsides and downsides. If it’s the right mall there is lots of traffic; sometimes even in the L.A. area and in San Francisco, tourists might be coming through there. The challenge is we actually have a lot of customers who buy a lot of volume so parking and parking close to the shop is a key consideration. We’ll open only eight shops this year due to construction delays and other things. Last year we opened 10. We’re usually 10 to 12 shops a year.
What are some of the things you’ve done to modernize the company since you started?
When I got here, we didn’t have PayPal or Apple Pay. Now we have those. We’ll have Venmo and Klarna. I don’t know that it’s necessarily going to change our volumes or revenue, but it’s really just making sure it’s as convenient as possible for the customer. Our ecommerce has doubled in the last two years. We cracked 1 million shipped orders in 2019; this year we’ll be at about 2 million and a lot of that volume will be in the next two weeks. We’re also leaning on social media and other means of communication with customers. We have Instagram, TikTok and Twitter and we’ve just increased the level of engagement.
Is the candy still transported in liquid tanker trucks? Tell me more about the trucks.
The chocolate gets melted at our supplier Guittard [in Burlingame], then it’s pumped into a tanker truck and it arrives at the La Cienega facility . It goes into our pipes and tanks. At this time of year, we’ll get as many as one to two trucks a day of both milk and dark chocolate. The most recent volumes we get are 50,000 pounds of chocolate per tanker.
Where is the candy made?
We have three production facilities. The one on La Cienega is where we make our peanut brittle and some other brittle-type products [and chocolate candy]. Candy centers get made, then go through the enrobing line. The chocolate is then cooled and put into stock boxes. It’s shipped to a packing facility in Carson. There’s another production facility in South San Francisco. The lollipop factory that exclusively makes pops is in Burlingame. Year-round the number of employees is in the 2,500 range. This time of year it’s between 6,000 and 7,000 depending on our production schedule and our shops.
Can you name every piece of candy?
We actually have flashcards and I use them. I can pretty much recognize all of our pieces now. I am not sure when the cards were developed. I have mine at home. When I started with the company I used those for the first couple of months.
How do shop associates choose the free sample of the day?
It varies, based on if we’ve got a new piece and if it’s something that we want to get some feedback on. Sometimes it’s as simple as we have a fair amount of it in the shop so it manages our inventory. If a customer requests to sample a piece, we honor that request as long as we have that piece. Ultimately the shop manager can make that decision.