Kathleen Pelzman on See’s Candies’ Sweet Success

Director of Real Estate Kathleen Pelzman on how See’s Candies has had a successful century by holding onto tradition while adapting to the modern age

During World War II, raw ingredients like butter and sugar were in short supply. To stay in business, See’s Candies had a clever plan: use up all its best ingredients despite producing less candy. The result was long lines of customers who were still willing to wait, trusting the company that had kept its promise to never compromise quality. Courtesy of See’s Candies

In 1921, the Canadian See family arrived in sun-soaked Los Angeles, the destination to follow dreams.

Charles See had grown up enjoying his mother’s homemade recipes, and now the two were ready to share them by way of their very own chocolate shop. See’s Candies was born, and within four years, the business had spread to a dozen locations across the city.

Now, 100 years later, See’s Candies is proudly celebrating its centennial. Director of Real Estate Kathleen Pelzman spoke with American Builders Quarterly earlier this year to share how the company has stood the test of time and why working there has been such a treat.

Kathleen Pelzman, Director of Real Estate, See’s Candies Courtesy of See’s Candies

You’ve been part of the See’s Candies team for over 42 years now. What initially inspired you to join the company?

I started at See’s in 1979, shortly after graduating from high school and in the midst of taking college courses. Being a fourth-generation South San Francisco resident at that time, I always thought it would be great to work here, especially considering See’s was so integral to our family traditions—particularly during the holidays. See’s chocolate was a huge part of my childhood and of course still is today. 

What are some aspects of your day-to-day work that you’re especially proud of?

Every day at See’s I am given the opportunity to create and preserve great relationships—many of which have been developed over the years with owners, developers, and landlords of our store and building locations. Through my work I have been able to foster incredible working relationships with multiple generations of a single family, ranging from grandparents to grandchildren. One thing they all have in common: the love of having See’s as a tenant.

In addition, during my tenure, I’m proud to have brought See’s to new communities and areas with our annual expansion plans of 10 to 15 stores. Developers, landlords, and customers are always excited to see a new See’s store open. It makes the end-result rewarding for all of us here.

A vintage motorcycle once used for See’s Candies’ delivery service sits outside a shop, paying homage to shipping clerk Hugh Fry who would ride about town bringing chocolates to movie stars. Courtesy of See’s Candies

Part of See’s culture is that it maintains its family-business atmosphere. How has this manifested for you during your tenure with the company?

I have spent more time at See’s than anywhere else, so you can imagine the friendships I have developed and connections I have established within these four walls. Many of us here have grown up together, and we all share the love of what our candy brings to our customers. The relationships cultivated at See’s have always been supportive of all of our ideas, making the environment incredibly positive, especially when it comes to our families and the communities and organizations we support.

I have been fortunate enough to watch a piece of candy in the making—the kitchen is located right below my office—taste it fresh off the production line, and see it sold in our stores to happy customers. What other retailer out there can say they share this experience? 

Laurance See predicted Phoenix’s population spike in 1961 and opened See’s Candies’ first out-of-state shop in Arizona. Courtesy of See’s Candies

It’s rare for See’s Candies to shutter—the only time prior to COVID-19 mandates was World War II. Can you share more about the recent Click, Pick, Go initiative to operate safely while remaining committed to serving the community?  

Two things that have always been true for See’s are prioritizing the health and safety of its employees and customers and its dedication to “Quality without Compromise,” See’s longstanding motto.

2020 was a challenging year to say the least but Click, Pick, Go made it easy for customers to safely and conveniently enjoy their favorite candies. I know it’s something See’s was thinking about for quite some time, and 2020 was the perfect year to roll it out. I like to think we were able to help sweeten dark days.

See’s Candies’ employees inspired the popular I Love Lucy episode, “Job Switching,” after Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance visited a See’s shop on La Cienega Boulevard to learn about dipping and packaging choclates. Courtesy of See’s Candies

As you approach the centennial this year, what are some aspects of the company that have remained the same since its grand opening?

The short answer? A lot. Several of our candies are still made with the same recipes Mary See developed in the 1920s, like our peanut brittle and Victoria Toffee. Mary See’s original kitchen also inspired the design of all of our shops. They look almost identical as they did in 1921. The See’s uniform has also stayed almost identical to the first uniforms. They’ve made a few modern touches throughout the years, but they really are a blast from the past.

Many of Mary See’s favorite candies are still sold today, including peanut brittle, chocolate walnut fudge, victoria toffee, and hand-dipped bon bons and maple walnut creams. Courtesy of See’s Candies

And what are some aspects that have evolved over time?

What’s really great about See’s is that tradition is so valued, but the brand has also been incredibly innovative over the years. For example, See’s offered the first motorcycle delivery service in Los Angeles in 1928. We have also been delivering candy by mail since 1922, long before e-commerce and home delivery were the norm. See’s was also the first confectionary business to receive melted chocolate at their factories via tanker truck. Most recently, See’s partnered with DoorDash. I think overall the company has done an amazing job of staying true to its roots while simultaneously keeping up with the times.

What else does See’s have planned to celebrate its Centennial celebration this year?

Each month this year we’re releasing a new candy, or as we like to say, a “Limited Time Sweet.” A lot of the new flavors are inspired by classic favorites. It’s been a hit so far, and customers are loving the new treats . . . as am I!