It’s still a little like 1923 at Tacoma’s Brown & Haley.
As do serious bread makers, when founders Harry Brown and J.C. Haley created their buttery, crunchy chocolate-covered confection known worldwide today as Almond Roca, they kept a bit of the original buttercrunch toffee batch and carried it over to the next batch, and the next and the next. The Roca “seed” is still being sowed today into gold foil-covered sweets that have been unwrapped 5 billion times and counting.
“My grandma loved Almond Roca,” said Pierson Clair, President and CEO of Brown & Haley. He says Almond Roca is a candy savored by generations. Clair joined the company in 1998 after serving as vice-president for Blommer Chocolate Co. of Chicago. He lived in Northern California and worked at one of the plants in the area. The Stanford graduate made his first batch of chocolate for Blommer when he was only 16 years old. Perhaps sugar is in his blood.
Clair was excited at the opportunity to grow the Roca brand: “I always believed for years that Roca had the opportunity to be highly unique in the world of confection. I was drawn to the brand and the state of Washington.” Today, there are several varieties of Roca in addition to almond, including dark chocolate, mocha, candy cane (seasonally), sugar-free almond, cashew, and macadamia. They’ve also partnered with Precept Wine in Eastern Washington to create AlmondRoca Wine and other specialty products.
When Clair talks about the Brown & Haley Company he sports a proud-papa smile. There’s a lot to grin about. The company employs 250 people. It supports many other local businesses such as Darigold, where it gets butter (a key ingredient in the buttercrunch toffee), and the Port of Tacoma. People are surprised to learn 40 percent of what Brown & Haley makes is exported, making it the largest confectionary exporter in the United States.
“Not only has the U.S. embraced Roca, but the world continues to love us,” Clairsaid. That love affair began shortly after Roca was born. They packaged the confection in signature pink tins to keep it fresh to travel overseas to U.S. military servicemen during World War II (and later, wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East). Roca makers figured if coffee could stay fresh on boats in tins, so could their candy. The little log-shaped confection from the Pacific Northwest has been making its way around the globe since. In the 120,000-square-foot facility in Fife, pallets stacked several feet high with pink Roca cans are shrink-wrapped and ready to ship to Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and more. Roca has made its way to 63 countries. The original Roca is said to be a favorite of Japan’s royal family.
Roca still is being made in the factory where it was originally invented,located under I-705 in the heart of downtown Tacoma. The factory has expanded five times to accommodate growth and more efficient, state-of-the-art packagingequipment. Tours used to be open to the public, but today there just isn’t room, Clair said.
It’s quite a sight to see the freshly wrapped candy making its way from the birthing center on the factory’s top floor to the packaging area below — it looks like a long, twisting golden snake. Workers in smocks and hairnets inspect the confections with quick precision before the perfect ones are deposited into the neat line of pink cans rushing by. The “boo-boos” are sold at the Fifeoutlet store at a discount.
In some areas, the old wooden floors appear to have a slippery sheen — perhaps they’ve soaked up decades of butter. Sweet notes of chocolate dance throughoutthe factory tickling noses and are perhaps the reason everyone who works there seems really happy. Or maybe it is because they are treated like family. Or perhaps they’re all on a quality-control, candy-tasting sugar high.
Whatever the case, Almond Roca and the other premium confections made at Brown & Haley are indeed created with love — and a bit of the very first batch. It truly is a sugary affair (those sugar tanks outside th factory hold 120,000 pounds of sugar apiece). And since the world is now smitten with everything Roca, chances are it will be around for several generations to come.
Harry Brown owned a small confectionery store and J.C. Haley worked for a spice company in sales and advertising. They met at a church in Tacoma in 1908 and started Brown & Haley in 1912. They found a lot of sweet tooths at nearby Camp Lewis (now known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord). The Haleys still are actively involved in the business. “When I first started there were so many Haleys it reminded me of the Kennedys,” one employee said. Meetings are still like family reunions. Anne Haley is chairwoman of the company and granddaughter of founder J.C. Haley.
A Cult-Like Following
Originally called the Mount Tacoma Bar, Mountain Bars were invented by Brown & Haley before Roca in 1915. The original was made of a vanilla fondant center that was hand-dipped into chocolate. Today, machines do all the work, turning out 592 Mountain Bars per minute in the original vanilla flavor as well as cherry and peanut butter. They are mainly only available in the Northwest, but they get several online orders from people everywhere.
110 E. 26th St.
(The Space Needle-shaped building once served as the gift shop at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Rumor has it Elvis was once in the building. It’s located in front of the original Roca factory, where the magic is made.)
3500 C 20th St.