Tacoma, Washington, has a long history of candy making and in fact, Mars Inc. (Snickers, M&Ms, Mars, and many more), one of the largest candy companies in the world, got its start in the city. In 1911, founder Frank C. Mars started making candy in his kitchen, but the business failed to succeed due to competition from Brown & Haley, maker of Almond Roca, which was established in 1912.
A small family-owned business, the Johnson Candy Company, got its start in 1925 making chocolates using vintage chocolate molds.
The Brown & Haley Company was founded by Harry L. Brown and J. C. Haley in 1912. Their Tacoma factory (the only one) has churned out candy for over 100 years. Almond Roca was created in 1923 after lots of trial and error to develop the perfect candy. This delicious combination of almonds, butter-rich toffee dipped in chocolate, and rolled in more almonds is now exported to over 63 countries around the world. Beautifully packaged in gold foil and placed in pink boxes or tins, it is now the largest exported gift candy in the United States. Roca is now made in a variety of flavors, expanding the line. The company is also known for its Mountain Bars which have a creamy center of vanilla, peanut butter, or cherry and are smothered in peanuts and chocolate.
The Johnson Candy Company began in 1925 with founder Russell Johnson selling chocolates made using vintage chocolate molds. He purchased recipes from an old candy maker and with his wife, Irene, established a family business that has stood the test of time. Their son Ron took over the business in 1963. Now the third generation is running the business, William Johnson has the same exacting standards as both his father and grandfather and continues the legacy. Ron still comes in each day, and you can find him dipping ice cream bars or making peanut clusters.
This is some seriously good candy and my new go-to shop for gifts. One of its top sellers is the open-faced caramel which combines a rich buttery caramel with roasted California almonds. The squares are then dipped in either milk or dark chocolate. The caramel is soft and just firm enough to hold its shape. Another favorite is the mint squares which are an upscale version of an after-dinner mint. Rich dark chocolate surrounds a square of creamy mint candy.
Here are a few reasons why you should visit these iconic candy makers in Tacoma.
Cool Neon Lights And Iconic Buildings
The Brown and Haley factory building is in downtown Tacoma. The building is painted white and adorned with a bright pink neon sign. The structure is over 100 years old. In front of the factory is a round kiosk-type building which was once the ticket book at the Seattle World’s Fair. On an interesting note, Elvis Presley filmed It Happened at the World’s Fair and he was in this building to keep away from the crowds between takes.
The Johnson Candy Company sits in the Hilltop District of Tacoma and was built in 1949. Famed local architect Silas E. Nelsen designed the building. It still serves as the shop and factory for this family-owned business. A classic neon sign sits atop the building and draws attention to it.
The Brown & Haley Company is still owned by the Haley family while the Johnson Candy Company is still owned by the Johnson family. It makes a difference when your family name is on the sign. Both families carry on the tradition of crafting good quality candy made from the freshest ingredients. Haley family members are still actively involved with the company. The Johnson Candy Company is smaller, and the candy is handcrafted by William “Bill” Johnson as well as his father Ron who still comes in each day to make candy.
The Brown & Haley Company has two outlets in Tacoma. My favorite is the charming ticket booth from the Seattle World’s Fair. This cute building is situated in front of the factory and sells a variety of Brown & Haley products dramatically discounted. Look for the plaque inside that marks Elvis Presley’s visit on August 9, 1962. Whenever I have guests visiting, I always bring them to the outlet to shop for souvenirs. There are so many great gift options. The most popular is a rectangular-shaped tin box with popular attractions such as Mt. Rainier, the Space Needle, the Brown and Haley factory, and a Washington State ferry on the lid. If you just want to eat the candy, the outlet sells factory seconds. This is candy that just didn’t make the cut appearance-wise but is no less delicious.
Pro Tip: If you like to bake pastries or make candy, you can purchase a 10-pound slab of milk or dark chocolate for $30. This is so much better than grocery store baking chocolate and much less expensive. It can be challenging to work with such a large block of chocolate but well worth it for the good quality of this chocolate. Make sure to visit the Brown & Haley website for some delectable recipes using Brown & Haley products as ingredients.
Support Local Business
I prioritize visiting local businesses when I travel. It keeps my tourist dollars in the local community. One of my favorite things about this is meeting the residents that make a town so interesting. I often find things to see and do recommended by community business owners or employees. One of the intriguing things about Tacoma is I will often stumble across these pockets of shops and restaurants. It’s almost like little, small towns within the bigger city. Hilltop is one such area. As its name suggests, it sits atop a hill just above downtown that overlooks much of Tacoma. It is one of the oldest residential areas in the city. Check with the Historic Preservation Office for walking tour maps. After visiting the Johnson Candy Company, I was surprised to see one of my favorite ice cream shops, Ice Cream Social, as well as a variety of interesting looking restaurants. There are more than 50 businesses in the Hilltop area. For information on discovering these lesser-known districts, visit Explore Tacoma to learn more.
The city has a tagline — “Mountain, City, Sea.” You can spend a morning hiking Mt. Rainier, the afternoon on a kayak in Puget Sound followed by dinner, and a night at the theater. So, in addition to candy, there are tons to see and do in this area. Tie in a visit to the Johnson Candy Company and explore the Hilltop District. When visiting the Brown & Haley outlet add in time exploring downtown Tacoma. The Tacoma Museum District offers six major museums each with its own unique experience. Learn about the history of the area. See why art glass is so popular by exploring the Museum of Glass and the Chihuly Bridge of Glass. Four of these museums are within a short walk of each other on Pacific Ave. Across the street is a variety of shops and restaurants. Check out Travel Tacoma for more information.
Pro Tip: If you can’t visit the shops, both Brown & Haley and the Johnson Candy Company offer online ordering of their products.
If you get the opportunity to visit these two stops, check out other area attractions: