In Their Capable Hands

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Summer is not exactly peak season for the purveyors of fine chocolates. The months creep by, bereft of a single candy-centric holiday. The heat brings up issues of melting and stickiness and images of bathing suits, none of them chocolate friendly.

At the See's Candies factory on La Cienega Boulevard, there is only one chocolate enrobing machine running, sluicing dark chocolate over hundreds of Scotchmallows. To the right, yard-long swaths of peanut brittle are cut into doormat-size squares, then pushed and patted by hand into the requisite thickness (the height of a peanut). But at many of the tables, the washtub-size copper pots and the gargantuan mixing vats stand empty.

The staff--which swells to 275 during the Christmas-to-Easter season--is down to 110. Those who remain are the skilled senior workers, many with 10, 20, 35 years' experience. The lifers.

See's, based in San Francisco, prides itself on a sense of family. Mary See still smiles benignly from the logo her son Charles designed almost 80 years ago. But she, and he, are long gone, and the real See's family now are the folks moving sugar during the summer months.

And many of them are just that. Family. Husbands and wives. Brothers and sisters. Mothers and daughters. And in the case of Enedina Ortiz, bonbon roller and 33-year employee, mother and son and daughters and granddaughter.

Ortiz, 69, has 10 children, and four of them work for See's--Belia Andelon and Juani Meza Davila work with their mother at the La Cienega factory. Son Raphael Ortiz, daughter Rosa Sandoval plus granddaughter Annie Sandoval work in the company's Carson packing plant. Another daughter and son worked for See's years ago, as seasonal employees.

Enedina's husband started it all. In 1960, Jesus Ortiz came to Los Angeles from Mexico, and on a friend's recommendation, applied for work at See's. Five years later, he brought his wife and three daughters to L.A. (the seven sons would follow later). And they too began working at See's, spending their days immersed in the factory's sweet buttery breath. Streaked here with chocolate, there with roasting nuts, it is a persistent smell that lingers in the nose and throat, long after the workday is done.

"At first, my father didn't want us to work," says Rosa Sandoval, a packing supervisor. "I was only 16. So I started as a seasonal worker around Christmas in the evenings. Me and Belia worked on production and my mother worked in packing."

Getting to Work by 5 a.m.

Jesus Ortiz retired from See's in 1976. But every day at 5 a.m., Enedina Ortiz and the children don the hairnets, the white smocks.

"I took the job because I need to work," says Enedina Ortiz, the matriarch, through a translator. "There was no reason for me to look for another one. It is a good job, clean, and a good environment. They treat us very well. I like working with my daughters. And I like to eat the candy, but not too much. I cannot eat too many sweets."

For 25 years, Ortiz has been ensconced in what company President Charles Huggins considers the jewel of the L.A. facility--the bonbon room. Seated with two other women at a long white table, she kneads a lump of maple pecan filling, now working it into a small loaf, now slicing that loaf apart, then pulling and rolling the slices into bits the size of, well, a pecan. She listens and thinks and talks and watches, and her hands never stop moving. In a day, she will roll 1,500 to 2,000 bonbons. She has been at it since 4 a.m.; See's runs a four, 10-hour day summer week.

About 10 yards away sits Juani Davila, Ortiz's youngest daughter, who is dipping the bonbons her mother has rolled into creamy coating, adorning each with an almond and a festive drizzle. The small copper bowl is fitted into the surface of the worktable; beneath it steams hot water, the sugary heat rising. Davila, like her mother, works with movements fluid and constant; if the finished candies did not continually appear, you would swear she was simply stirring soup.

She has been working at See's for 24 years.

"I grew up hearing my sisters talk about making the candy," she says, her voice bright with contained laughter. "And so I wanted to make the candy. I've done a lot of things, but what I like best is decorating.

"When I started, Belia was in charge and she showed me how. We used to decorate all year round; now it's mostly Halloween and Easter. But I like that best," she says, still smiling and dipping and adorning and drizzling.

Davila, like her mother and sisters before her, began her production career where most new See's employees do--on the enrober.

The plant in Los Angeles makes about 40% of See's candy (the San Francisco facility makes the rest), concentrating on hard-centered candies--your toffees and nuts and chews and nougats. The enrober moves the centers--the toffees and caramels--through various chocolate baths, and a drying period. They are then boxed in brown cardboard (the sorting and fancy-boxing happens in Carson). Women crowd the head and foot of the enrober, keeping the candies upright, then getting them off the machine without marring the shiny surfaces. Yes, this is the same type of machine that Lucy and Ethel worked in the famous "I Love Lucy" episode. The actual work looks quite different--not hilarious at all, but magic, conjuring childish dreams of chocolate rain and chocolate rivers.

"People think this is easy," Davila says. "But it is a long time to stand. And you have to pay attention."

Enrobing is just one facet of working production--there are nuts to sort, chips and nuggets to dip, molds to fill. Temptation by the bucket, by the shelf, by the roomful.

"When I started working here," Davila says, "I weighed 110 pounds and now, well, now I don't. I still love the candy."

It's hard not to love the candy. See's has extended its black-and-white empire from California to more than 200 stores in the Western United States, weathering wars, economic downturns, dietary hissy fits and the onslaught of designer chocolate that would put a Godiva truffle in every pot.

Workers Ensure Candy's Quality

The company's survival cannot be solely attributed to the shrewdly quaint stores or even Warren Buffett's timely purchase (Berkshire Hathaway bought See's in 1972). No, the company could not thrive unless the candy were good, and the candy would not be good if the people who made it did not know what they were doing.

"Enedina and her family are some of our best employees," production manager Jesus Soria says. "There are many other families here--people like working here, so they tell their families to come--but I don't think there are any that are so big and have worked here so long."

"Nepotism runs wild at See's," says Richard Van Doren, vice president of marketing, adding that his wife, daughter and son are also employees.

"Part of it is the seasonal work," he says, adding that the company totes up more than 40% of its sales in December. "Most of us started part time. It's a good company to start working with."

All See's employees (including seasonal and part timers) are members of the Bakery and Confectionary Workers Union; factory workers are paid hourly wages and receive full health benefits as negotiated by the union.

The number of entry-level positions makes it an easy fit for those just entering the work force, or the country.

"In Los Angeles, I would say the majority is Hispanic now," Van Doren says. "In San Francisco there are a lot more Asians."

More advanced positions in the factory are filled based on interest and seniority, making it an easy place to remain. Hundreds of employees have been with See's for 15 years or more; and the company's most recent awards luncheons honored 21 workers, mostly women, hitting their 30, 35, 40 and 50 years of service.

Belia Andelon, Ortiz's eldest, a supervisor at the L.A. packing department, has also been with the company for 33 years.

"When I started, there were a lot of older American ladies working here," she says. "Now there a lot of people from Mexico, a lot of younger people like me. This was my first job; I started wrapping the caramel-marshmallow kisses. I couldn't believe they would pay us to wrap kisses. We wrapped and talked, it was like a hobby."

She and Davila consider their jobs an extension of family life; Andelon drives her mother to work, Davila drives her home.

"We like to enjoy her," Andelon says. "We get to talk to her every day."

Until a year ago, in fact, the whole family worked at the L.A. factory; an ongoing expansion and remodel required that the company temporarily move its packing and distribution staffs to Carson. According to Van Doren, in five years, the L.A. factory will produce almost as much as San Francisco. The various departments, and all of the Ortiz family, will be reunited. And who knows, with new jobs opening, perhaps even more of the family will spend their days with the candy.

"The benefits are good, the insurance, and they pay us well," Rosa Sandoval says. "I'm happy. I enjoy working with all the people--at Christmastime we have 300 just on the night shift."

Now though," she adds, "it's pretty quiet. It's too hot for chocolate."

Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.

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