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Mars’ chocolate history has surprising Tacoma backstory

It was just a parenthetical reference in a recent story somewhere else, but one which, for a few readers, provoked a double-take and a response of, “Wait, what? Really? Did we know that?”

Here is reference in question: “Founded by Frank C. Mars, who started in his Tacoma, Washington, kitchen in 1911…”

The company that Frank Mars founded grew up to be Mars Inc., a company described by the Wall Street Journal story from whence that passing reference came as one of the two dominant players in the U.S. chocolate market, it and Hershey (which is larger) controlling two-thirds.

Indeed, it might be easier to list the mainstream candy brands Mars doesn’t control. Here are some of its brands: Snickers. M&M. Milky Way. 3 Musketeers. Twix. It’s also the parent of Wrigley, which also includes Skittles (hello Marshawn Lynch!), Altoids, Life Savers and Juicy Fruit. The company sprawls into pet products and food, although its portfolio in those sectors doesn’t include as many high-profile brands (Uncle Ben’s rice might be the best known). All told, it makes for a company (privately held, by the way) with annual revenue of more than $33 billion.

But wait, let’s get back to that Tacoma connection. How’d that happen?

Mars’ website isn’t terribly illuminating. Frank Mars, born in Minnesota in 1882, gets his start in the candy business being taught by his mother in her home kitchen, and later selling Taylor’s Molasses Chips. In 1911, the company says, Mars “starts making and selling butter cream candy from his home in Tacoma.”

The next entry in the corporate timeline in 1920, in which Frank Mars moves the company to Minneapolis. For a little more elaboration, we turn to the book “Crisis in Candyland,” which discloses that Frank Mars, on his second marriage (both wives were named Ethel), moved to Seattle (no reason given) and made candy in their kitchen. That business, author Jan Pottker reports, “soon failed,” and Mars, in his second go-round in bankruptcy, lost his house.

The couple moved to Tacoma to try again. “Tacoma proved a poor choice, because a better-established candy business was nearby,” she writes. That led to bankruptcy No. 3, in 1914. Frank and Ethel moved bank to Minnesota “trying to escape what Frank felt was the jinx of the Northwest.” His next candymaking venture was the one that took.

Another book, “Emperors of Chocolate,” by Joël Glenn Brenner, provides a little more color on those early years, including a quote from the descendant of one of Mars’ early rivals.

“Seattle candy makers claim Frank Mars never paid off all of his debt,” Brenner writes. “ ‘He skipped town before anybody could catch him to settle up — it’s legend around here,’ ” said Mark Haley of the Brown & Haley candy company, maker of a popular confection called Almond Roca and a competitor of Mars in this early days.” Brenner says Mars blamed his third flop in the candy business “on stiff competition, especially from Brown & Haley.”

“The one that got away” isn’t a unique business story, even in the Northwest. UPS (what some of us old-timers might still refer to as United Parcel Service) famously got its start in Seattle in 1907 as American Messenger Co. Its headquarters moved to Connecticut in the 1970s and UPS is now based in Atlanta.

And as it turned out Tacoma did wind up with a global candy company, the aforementioned Brown & Haley. It may not have the broad product portfolio of the one-time rival it chased out of the Northwest, but longevity (the company marked its centennial in 2012) and an ability to survive as a small independent are no small accomplishments.

Within that 100-year-plus story of the candymaking trade are some insightful lessons for contemporary business history.

It wasn’t unusual 100 years ago for towns such as Tacoma to have multiple makers of the same product, especially in food processing. You could probably find hundreds of American towns that had their own candy manufacturers — and commercial bakeries, breweries and dairies. Improved transportation networks and refrigeration equipment, and economies of scale leading to consolidation, consigned many of those small, local food manufacturers to business history.

But the trend these days in the food category is to local, specialty, artisanal, small-batch or independent production, as consumers search out new (to them) tastes — just the sort of movement that can work to the benefit of a company such as Brown & Haley.

That’s good for the local economy, provided, of course, that you have a Brown & Haley or, even better, multiple such companies, which is why we return to a theme we hammer on repeatedly in this space — the importance of an entrepreneurial climate in which innovation and invention thrive. Tacoma needs a continuous cycle of new ventures. Some of those will, like Frank Mars’ first three attempts, fail. But some will make it and endure, and maybe even stick around when they do.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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