Jeff Hobson

There’s something sort of beautiful about tradition. Brown & Haley’s Almond Roca has been delivered to consumers in blushing ombre tins wrapped in metallic-gold foil since 1923. You can’t miss it on store shelves, whether you’re at a local Rite Aid or a candy store in Hong Kong.

And though technology has aided in the efficiency of the manufacturing process, much about its production has remained the same — Almond Roca is proudly crafted in Tacoma with California almonds, pure vanilla, and Washington butter. 

Its Tacoma factory, the only one in the world, is slightly unassuming, aside from its hot-pink signage. Though quiet on the outside, Brown & Haley is whirring with activity with 160 year-round, full-time employees, and 2.7 million pieces of Roca are churned out every day. The company also recently replaced its 1980s factory line with a state-of-the-art version, which should increase production by 40 percent over the next year. 

Anne Haley, chairman of the board and granddaughter of J.C. Haley, who co-founded the Brown & Haley confectionary company in 1914, remembers growing up in the factory when her father was the vice president. Occasionally he’d go in on weekends to tinker with a broken machine, and Anne and her sisters would scamper over to the cooling vats and sample the freshly made chocolate. At that time, all the confections were made by hand, she said. 

The butter crunch center of the Almond Roca was poured out on a heated table, and men would smooth the molten Roca center with giant rollers, and then cut it by hand with large guillotine-like blades. 

“The original cooking is done by hand a batch at a time,” she said. “And we still do it that way, because we value good quality and have always valued high-quality, raw materials.”

The founders of the company, J.C. Haley and Harry L. Brown, met in 1908 at the Mason Methodist Church. At the time, Haley was a salesman, selling Shilling spices by horseback and Mosquito Fleet boats along the Puget Sound. Brown was a candy man who owned a small confectionary shop and loved experimenting with flavors. The two started working together in 1912, and by 1916, they released their first product. 

Almond Roca has become the identity of the Brown & Haley legacy, but it was the Mountain Bar, formerly known as Mount Tacoma Bars, that were the first to come down the factory lines. The chocolate-dipped, peanut-coated bars with a vanilla center were popularized by grunts serving at Camp Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) during World War II. Mountain Bars are still made by Brown & Haley, but like the Almond Roca, have evolved with more flavors.

Pierson Clair joined Brown & Haley in 1998 and currently serves as the first CEO who isn’t related to the founding family. When he came on board, the company had been creating the same classic confections for 80 years, and the opportunity to innovate and live in our Evergreen State was an attractive draw for Clair, who was living in California and working for Blommer Chocolate Company. 

“In the U.S., the cashew is a highly respected nut, and we didn’t have any other flavors beside almond, and if you didn’t like almond, you were never going to buy Almond Roca,” Clair said. “It was time to really broaden Brown & Haley’s offerings.”

Brown & Haley did exactly that, and currently offers cashew, macadamia nut, dark chocolate, and seasonal flavors. It’s also come out with a line of Roca and Mountain thins. 

Anne Haley said the company is small compared to other confectionary makers, but in some ways, that also works to its advantage. It’s given the team the ability to be nimble, so when Starbucks, Walmart, or Costco requests a special product or unique packaging, Brown & Haley is able to deliver. 

Brown & Haley delivery struck some time around 1920.
Photo Courtesy Tacoma Public Library

Anne and Pierson Claire echoed each other with the keys to their success over the company’s 105-year-old history. First is innovation, Claire said, something it continues to do as more flavors and variations are released to entice buyers and move further away from its former reputation as a seasonal product — something only bought as a holiday gift. 

The second is caring for its employees, Anne said. “For instance, right after World War II, there were immigrants from Yugoslavia, and a man who worked in the plant had a family, and they could not secure a loan for a house, because they were new immigrants,” she said. “So, my grandfather and dad co-signed for this man, so that he could buy a house for his family. It’s that kind of caring for people that work at Brown & Haley — that kind of caring and paying attention and listening — that a great team has been created over the decades.”

And the third is quality, Clair said, which has always been at the forefront of Brown & Haley. Working for a historic, family business has been an “utter joy,” he said. After all, he eats chocolate all day, he said with a hearty laugh. 

“It’s also a big responsibility,” he added. “The Browns and the Haleys constructed a magnificent company, and the joy of that results in a delightful, quality product, which consumers around the world enjoy every day. My responsibility is to make sure the company continues with the promise of ensuring customers around the world receive wonderful Roca.”