Photo by Jeff Hobson

In spring 1923, Brown & Haley turned 11 years old. Harry Brown, the confectioner, and Clifford Haley, the salesman, had established a solid portfolio of handmade candies, including the Mount Tacoma Bar, renamed Mountain Bar this same year so it would sell better outside Tacoma. 

Unsatisfied coming out of World War I, Harry and Clifford decided their future depended on innovation. So Harry experimented in the company kitchen. One day with a copper kettle, high heat, butter and sugar, then some chocolate and almond bits … Bingo! Harry knew he had something unique. But what? 

Harry started taking the crunchy, log-shaped confection around Tacoma, offering samples to get reactions in a kind-of citywide focus group. Company lore says librarian Jacqueline Noel, after tasting a sample, chose the name Almond Roca since almonds of the era came from Spain and roca is Spanish for “rock.”

Almond Roca became known as “The Candy that Travels” when Brown & Haley packaged it in pink tins that kept it fresh en route to destinations around the world and to U.S. troops during World War II and the Korean War. It also became known as “America’s Finest Confection” and “The Original Butter-crunch Toffee.” 

Flash forward nearly 100 years. Innovation still boils in the Brown & Haley DNA. And the company has a new treat for you.

“For at least the last 10 years, the No. 1 request we’ve gotten from around the world is, ‘Can I get a smaller piece of Roca?” said Kathi Rennaker, director of marketing. “Literally, hundreds of requests a year.”

The perennial answer? No. The 1980s-era equipment on the company’s one-and-only production line could churn out 2.7 million Roca logs a day — in one size only. Until early last fall, when Brown & Haley made the single-most expensive investment in company history, installing a new, German-engineered, Roca-making line.

“The second-most common request we’ve gotten for years and years is, ‘Can I get a milk chocolate version of Roca without the nuts on the outside.’”

Now you get both.

Debuting this month in Tacoma and across the country, three flavors of Roca Bites: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and traditional almond — one-third the size of original Roca.

“Consumers these days now eat in their cars,” Rennaker said. “They take their candy to their kids’ soccer games. We want it portable. We want to eat it in one bite.”

In focus groups, Rennaker said, she watched people eat, then reseal the bag, then eat some more, then reseal the bag. (Not me. I polished off a bag of the milk chocolate Roca Bites without resealing it once.)

Roca Bites “definitely give you a different eating experience,” said CEO Pierson Clair. As Clair describes it, when you bite into a traditional Roca, you get that first taste of the chocolate and almonds followed by crunch and buttery finish. With Roca Bites, you get the burst of flavors all at once.

Clair owns among the most sophisticated chocolate-tasting palates in the candy industry. Give him a random chocolate and he can tell you the subregion the cacao bean came from, which leads to another aspect of Almond Bites that you may like as much as their flavor.

Clair and members of his team have made pilgrimages to cacao farms across the world to source the best raw materials.

Now, beginning with Roca Bites, Brown & Haley has committed to paying a 6 percent premium for beans from sustainable cacao farms in West Africa. The farmers can earn enough from their land that they will not have to cut down trees from surrounding rain forests to expand and survive. Plus, the farms grow cacao organically, learn crop-rotation practices to keep the land fertile, and cannot employ slave labor.

For the company ranked No. 45 on the list of top U.S. candy companies, Clair said, “Doing the right thing tastes better.”