In economics, one hand doesn’t wash the other;
it chops the other right off.
The previous summer I explored the history, technology and architecture behind the United States’ domestic sugar industry and now I found myself in the empty shell of one of the world’s largest candy factories: Brach’s Confections. Here’s a riddle: what has more than two hands and has the ability to artificially cause commodity markets to boom or bust?
If you answered, “The U.S. Federal Government,” you can pick a candy from the jar.
Candy Capitalism (Isn’t So Sweet)
Rural Colorado’s sugar beet farms and mills are a long way, spatially and culturally, from Chicago’s interurban industrial wasteland along the infamous Cicero Avenue neighborhood; but for all its rusting modernity it seemed just as dry, dusty and remote. When I was in this borough last fall, my adventure was cut short by a homeless man burning tires in the middle of the street my ride was driving down, followed immediately by the attempt by a number of locals to rob us. Being a guerilla historian, I keep learning, can be quite dangerous.
The Brach’s story starts with Emil J. Brach, son of German immigrants who settled in Iowa who, in 1904, began a small candy retail and production space in Chicago with his two young sons—they called it their “Palace of Sweets.” As Brach’s matured so did the exploding market of Chicago, and as the local consumer base grew, thus did the company… so much so that in 1923 Emil Brach moved his operation out from 5 packed factory floors and into a new building near the street that would become Cicero.
Taffy in The Hood
On the side of a windowless brick shell, an ornate ‘B’ marks Brach’s first consolidated factory, around which decades of expansion would constitute more than a million square feet of mushroom pillars, freight elevators and factory floors that seemed to stretch on infinitely. Between 1923 and 1953, 12 additions were built on 17 acres, employing 3,400 full-time workers who turned out 300 pounds of candy at a time. As its customers consumed 90,000,000 pounds of candy annually, the humming candy factory took in sugar from more than 42,000 acres of cane and beets, to say nothing of the 3000 dairy cows that did their part. Chicago was soon known as the ‘Candy Capital’ of the country and had more manufacturing jobs than any other urban center in the United States.
When the country entered World War II, Brach’s candy was a part of the U.S. rations and was carried across Europe, Asia and Africa, wherever our troops fought.
After the war and Emil’s death in 1947, the founder’s two sons took over factory operations, simultaneously beginning an ongoing theme of company outsourcing (this time, to Mexico) and expanding the Chicago plant. In the 1930s, Brach’s was one of the leading candy companies in the world, known for consistently high-quality confections (assured by the 20 laboratory technicians who roamed the factory randomly checking stations). By the 1950s, over 500 varieties of candy were produced here, but nobody knew then that the industry was peaking.
Bailouts and Burnouts
By the 1980s, a disastrous marketing plan and ballooning domestic sugar prices were beginning to threaten the entire company; federal subsidies propped up the United State’s sugar industry, doubling the price of domestic product over its world market equivalent. Brach’s Confections went so far as to request that its factory be marked a Foreign Trading Zone to allow importation of foreign sugar at a fraction of contemporary cost.
After the Commerce Department rejected that request, management threatened to close the plant: a measure that was only circumvented by a $10,000,000 loan (See: “Bailout.”) from the city itself, who didn’t want to see the thousands of jobs leave the local economy.
Perhaps it was because of the 1990 incident, but when the company later announced the last year of operation at the Chicago plant would be 2003, the end was treated as inevitable. Sugar prices were high, and the cost of operation was more affordable over the border; even in Canada, a mere day’s drive north of the plant, Brach’s overhead was estimated to be 20% cheaper to operate in.
It’s amazing how a naturally regulated commodity market coupled with free worker health care can boost an economy, just ask the U.S.’s northern neighbor. Ultimately when Brach’s closed, at the time one of the largest candy factories in the world, it was in Argentina and Mexico where workers were being hired for new confectionary production lines.
Economic Expansion (For Demolition Crews)
The only official attention the factory has received since those last 1,600 workers left their stations for the last time was in 2007 when the company offices, 100 feet away from the factory walls was sacrificed for the latest Batman movie, ‘Dark Knight’. Brach’s former cubicle repository was dressed as “Gotham General Hospital” and imploded. To this day there are steel drums that acted as mortars welded to steel drums weighted with sandbags in the plant locker rooms from which debris and fireballs were explosively injected into the scene.
Sadly, apart from the makeshift cannons, only occasional heaps of unrecognizable brickwork, chunks of concrete and twisted metal fill the endless grid of uniform pillars.
Wading through the water on the factory’s third floor, saturated by dust, peeled paint chips and the reflections of graffiti, it was sad that seemingly every scrap of the factory’s sweet legacy was lost… then I felt thankful there was a building at all. Some might call it an eyesore or urban blight, but Brach’s serves as a reminder of what happens when the government pulls those overpowered economic strings. By propping up the sugar beet industry, the candy industry failed and thus helped destroy the demand for the raw material itself.
Boldface Reminder: Nothing Has Changed… Yet…
The Brach’s jobs are gone, as are many other companies who have fallen victim to the same economic tampering; now it’s our job as a country to learn and change.