During the airing of a Cash Cab episode several years ago, host Ben Bailey asked the question: "What iconic hot cocoa brand was invented by an American of Sicilian descent?" or something close to that effect. The answer, of course, was Swiss Miss. For the other folks in the room's benefit, I chimed in with "And Uncle Chuck was that inventor".
"Uncle Chuck" was Charles Sanna, inventor extraordinaire, of Madison, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the world lost this creative man with his passing on March 13, 2019 at age 101. The business world has taken note of his passing as it well should. There are, most likely, few more iconic American brands and, correspondingly, few American cupboards which do not contain or have at some time contained Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate. Actually it's almost-original name was "Swiss Miss Instant Cocoa" ... a huge step above the name "Brown Swiss" (after a breed of cow) under which it was first sold to airlines in the 1950s. Swiss Miss, to the lover of all things "Business", was a best-practices lesson in branding and, across the decades from its 1961 launch into the mass marketplace, acquisition by merger. To the rest of the world, it just plain tasted good, especially on a cold winter's day after sledding or skiing or a chily night as a companion to a fire in the hearth. I was and remain a member of both the "student of business" and "it tastes good" clubs. I'm sure the example set by Uncle Chuck and his connection to the world of "business" had something to do with my early money-making ventures which began at the ripe old age of seven.
Swiss Miss is a brand that evokes strong, early memories for me. I, along with the rest of my immediate family, certainly did drink my share. Healthy, year-long supplies would arrive every Christmas (until the brand was sold to Beatrice Foods in 1967) from Uncle Chuck and Aunt Peggy (McGee), along with a supply of oh-so 1960s insulated mugs. Since I was 3 when Swiss Miss first appeared on grocery store shelves, I guess I thought it had always existed. For me, there was never a day without Swiss Miss being readily available right from the panty. I think my older cousins would tell a different story, and since they were the tasting guinea pigs for the early efforts, they probably had more Swiss Miss in those early years than they care to remember. At least that's the way author/great story-teller Cousin Lucy tells it.
Regardless of the extent to which the Sanna cousins undoubtely overdosed - willingly or no - on Swiss Miss, there is no question that the brand is still an American favorite and evokes fond memories universally. As an antiques dealer and auctioneer, I have sold a goodly share of early Swiss Miss promotional products as collectibles, including early genuine "Swiss Miss" dolls and the insulated mugs carrying the later Alps-oriented logo. When they surface, those dolls sell for lots more than the $3 (with boxtop, of course!) than the going 1963 price. The Swiss Miss maiden also brings to mind the equally iconic Laurel & Hardy skit of the same name. Conagra, the current ower of the brand since 1990, reports that in the neighborhood of 50 million boxes are sold annually. The product is still produced in Menomonie, WI, the very same town where Uncle Chuck starting trying out recipes over the family's stove in the early 1950's.
Swiss Miss arose from a creative effort born out of necessity ... a true reflection of the adage "Necessity is the mother of invention". Uncle Chuck, a mechanical engineer by trade, was looking for a way to use the surplus milk powder left over from the powdered coffee creamer which Sanna Dairies, the firm founded by Uncle Chuck's Italian immigrant father, produced in huge quantities for the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
The story of Charles Sanna's career trajectory and how Swiss Miss came to be (as well as Uncle Chuck's patent for "instantly soluble non-fat dry milk aka "Sannalac" ... another pantry staple at our house) has recently been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and even in an extensive tribute in this month's Smithsonian Magazine. Each of them add a link to the chain represented by the career and entrepreneurial spirit of the man. His career is a model for today's entrepreneurs just as it was for me decades ago. Links are as follows:
(Sorry the WSJ article is only available to subscribers.)
What I always found and still find just as remarkable is Uncle Chuck's and my Aunt Peggy's 73-year long marriage. The two met when Uncle Chuck, a Navy ensign, was stationed at the Portsmouth (NH) Naval Shipyard during the early years of WWII where he oversaw the construction of submarines before being re-assigned in a similar capacity to the Pacific theatre. (During his tour of duty in Portsmouth, Uncle Chuck would board with the grand-parents of the girl who would become my childhood best friend. It is a small world.) He would return to Portsmouth to marry my Aunt Peggy, his boss's secretary, shortlly after the war.
Even I - who saw him infrequently - benefitted from and appreciated the many dimensions of Uncle Chuck. Business aside, he held strong opinions and convictions on all topics, including politics and religion. While he had a wonderfully melodious laugh and was lots of fun, he was "of steel", being focused on the topic at hand, whatever it was. Make no mistake as to that. His interests were multi-dimensional ... and those interests resulted in corresponding creations. I remember his face-balanced golf putter of the mid 1980s and was happy to use it in my own golf outings. It did work. Falling back on experiences with his grandchildren, he penned the children's book, "Daddy, Daddy, There's a Mouse in the House." Tom and Maggie, you are fortunate to have a story written about you by your own grandad. A signed copy graces my collection of children't books.
Another remarkable fact is Uncle Chuck and Aunt Peggy raised five very different children with unique personalities who each followed unique career paths, from "water" engineering to author to stock brokering. I am the youngest of the first cousins ... also known at intervals as both the baby and/or the pest. (Sorry, I loved seeing and spending time with my older cousins.) I know as I write this that the family is getting ready to celebrate Uncle Chuck's long and fruitful life as husband, father, creative, and businessman tomorrow at his and Aunt Peggy's favorite hang-out, Maple Bluff Country Club. Even though I cannot be there in person, this niece and cousin raises her glass in a toast to remember and celebrate with you all, and in doing so, also celebrates the members of the Sanna clan remaining. Here's to you all.
To honor, in closing, one Italian father's singing Irish tunes to his children at bedtime:
"Fathers hold their children's hands for just a little while ... and their hearts forever." An Old Irish Blessing.