Schmacko's Reviews > The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars

The Emperors of Chocolate by Joël Glenn Brenner
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Apr 23, 2009

it was amazing
Read in April, 2009

Crazy candy makers – Roald Dahl created the quintessential sweet-toothed loon in Willy Wonka of Charley and the Chocolate Factory. Wonka seems supremely batty, but Dahl wasn’t too far from the truth. Candy-making is nutty, in more ways than one!

In The Emperors of Chocolate, biographer Joël Glenn Brenner takes on the history of American’s two largest chocolate making families, the Hersheys and the Marses. These are names we grew up with, stuffing Hershey Kisses or the famous Mars Snickers Bars into our collective gullets. (And they both make so much more - over 50% of the candy we have access to.) Yes, here’s a tale filled with madness and Mafioso-like behavior. It’s clear from the get-go that author JGB has certainly done her research!

First of all, the history of chocolate – who knew it was such a difficult substance to work with? Even the invention of milk chocolate seems like a fluke. I was flabbergasted to find that it took YEARS to figure out how to combine these two substances (they don’t chemically really go together!) The different methods that were finally discovered for combining chocolate with milk account for much of the different tastes between Hershey’s products and Mars’ (I don’t want to “spoil” the surprise by telling you the reason – read the book!)

What’s even more telling in Emperors are the personalities behind the companies. These days, the companies are in an all-out war with each other. At one time, however, they considered each other friends; one even helped the other, rescuing it from eminent failure a couple times. Both company “families” know each other well, and they keep each other’s confidences while still planning to dominate the marketplace. (It’s like the sugary version of Dynasty!) Both the Hershey family and the Mars family share qualities of obsessive-compulsive behavior, paranoia, secrecy, fancy and tyranny. What separates them seems to be heart – one company is very philanthropic and traditional in values; the other psychotically self-interested and cold but very progressive. Want to know which is the “more successful” company? Read the book; make up your own mind.

What most caught my attention? The “evil” company has so many good qualities, and the “good” side has some really stupid or strange ideas that, of course, fail. Since I am a consultant to corporations, I find this fascinating. I want the nefarious group to be totally evil. Yet I find myself impressed with their drives for efficiency and self-improvement while they successfully motivate employees. I certainly still hate their mistrust and fascism.

The “good” company has a similar paradox. They do so much, but even their outreach has an ugly side of egocentrism about it that I don’t think the company realizes to this day. Long ago, their founder absolutely decided how to make the world a better place. He strove to put that narrow-minded stamp on everything around him. Only when his grand schemes backfired did the man even seem to question whether his ideas were selfish and limited.

I understand that author JGB had a lot of trouble getting information from Hersheys and Mars; both companies are manically secretive and distrustful. Spying still happens to this day. (Remember Slugworth from Charley and the Chocolate Factory? It’s true!) So, it’s quite impressive that she created such an engaging and thorough book.

Consultants like me have a field-day with books like The Emperors of Chocolate. We argue incessantly about the battle between the bottom line and valuing employees. There is also the conflict of companies selling childlike imagination while they must also efficiently operate in response to their shareholders. The ugliness, the pettiness, the weirdness, the secrecy are amazing, partially because they often succeed! It’s these conflicts that drawn me to the work I do; it’s these battles between individuals and groups that informs my consulting as well as my playwrighting. (And I have discovered in talking with friends who are employed at Disney, Lockheed, Universal, Darden Restaurants and other places that these are questions every one of us asks ourselves daily. Even small local theaters ask themselves these sorts of tough questions.)

None of us are supposed to think about any of this when we pop chocolates into our mouths. The companies fight long and hard to make sure we don’t have to worry ourselves with their unique eccentricities and barbarisms. But I can promise you, after reading The Emperors of Chocolate, you’ll never look at that next bite of candy the same.
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