The monumental Brach’s candy factory in Chicago is a crumbling shrine to “The World’s Candy Capital.” Perhaps more appropriately though, the colossal factory is a tombstone marking the agonizing death of the American Dream. The factory is a well-known urbex location in the greater Chicago area. It was a great thrill to finally get to explore it physically. Before I delve into that let’s explore the factory intellectually.
German immigrant Emil J. Brach was an ambitious 22 year-old when he came to Chicago in 1881 to work for the Bunte Brothers & Spoehr candy manufacturers. The spendthrift Brach saved $15,000, which he invested into a candy company that quickly went under. Learning from his mistakes Brach rolled up his sleeves and took matters into his own hands. In 1904 the 45 year-old Brach invested $1000 and opened his own “Palace of Sweets” at the corner of North Avenue and Towne Street. With the help of sons Edwin and Frank, Brach attracted locals by making the delicious sweets in a single kettle in the rear of the store and placing them in attractive displays in the front. Customers craved Brach’s popular caramel in particular, which at 20 cents per pound was much cheaper than retailers’ 50-60 cents per pound. To keep up with demand Frank Brach delivered sweets to local department stores for customer convenience.
Photo: The beautiful terrra cotta Brach’s logo outside the abandoned factory.
The Brach’s company would move three more times between 1906 and 1913 to keep up the rapid expansion of their operations. Shipping was vital to their ever growing business. The company dispatched candy via horse, vehicle, mail-order and even by rail. The company’s widening markets expanded along with their burgeoning product line. Within that early growth period Brach’s added hard candies, ice cream, chocolates and nut products to their repertoire. In 1923 Brach consolidated operations into a $5 million facility designed by architect Alfred Alschuler at the intersection of Kilpatrick, Ferdinand, and the Beltline railroad tracks. At that time the company produced over 250 candy variations at about 4 million pounds per week. During the boom years Brach hired workers of all ethnic backgrounds. For years company notices were printed in multiple languages.
Photo (source): A Brach’s employee overlooks the panning procedure that gives hard candy its lustre.
Managing Brach’s reputation for quality was a top priority for the company. They were the first candy producer to implement a “Laboratory for Control” to inspect products. All candies came with a 30-day money-back guarantee and were shipped in special containers to assure freshness.
At the height of the Great Depression Brach’s was able to post a net income of $175,000 even with a dismal $1.27 million in sales, all while keeping more than 1000 people employed. The company was the first to grant employees raises during the severe economic downturn. They also served meals at cost to keep their employees well fed and motivated. During World War II the company was given the Army & Navy Production Award for the high-quality rations produced for the troops. 327 Brach’s employees served in the Armed Forces during the war effort and eight made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. On September 7, 1948 an electrical spark ignited corn starch and caused an explosion on the third floor. The explosion destroyed much of the north side of the factory. The disaster injured 18 and killed 11 employees, but occurred before the day shift before 2,400 employees began.
Photo (robert_g_gigliotti): Smokestack at the top of the factory bearing the Brach name.
Emil J. Brach worked vigorously until the day he died in 1947 at age 88. By that time Emil positioned Brach’s as the #1 bulk producer of candy in the US. Sons Edwin and Frank took over operations after their father’s passing. They tapped into the exploding middle-class market by positioning attractive candy displays in groceries and purchasing ads on television. The Brach brothers didn’t lose their nostalgia for their old shop either. In 1958 they introduced the signature “Pick-A-Mix” kiosks which are still present in modern supermarkets. Edwin passed away at the age of 70 in 1965 leaving his brother Frank in charge. By the 1960’s Brach’s produced over 500 individual types of candies. Unable to keep pace on his own, an aging 75 year-old Frank Brach put the company up for sale in 1966 and it was purchased by American Home Products.
Photo: One of the few remaining markers identifying the building owner.
Frank’s death in 1970 left wife Helen at the helm of the Brach’s candy fortune. Helen Brach visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on February 17, 1977 and was never heard from again. Investigations into the millionaire’s disappearance failed to yield any conclusive evidence as to her whereabouts and she was officially declared dead in 1984. It wasn’t until 1989 that a federal investigation into horse racketeering turned the focus to her then lover Richard Bailey. Bailey had conned Brach into investing in horses and their relationship soured when Helen discovered the scam. Bailey was eventually convicted in 1994 of multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with Helen’s disappearance. In 2005 accomplice Joe Plemmons came forward to authorities describing his role in the crime. According to Plemmons, he fired two rounds rounds into the visibly beaten body of Helen Brach. Plemmons then escorted two accomplices to an active steel mill off of Interstate 65. Two steel mill employees held blast furnace doors open when Helen Brach’s corpse was fed into a trough and incinerated.
Acquisition of the Brach’s brand traded hands over the past few decades. In 1987 American Home Products sold Brach’s to european candy and coffee producer James Suchard. Principle stockholder Klaus J. Jacobs sold Suchard off to Philip-Morris in 1990, but retained ownership of the Brach’s business units. In 1994 Jacobs merged Brach’s with another property he purchased, Brock Candy Company, to form Brach & Brock Confections, Inc. Ownership changed hands again in 2003 when Brach & Brock Confections, Inc. was sold to the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer Barry-Callebaut headquartered in Zürich, Switzerland.
Photo (akagoldfish): The abandoned factory as seen from the cracking parking lot.
The Chicago factory fell on hard times in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Artificially inflated domestic sugar costs and strict import quotas put in place by the US Department of Agriculture made operating costs in Chicago difficult for Brach’s. (These policies have essentially crippled candy production throughout the United States.) High labor costs also exacerbated the situation to the point where the owners decided to shutter the aging plant. Brach’s began laying off employees in 2001 and gradually continued until 2003. After 76 years in operation the “Palace of Sweets” closed its doors. Production of Brach’s candies resumed in Mexico where labor and sugar are more cost effective.
Video: Amateur video of the Brach’s administration building demolition.
Photo: Scene from The Dark Knight. Copyright Warner Brothers.
In August of 2007 the location was used as a set for filming The Dark Knight. The former parking deck was completely demolished in the scene in which the Joker destroys Gotham General Hospital. The factory can also be seen in the shot (far left), which was also rigged to fire explosives from the windows. The final scene from the Dark Knight can be viewed here.
Photo: A lone sign warns factory explorers of the dangerous wet floor.
Soon after filming occurred Brach’s Confections was sold to current owners Farley & Sathers for an undisclosed sum in November 2007. The sale includes current manufacturing facilities located in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Winona, Minnesota; and Linares, Mexico. After four years without a tenant ML Realty Partners, LLC purchased the vacated Chicago factory in 2008 for redevelopment into a warehouse. Visible progress on that project has not materialized.
Photo: The Chicago skyline can be seen in the background of the factory.
The abandoned Brach’s candy factory, much like the Barber-Colman plant, impressed me with its sheer magnitude. We were there for four hours before recognizing the time. Even after all that exploring we still failed to traverse much of the factory. Despite the immense size of the factory most areas were barren or cloaked in darkness enitrely. Almost every possible surface has been covered by taggers in a bid for some kind of street-cred. The upper floors in one of the larger towers are all but inaccessible without the aid of proper climbing equipment. The exteriors are perhaps the most visually engaging elements of the factory. If you are looking for photographic gems the total number of opportunities are sparse. In my opinion the Brach’s factory has a sweeter history than adventure potential. I’m quite satisfied, however, that I checked this off my urbex list before it disappears entirely.
Flickr – My Brach’s Candy Factory set.
Charley Project – Article details the Helen Brach disappearance.
Chicago Business – 2008 article describes potential investment opportunity for the factory.
Chicago Tribune – 2001 article discussing the shutting down of the plant.
Chicago Tribune – 2001 article discussing some of the workers’ reactions to the closing.
Chicago Tribune – 2005 article on Joe Plemmons involvement in Helen Brach’s disappearance.
Christian Science Monitor – 2001 article on high sugar prices killing US competition.
Encyclopedia of Chicago – Entry on Emil J. Brach.
Farley & Sathers – Brach’s corporate history.
Google Books – 1948 The Billboard news snippet on the explosion that killed 11 and injured 18.
Google Books – 1952 Popular Mechanics article “They Make Candy by the Ton” with great color photos.
Monster – Company Profile for Brach’s, which has some historical information.
Reference for Business – Brach’s Confections corporate history and other information.
Unknown Chicago – Brief article on Helen Brach’s disappearance.
Wikipedia – Entry for missing Brach’s heiress Helen Brach.
Super Fictional Bonus!
Editor’s Note: The following biographical information about Emil J. Brach cannot be confirmed by legitimate academic resources. This excerpt from the 1996 book “Germans are Bad-Ass: A Compendium of Bad-Assery Throughout History Minus Hitler” is considered to be a complete fabrication.
Brach’s candy is synonymous with joyfully delicious candy, but few are aware of Emil J. Brach’s sinister motives for creating sugary sweets. As a German, Brach’s love for fine chocolate was surpassed only by Schadenfreude. Emil had a troubled upbringing as a child. His father Augustus was a dentist obsessed with hygiene, but is also described by sources as a vitriolic alcoholic with foul temperament. Brach’s mother Gerta was a strict Protestant who severely punished young Emil for the slightest infraction. In her mid-40’s Gerta was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus, which up until the 1930’s was considered a death sentence. The diagnosis crushed Augustus and sent him into a sustained alcohol-fueled depression. Emil took great pleasure in seeing his oppressive mother robbed of her strength, particularly after she ate her secret stash of chocolate sweets. Gerta eventually slipped into a coma and passed away after a lengthy ordeal. The next day Augustus was struck by a carriage and passed away from the sustained injuries. With his parents out of the way, Emil vowed to immigrate to the land of opportunity to exact Schadenfreude from dentists and diabetics by carefully crafting a seemingly benevolent sweets empire.