|Subject: Charles Sanna, Man Behind Swiss Miss Cocoa
Dead at 101
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Date Posted: Wednesday, April 03, 12:11:39pm
Charles Sanna, Man Behind Swiss Miss Cocoa, Dies at 101
By Sam Roberts
April 2, 2019
If an army travels on its stomach, Charles Sanna helped win the Korean War. He developed a way to produce millions of individual packets of powdered coffee creamer for American troops.
Military contracts stipulated, though, that his family’s company, Sanna Dairy Engineers, would be penalized if the orders were underfilled. So, to be safe, the company produced extra packets. But that meant that it was routinely stuck with excess supply, since the Army had also insisted that none of the overstock be used to fill future orders.
The surplus powder was savory, potentially valuable and perishable. With necessity being the mother’s milk of invention, Mr. Sanna had another idea.
“I believed that it would make an excellent ingredient for a hot cup of cocoa,” he recalled.
He experimented over the stove in the family kitchen in Menomonie, Wis., and enlisted his five children and students from a local elementary school as guinea pigs for countless taste tests.
“I consulted the family cookbook and determined the best proportions of creamer, sugar, cocoa and vanilla,” Mr. Sanna said. “The lab promptly came up with the finished product. It was delightful!”
Which was how, in the late 1950s, the future Swiss Miss brand — and the whole instant hot cocoa mix market — were born.
Mr. Sanna died on March 13 in Madison, Wis., his daughter Lucy Sanna said. He was 101.
For Sanna Dairy Engineers, which was founded by Mr. Sanna’s father in Madison in 1935 and which employed Charles and his three brothers, Swiss Miss was a bonanza.
The brand was sold in 1967 to Beatrice Foods, which was bought in 1990 by ConAgra, which estimates that it sells more than 50 million boxes of Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa Mix annually.
Mr. Sanna had intended to work in the steel industry after leaving the Navy as a lieutenant commander, but his father persuaded him to join Sanna Dairy Engineers, the company he started in 1935.
Charles’s brother Anthony originally named the mix Brown Swiss, after the cattle breed native to Switzerland — although Sanna products were made with milk from Holsteins, which has less butterfat.
Brown Swiss was marketed in pre-measured envelopes mostly to airlines and restaurants, but those buyers stopped offering it after passengers and diners routinely pilfered the packets to take home. If that posed a problem to Sanna’s wholesale customers, it spelled a potential consumer boon.
The instant cocoa mix, patterned after instant coffee, was reformulated for sale in grocery stores and supermarkets, where it required a longer shelf life. Nonfat milk powder was used because the butterfat in the original powder would oxidize and turn rancid.
“My father kept changing the formula,” Ms. Sanna said in a phone interview. “He would say, ‘Do you like A or B?’ It was like an optometrist saying, ‘Can you see better with this lens or that one?’ It was a game for us.”
Anthony Sanna renamed the product Swiss Miss, and it was introduced in 1961, sold as the first powdered hot cocoa product that could be made with water rather than milk. It was promoted with Swiss Misses dolls, which could be ordered for $3 and a box top.
Mr. Sanna might not have been a Renaissance man by da Vinci standards (though his creative juices were undoubtedly stimulated by observing his father sculpt Santa Claus angels from ice cream when he ran a dairy company), but he was, by all accounts, inventive.
In 1982, after he retired, he patented an ornamental design for a golf putter head. When he was 89, he wrote a children’s book, “There’s a Mouse in the House” (2006), about a father’s success in returning an uninvited guest named Friendsy to its natural habitat. (No animals were said to have been harmed in this more or less true story involving a vacuum cleaner.)
In Wisconsin, in the 1950s, Mr. Sanna developed a method to extend the shelf life of dehydrated, powdered, sweetened whole milk coffee creamers from several months to years by reducing the oxygen content in the packets. This enabled his company to meet the Army’s specifications for shipment to Korea.
In 1963, he was awarded a patent for the process for making instantly soluble nonfat dry milk, which made Swiss Miss possible.
“It’s nice to know,” he told The Wisconsin State Journal a month before he died, “that you’ve done something that will carry on.”
Charles Albert Sanna was born on Nov. 9, 1917, in Philadelphia to Anthony and Anna (Romano) Sanna. His father had arrived from Sicily to live with his aunt in New York when he was 13; his mother had immigrated from Sorrento, Italy.
Charles’s father managed a dairy company in Philadelphia; an ice cream company in Washington, D.C.; the gelatin division of a meatpacking plant in Chicago; a cream brokerage in Minnesota; and a farmers’ cooperative in Missouri before being recruited by the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration to assist Wisconsin dairymen squeezed by plunging prices.
After graduating with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1939, Charles began his career working for a United States Steel subsidiary in Gary, Ind.
In July 1941, he applied for a commission in the Navy and was assigned to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, where he oversaw the construction of submarines. After serving in Pearl Harbor, where he supervised their repair, he married Margaret McGee, who had been his boss’ secretary at Portsmouth.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Mary James; their sons, Michael and John; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Sanna intended to return to the steel industry after leaving the Navy as a lieutenant commander, but his father persuaded him to join Sanna Dairy Engineers. Charles’s older brother Leon was there from the start; another brother, Bartel, and a brother-in-law, Roland Eissfeldt, soon joined, and when the war ended, so did the third brother, Anthony, a chemical engineer. Charles became the chief engineer. He was the last surviving of the brothers.
Charles Sanna designed what was then a record-size milk dryer, which enabled the company to patent and produce Sanalac, a nonfat milk product.
A half-century after he introduced his first cocoa mix, a dozen instant drinks and puddings are now sold under the Swiss Miss brand. The manufacturer says the mix can be incorporated into 44 recipes, ranging from chicken mole skillet to tropical ambrosia salad.
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