It was the late 1950s, and Charles Sanna had a problem: He was inundated with coffee creamer. His family’s company, Sanna Dairy Engineers, had been supplying American troops with packets of powdered creamer during the Korean War, and to make sure the company was able to meet the terms of its agreement with the U.S. military, it had overproduced. Sanna had to figure out what to do with the surplus—and he had a delicious idea.
“I believed that it would make an excellent ingredient for a hot cup of cocoa,” he once said, according to the New York Times’ Sam Roberts.
So Sanna got to tinkering. He tried out recipes at the stove of his home in Menomonie, Wisconsin, enlisting his children and local students to act as taste-testers. Using a combination of powdered creamer, cocoa, sugar and vanilla, and hot water, he arrived at a formula for a rich chocolatey drink. He was constantly tinkering with his mix, for instance, making it longer lasting by substituting nonfat milk powder for creamer. The result, ultimately sold in grocery stores under the name Swiss Miss, is credited with launching America’s instant hot chocolate industry.
Sanna died on March 13 at the age of 101. He had been blessed with “an amazing ability to taste things, and an amazing sense of smell,” his daughter Lucy Sanna tells Harrison Smith of the Washington Post. “You could give him a cookie, and he’d say, ‘The nuts are rancid,’ even if it was only a small part.”
Born to Italian immigrant parents in 1917, Sanna followed in the footsteps of his father, who had managed a dairy company in Philadelphia, an ice cream company in D.C., a cream brokerage in Minnesota and the gelatin division of a Chicago meatpacking plant. The family ultimately settled in Wisconsin, where Sanna studied mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He started his career in the steel industry before after applying for a commission in the Navy in 1941. There he went on to oversee the construction of submarines at a Naval ship yard in Maine and supervise their repair at Pearl Harbor during WWII. Speaking to Chris Aadland of the Wisconsin State Journal just a month before his death, Sanna remembered this period of his career as his proudest accomplishment.
After the war, Sanna intended to continue on in the steel industry, but his father convinced him to join the family business, by that time known as Sanna Dairy Engineers. A lifelong inventor, Sanna came up with a way to prolong the shelf-life of dehydrated coffee creamers by reducing the amount of oxygen in the packets. This in turn allowed the company to ship its powdered creamer to American soldiers in Korea. He also designed a huge milk dryer that helped the Sanna Dairy produce and patent Sanalac, a nonfat dry milk product.
But Swiss Miss was arguably Sanna’s most popular invention. His brother originally named the powdered cocoa Brown Swiss after a breed of dairy cow, though the milk in the product actually came from Holsteins, which produce milk with less butterfat. Brown Swiss was largely sold to airlines and restaurants, but they stopped buying the cocoa packets after they noticed that customers were swiping them. Sanna realized that the product might be a hit if it made its way to grocery shelves—but first he had to figure out how to make it cheaper and more long-lasting.
To that end he swapped the creamer powder in the cocoa mix for nonfat milk powder, which wasn’t as expensive and was less likely to spoil. The product was renamed Swiss Miss and launched in 1961 as the first instant cocoa that could be made with hot water instead of milk (though it works with milk, too). The cozy drink founds fans not only among grocery shoppers, but also Antarctic explorers. According Smith of the Post, the polar explorer Will Steger packed enough Swiss Miss to make more than 2,000 cups of the stuff when he embarked on a dog-sled journey across Antarctica in 1989.
“It was a good combination of ingredients — and it was instant,” Sanna told Aadland of the Wisconsin State Journal. “It mixed right away in water or milk ... It was excellent.”
The Sanna family sold its company to Beatrice Foods in 1967, which in turn was purchased by the Conagra packaged foods company in 1990. Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa continues to be a popular treat; Conagra estimates that it sells more than 50 million boxes every year, the Times’ Roberts reports.
Speaking to Aadland before his death, Sanna said that he still drank Swiss Miss, though he opined that the product’s quality had decreased as ingredient costs rose. Nevertheless, he said, “It nice to know that you’ve done something that will carry on.”