Not long after Labor Day, people start asking for it. They don't care that the temperature outside may be 89 degrees, or that there's still 110 days until Christmas; they're ready to get a dose of holiday cheer, and they want it in the form of peppermint-topped slabs of chocolate, thank you very much.
In the 18 years since Williams-Sonoma first launched its peppermint bark, the brand's seen the simple, nostalgic candy go from popular stocking stuffer to cult favorite, becoming such a snowballing hit that the kitchenware company has started to view the holiday season—AKA the time when retail companies everywhere are pulling out every shiny new gadget and doorbuster deal to get people through the doors—as "peppermint bark season." An entire section of the store is devoted to the red, white and silver tins, hawking 19 products featuring different ways to enjoy the bark, from brownie mixes to coffee syrups to infuse your morning latte. The obsession is real.
The candy's fan following—and the fact that it comes from a company better known for stocking a rainbow of Kitchenaid stand mixers and Le Creuset pans—can be dumbfounding at first. At its core, peppermint bark is easily replicable, even for home cooks with a lengthy track record of burning Pop-Tarts. It's just dark chocolate, white chocolate and crushed peppermint, so why has it become so popular that Williams-Sonoma goes through a million pounds of chocolate each year, just to keep up with demand? And how has it sparked all kinds of spin-offs (and copycats, from rival retailers and chocolatiers alike)?
We headed to the company's headquarters in San Francisco to get some answers.
They Focused on Nostalgia Over 'New.'
Its popularity may be surprising to some, but not to the man who helped create it. Chuck Williams—yup, the 'W' of the brand—was a huge fan of retro candies, and back in 1998, he challenged a team of three food merchants to come up with throwback treats that'd harken to back to his time as a kid visiting candy stores at Christmastime. After 20 rounds of recipe testing, they created a blend they felt had just the right ratio of dark chocolate, white chocolate and peppermint, so it wouldn't be cloyingly sweet or overwhelmingly minty.
"We knew it was a good idea, but we couldn't anticipate that it'd become a phenomenon," one of the creators told Lauren Tarzia, Williams-Sonoma's public relations manager.
It sold out almost immediately, prompting Williams to put it on the cover of the brand's holiday catalog the following year—serious territory, given that the coveted space is often reserved for big-ticket gifts and gadgets.
"Looking back, I'm just amazed that they were like, 'no, this is going to be it. This is our hit,'" says Amanda Haas, the brand's culinary director. "We love debuting new products on the cover, but having a food item is rare."
It was a serious marketing push—and one that paid off. Though the company doesn't disclose sales information, the brand has sold an estimated 5 million of its 1-pound packages over the past 10 years, according to Mental Floss. Peppermint bark became an instant hit with customers, Haas says, creating the sort of obsessive following that could eventually rival Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte.
"People come to the stores in September and October, looking for it, asking when they can get it," Tarzia says.
And, like the PSL, Williams-Sonoma's considered giving the people what they want.
"We've thought about releasing it earlier [than October], but the company who makes the bark for us doesn't even start making it until late September, early October," Haas adds. "You can't ship it earlier than that, in the hot summer months. The whole production and sales happen in a three-month time period, essentially."
Though Williams-Sonoma didn't state it, many marketing pros would also argue keeping such a tight time frame boosts anticipation—"act now or it'll be gone until next year!"—giving people the sense of urgency to stock up, ASAP. Plus, the market for a distinctly holiday flavor combination probably dwindles considerably in, say, mid-July.
Two Ingredients Make Each Bite Better Than Competitors' Barks.
That said, the company has been doing everything it can to iterate on its hit, capitalizing on that short sales window with products ranging from brownie mixes to bark in the shape of paw prints (a nod to the barking dalmatian that's been part of the company's peppermint bark branding since the beginning). But that doesn't mean the company's tossing some chopped mints and chocolate bits onto any treat to cash in on the popular flavor combination.
"A lot of the reason it's successful is because of the ingredients that go into it, and the ratio of dark chocolate to white chocolate, and how much peppermint's in it," Haas explains. "There's a cookie we did this year, and as we develop the recipe, we're like, 'Can you get enough white chocolate in the frosting? Do you get enough peppermint?' We go back, and back, and back until we get it right."
"We knew it was a good idea, but we couldn't anticipate that it'd become a phenomenon."
Williams-Sonoma doesn't use any old cocoa to create its bark. The company worked with Guittard to create a proprietary blend of dark chocolate (and another for white chocolate) that only it can use. And there's no way they're spilling what, exactly, that mix is.
From first bite, it's easy to tell the dark chocolate's a little more bitter, to offset the sweetness of the white chocolate, but the real surprise is how thoroughly the bark is infused with peppermint. That's a secret they will spill—it's because they use triple-distilled peppermint oil in the chocolate, in addition to topping it with crushed peppermint candies. Good luck finding triple-distilled oil though.
"You can't get that quality very easily," Haas admits.
They Think They've Found the Next Sugar Rush.
Out of all of the different peppermint bark-infused and -inspired products the company's released over the years, the original bark remains the most popular. This season, though, Haas thinks they've finally come up with a contender that could unseat the OG as people's favorite.
"This year, we're doing one with sea salt for the first time, which I think is going to be a huge blockbuster," Haas says. "The salt makes it. It's a game-changer."
It's a simple twist on the classic, but it plays on people's love of all things salty-sweet—and clearly, simple works when it comes to this recipe.
"When I travel for work, and you meet all kinds of people, literally 2 times out of 3, I tell people I work for Williams-Sonoma, and they say, 'oh gosh, you sell that incredible peppermint bark,'" Haas adds.
Not Vitamix blenders. Not Calpahlon pans. Peppermint bark.
"Every year, we expand the collections with new iterations, because people keep looking for more options," Tarzia says. "We'll keep giving them what they want."