March 24, 2019 Reading Time: 2 minutes

Behind every great innovation, there is an innovator or maybe many.

In the case of Swiss Miss instant cocoa, he has a name: Charles Sanna. He was born in 1917 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the fourth son of a father who immigrated from Sicily at the age of 13. He studied engineering and put his craft to work in the dairy industry in Wisconsin. His mighty innovation was mixing powdered milk with cocoa to create hot chocolate to be served on airlines and for the military – just the times when one otherwise wouldn’t have whole milk available.

Charles Sanna has died at the age of 101. Let us not forget his legacy. He invented a concoction that has brought joy to millions. Even a quick look on Amazon shows how enormously popular Swiss Miss truly is.

The insight that his mixture could reach broader consumers came in an interesting way. He noticed that the airlines were always running out. He did the math and realized that it could not be because passengers were drinking that much on the plane. He figured out that the flight attendants and crew were quietly stealing the stuff for home use. It was at that moment that he decided to market it more broadly.

Does it sound obvious? It is not. To discern an unmet need from the environment around you and to act on it is entrepreneurial genius, the impulse that drives the progress of the world. One day making hot chocolate required refrigeration and a kitchen mess, and the next day it did not, all because Charles used his mind and skills to make the world a more liveable place.

And consider the underlying cultural mix here as well. The son of a Sicilian immigrant living in Wisconsin invents a new powered drink and markets it as a North European delicacy: talk about appropriation of the very best sort. 

So when you raise your mug of steaming hot cocoa, remember Charles Sanna. Salute his legacy. It’s because of him and people like him that we can track the forward motion of life.

And while we are at it, let’s not forget the millions of people involved in the long struggle to make cocoa available to the masses of people, which it was not until the middle of the 19th century, and the industrial processes invented a century earlier that made it all possible.


Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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