I Remember the Cookie Wars

I was little more than a kid, but I can still recall that bitter conflict as if it were only yesterday: elf versus granny, granny versus peanut man, peanut man versus pretty much everybody else. It was a dark and ugly period of retail baking history. I was a mere foot soldier in 1982, a pimply summer employee at Keebler corporate headquarters in Elmhurst, Illinois, hefting file boxes, working in the mail room, helping out occasionally in the R & D lab, dropping cases of cookies from measured heights and counting the crumbs (a true intellectual’s job).

I was the proverbial happy idiot. And then the roof fell in. Frito Lay, who until then were known only for salty snacks and well-intentioned racial slurs, burst across the border of cookie land with a line of soft and gooey Grandma’s cookies. The incursion brought swift and terrible retribution. First Keebler unleashed its own (some claimed stolen) version of the permanently soft cookie known as Soft Batch. Second, they greatly expanded their line of salty snacks, especially pretzels, as a counter-attack. Nabisco, sensing opportunity, threw itself fully into both frays, ballooning out lines of both snacks and cookies (especially Fig Newtons).

The conflict went on for years, during which time the cinderblock walls of Keebler headquarters were plastered with posters of Ernie standing good-naturedly by a cartoon cannon, a pile of granny and Mr. Peanut corpses burning in the background (or maybe I just dreamt that part). In time, battered and bloodied, the combatants retreated more or less to their former borders (or “core competencies” in the dialect of corporate-speak). Some of the products from those years remain, though none of the companies involved ever managed to overrun the other as they hoped they might. But the 80’s were boom years. They saw all kinds of strange menu/product line expansions in the food world (remember McHaggis? No, I don’t either, I just made that up). People were dreaming big. But then the more realistic and conservative 90’s followed, and the elves, grandmothers and peanut people pretty much kept their dreams of territorial expansion to themselves (though Nabisco really blew the proverbial roof off with their introduction of Snackwells in the early 90’s).

Now however it seems to be happening again, only the players are different. Subway has announced it’s getting into the pizza market. And as if on cue, like the Israelis diving on the Gaza Strip when the world’s back is turned, Wendy’s announced it’s going after a share of the Starbuck’s frappacino trade, with new frosties packaged in bubble-topped containers. What to say about what’s going on here except another round of the same: a series of corporate dustups whose primary objective is to test how committed the combatants are to their own brands, their own territories. And likely it’ll end the same way, with another handfull of products on the menu boards for a year or two, before the next wave of top managers wakes up and realizes the company has strayed dangerously from the products it knows best.

Just another phase of the never-ending cycle of conflict and resolution that defines the retail food world. Will we never learn?

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