Stay Tuned/Random Observations About Cookies

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Random Observations About Cookies
9 November 1997

I admit it: This column was written on impulse. I postponed the one I was going to write after I made a trip to the grocery store today and noticed some things going on in the cookie aisle.

I should explain that I buy only one brand of cookie these days (President's Choice Decadent chocolate chip, if you must know - I go through approximately two bags a week, some weeks; they are, like coffee, essential to my survival). So when I go to the cookie aisle I don't lurk around much; I grab my cookies and go.

But on today's trip, for whatever reason, my eye was caught by one of the most odd ideas I've seen in a while: Nabisco Chocolate Nilla Wafers.

Uh, hello? A chocolate vanilla wafer isn't a vanilla wafer. It's a chocolate wafer.

I should add that these are, properly speaking, Nabisco Reduced Fat Chocolate Nilla Wafers. They do not have a non-reduced-fat version of these chocolate-flavored goodies. (Perhaps they assume that all the chocolate junkies who don't care if it's reduced fat are eating Famous Chocolate Wafers - you know, the thin almost-black cookies that people use mostly to make pie crusts - or even Oreos, which I suppose are ostensibly chocolatey.)

Anyway, once I noted this madness, I saw a few other things and was reminded of some more, and before I knew it I was scribbling notes on the back of my shopping list. Hence today's field report from the Land of Packaged Baked Goods.

First, though, a little quiz. The answers to these will slowly be discussed throughout, so try to get them all now before reading on.

1. Name the three companies who get the most shelf space in your average cookie aisle.
2. Which one makes Vienna Fingers cookies?
3. What equivalent brand does their biggest competitor make?
4. Why are Nilla Wafers named as such, and not "vanilla wafers"?
5. Aside from the fact that different brands make them, what is the difference between Hydrox and Oreo cookies?
6. Name the largest cookie maker's brand of saltine crackers without running to your pantry.
7. Bonus to the above: Name the second largest cookie maker's brand.
8. Which brand makes Cheez-It crackers?

The real estate in the cookie aisle is hotly contested. The nice people in the grocery store are generally reluctant to give cookies more than one side of one aisle, yet cookies are a big impulse-purchase item and also cross age groups - there's something for everyone on the cookie aisle. So manufacturers continually want to expand their lines, introduce new brands, but there is space only for the handful of top sellers, plus one or two experiments and maybe a couple of old standbys way up on the top shelf where no one can reach them.

Cookie shelving is actually a very strictly ordered system. On the bottom shelf, where people have to stoop, are the utility grade cookies and crackers, like graham crackers and saltines - the staples. These are things everyone has to buy anyway, so it doesn't matter that they're not at eye level. Besides, when you're stooping for them, your face has to pass in front of the more interesting stuff on the way down.

This extends to packaging. The consumers aren't tremendously picky about brand when it comes to saltines, so the packages tend to look alike, and the names tend to be rather forgettable. Nabisco, one of the big three when it comes to cookie aisle acreage (the other two are Sunshine and Keebler) makes Premium saltines. Sunshine's brand is called Krispy. (Keebler doesn't do crackers, only cookies.)

([2007:] In the intervening years, Keebler has bought Sunshine. In fact, they had apparently bought them in 1996 but had not yet begun the process of consolidating brands, or of telling anybody.)

This principle of put-the-staples-on-the-bottom extends to other parts of the grocery store as well. Campbell's routinely puts the plainest soups - basic broths, tomato, et cetera - on the bottom. In the baking supplies the bottom shelf is occupied by bags of sugar and flour. (Consumers have exactly zero brand loyalty with bag sugar - they buy whichever is cheapest and closest to the cart. There is a certain amount of loyalty with flour brands, on the other hand, which is why flour bags tend to be somewhat less plain-looking than sugar bags.)

Another principle which extends to other aisles of the store is to put the seldom-purchased items on the upper shelves, where people have to reach for them. Same principle. Gotta get past the fast-moving stuff to get to it. Anyone who doubts that food manufacturers would prefer it if our tastes were bland and standardized would do well to study the arrangement of the average supermarket. If Nabisco only sold four brands of cookies, they'd probably be thrilled.

But they don't - they sell a vast array of brands - you just may never have seen some of them. New England, with its diehard traditionalists, sells some Nabisco brands which are quite old and which I never saw in Louisiana: Crown Pilot chowder crackers, Royal Lunch milk crackers, Social Tea Biscuits, National Arrowroot Biscuits, and the venerable Uneeda Biscuit. To give you an idea of how venerable the Uneeda Biscuit is, an excerpt from The Total Package by Thomas Hine:

There has probably never been a product that sold its package more agressively than Uneeda. Early advertising for the product, which was introduced in 1898, barely mentioned the taste of the cracker. It concentrated entirely on its preservation in a double-sealed package - a folding box on the outside and an inner lining that was also attached to the box. There was nothing new about the cracker, except that it was clean and crispy, free from insects, untouched by rodents. The promise was that it was what crackers from the barrel would be like if you took them from the oven before they were subject to abuse by grocers. Packaged crackers weren't new; British bakers had been putting them in tins for decades. Nevertheless, the saturation advertising campaign was so strong and effective that nearly a century later, Uneeda is widely thought to be the first packaged product.

The Nabisco oval-and-double-cross symbol, in fact, was originally an icon on their packages which indicated the presence of the "In-Er-Seal" liner.

In addition to these arcane cookies, you are likely to see on the top shelf such cookies as Mystic Mint cookies - Oreos dipped in faintly mint-flavored chocolate - which sell too well to drop from the line, but have only a limited number of devotees. Another such Nabisco brand is Lorna Doone shortbread cookies. Nabisco can afford to keep more of these fringe brands around because, on the average, Nabisco has about fifty percent of the shelf space in the cookie aisle. Sunshine, the number two contender, has less breathing room.

But then, Sunshine concentrates on more generic cookies, attempting to position itself as the best maker of old standbys, such as ginger snaps. (My store doesn't even carry Nabisco's brand of ginger snaps.) Sunshine's cookies are more frequently given purely descriptive names, a practice Nabisco seems to avoid, probably because purely descriptive names such as "ginger snaps" and "vanilla wafers" cannot be trademarked. This is why Nabisco makes Nilla Wafers (with no apostrophe in front of "Nilla" - that might be interpreted as an abbreviation for "vanilla.") It's not because the cookies don't contain enough vanilla - both brands list "artificial and natural flavors" as the last ingredient. It's so they can trademark the name.

Sunshine does have a few brand names of its own, but the problem is, everyone assumes they belong to Nabisco. Did you get the ownership of Vienna Fingers wrong? It's a Sunshine brand. Nabisco's version is called Cameos. Another one is Cheez-it crackers. Nabisco's identical version is called Cheese Nips.

Keebler, which has more "novelty" brands of cookies, focuses more on the little-kid market, and whose brands tend to not have the world's greatest longevity even by cookie standards, doesn't have as many old standbys with names that people recognize - with the exception perhaps of Pecan Sandies, which to my mind falls just on the borderline of being purely descriptive, but we'll let the poor guys have it.

I have never been a big Nabisco purchaser, aside from the occasional Nutter Butter spree, so I tend to forget how much of a behemoth they are in the cookie biz. I used to fire occasional volleys in the Hydrox-vs-Oreo controversy, but I've stopped doing that. For the longest time, the biggest difference was that Nabisco played the multiple-choice-fats guessing game on its label ("may contain one or more of the following ...."), implying that there was some possibility that Oreos might have lard, whereas Hydrox has always been all-vegetable. But the lard has been stealthily removed from Oreos, and comparisons of the ingredient lists (and a quick taste test - oh, the things I suffer through for this column) reveal that there is zero difference between the two except for the patterns imprinted into the cookies. Hydrox is definitely the older of the two, and since that's all they have left to crow about, they do - right on the package.

One thing I've noticed about the great Nabisco-vs-Sunshine battle is that there's usually a brand of cookie interposed between the Sunshine space and the Nabisco space, and since there are only three major cookie makers, it's usually Keebler. In fact, I'll bet your cookie aisle looks a little like this (allowing for right-to-left, or in this case bottom-to-top, reversal):

House brands and generics
Premium brands such as Lu and Carr's
Pepperidge Farm

If anyone shops at a store where Pepperidge Farm is not at either end of the aisle, do tell. In three states I have never seen it otherwise.

Finally, a note about graham crackers.

The graham cracker was originally developed as a health food, by a food faddist named Sylvester Graham, back in the 1800's. To be a "graham cracker" it must be composed primarily of graham flour. There is not a single commercial graham cracker which meets this requirement. When I tried to purchase some genuine graham crackers some time back (after reading about Graham), I was surprised by this. As a fallback criterion, I tried to at least purchase a graham cracker where graham flour appeared above sugar on the list of ingredients. (Graham crackers are not supposed to be sweet.) There was only one brand, and to my surprise, it was Nabisco's. Not the Honey Maid crackers which are usually far more prominently positioned, but the plain old Nabisco Grahams in the red box.

(If for some reason you're trying to find out what a graham cracker tasted like, as I was, the closest thing you'll get is a Carr's wholemeal biscuit, which I heartily recommend. Get the ones which have one side dipped in chocolate, and enjoy the unusual taste of the cookie while simulaneously - via the chocolate - being rude to the memory of Graham, who was a flake and a half, and who also directly inspired people like Kellogg, and the whole Battle Creek phenomenon.)


[February 2007:] As a result of Keebler farting around with with Sunshine brands, Hydrox is now officially a historical artifact. The cookies were briefly called "Droxies," a name which inspires any number of bad jokes ... and a recent inspection of the Keebler site shows no listing for Droxies anywhere. Rest in peace, Hydrox.

Also, Mystic Mints are now Fudge Mint Covered Oreos, which is not nearly as much fun.

By the by, speaking of Kellogg's, they own Keebler; the link above in the text now goes to a Kellogg's subpage. The only brand they have visibly kept the Sunshine name on is the Krispy saltines.

Oh, yes, and Keebler owns Carr's.

and now back to our program

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