How the All-American Candy Bar Quietly Thrives in the Age of Gold Leaf Unicorn Avocado Mylk Soft Serve
Elton John—decked out in a sparkling red blazer and matching shades—strides into an underground rap battle, takes a deep breath, and launches into “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Just before he gets to the good part, his opponent cuts him off and hands him a Snickers. “You always lose your edge when you’re hungry,” he says—as if Elton’s disco ball getup isn’t the edgiest thing in the room.
While this ad may seem unremarkable as far as 30-second spots go—a surprise celebrity cameo, a well-worn slogan, a final fade-out on a product shot—the fact that it’s addressing a basic human need, hunger, isn’t. Most candy bar campaigns traffic in joy (“There’s a smile in every Hershey bar”) or indulgence (“Life’s better the Milky Way”) or satisfaction (Reese’s recently changed its tagline from “There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s,” to the straight-to-the-point “Perfect”). In 2018, you don’t reach for a candy bar just because you’re hungry (assuming other options are easily available). You reach for a candy bar because you deserve a treat, or you want to feel nostalgic, or you need to get away from the office for, like, five minutes, which, coincidentally, is the exact amount of time it takes to stress-eat a Kit Kat and fantasize about buying a jet ski (the upkeep though).
But Snickers hasn’t forgotten that, way before we as a country learned how to pronounce acai, candy bars were exactly what people grabbed when they needed a fast, inexpensive meal replacement (more on that later). Snickers were one of the original protein bars (and protein bars, these days, look and taste a lot like candy bars). Pop into any major drugstore and you’ll find Reese’s Crunchy Cookie Cups alongside Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif Bars, Almond Joys steps from Chocolate Coconut Almond Luna Bars, and Pumpkin Pie Kit Kats in the same seasonal display as Caramel Pumpkin Spice Kind Bars. It's enough to launch the candy counter mainstay into a full-blown identity crisis. And there's a lot more going on.
As modern food conventions draw harder lines between “healthy” and “unhealthy” snacks, the options on either end of the spectrum are getting more extreme. We live in a world where it’s not uncommon to see carefully-staged photos of matcha-infused chia pudding and unicorn soft serve topped with marshmallow kabobs in the same Instagram grid. Posted on the same day. Classic American chocolate bars—once a, if not the, staple in the world of casual sweets—suddenly look pretty tame (and have more competition than ever). So, like, are candy bars OK? What’s their plan? And, hey, when was the last time a major candy company released a new—and we’re not talking Reese’s White Chocolate or Espresso Snickers, totally new—candy bar anyway?
The answers are...complicated. Before we get into it, let’s take a brief look at the candy bar’s tumultuous, vaguely scandalous, jealousy-fueled history.
The (Still Kinda Controversial) Candy Bar That Started It All
In every country where it’s eaten, chocolate is the food that’s craved most often. But in the 1890’s, most Americans had never even heard of chocolate, much less tasted it. That began to shift in 1894, when Milton Hershey—then a successful caramel manufacturer—saw chocolate being made at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (kind of a precursor to the World’s Fair), and was so intoxicated by the smell of roasting cocoa beans that he bought every piece of equipment in the demo booth on the spot. Fast forward to a few months later, when the Hershey Chocolate Co. was born, in a back corner on the third floor of Hershey’s caramel factory.
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After years spent tinkering with recipes for milk chocolate (a popular treat in Europe at the time), Hershey, who had a disdain for “experts” and refused to hire chemists, finally hit on a workable formula—one that became America’s first candy bar—in 1900. The Hershey bar took off for two reasons. One, it only cost a nickel. And two, Hershey insisted on selling it in places like bus stops, grocers, and newsstands (previously, you could only buy chocolate from candy stores and druggists).
And then there’s the taste. Some in the chocolate industry attribute Hershey bars’ unique flavor (which has remained unchanged since 1900) to spoiled milk, though company employees vehemently deny this. “If you taste a Hershey bar next to a Cadbury bar, a Hershey bar is on the sour side,” Beth Kimmerle, the author of Chocolate: The Sweet History, told Food & Wine. “Europeans taste a Hershey bar and they’re like ‘this is like baby vomit.’ It’s a lactose note, sort of a cooked milk. It’s also very caramel-y.” It’s important to have a thing, you know?
Chocolate Bars Bulk Up
Once Hershey’s five cent chocolate bar took off, the floodgates were open. Smaller manufacturers began turning out versions of their own, and in a few short years, candy companies hit upon the realization that if you fill chocolate bars with other sweets (caramel, marshmallows, nuts), it not only gives the product heft, it also drives down the cost.
The Oh Henry! bar—named for a dude who flirted with the women working in the factory where it was produced and just could not. take. a. hint.—and the Goo Goo Cluster were two of the first “combination candy bars” to hit the market (in 1909 and 1912 respectively), paving the way for iconic sweets like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Snickers (both would arrive roughly two decades later). These newly bulked-up chocolate bars (along with some serious, industry-wide rebranding) helped the candy industry weather the Great Depression.
“You have candy companies suddenly realizing that in addition to being a treat that they can also offer a meal replacement,” Kimmerle told Food & Wine of Depression-era marketing tactics. “Some bars, like the Baby Ruth, were legitimately packed with a lot of protein. There’s this really famous ad of a woman at a diner, and people are eating around her, and she looks—not shabby—but definitely hungry, and she’s enjoying a Baby Ruth as opposed to a square meal.” The attitude can be summed up by this popular 1930’s advertising slogan: “Candy is good food. Eat some every day,” (h/t to candy historian Susan Benjamin for bringing it to our attention.)
Candy Magnates Love Drama
By World War II, sugar rations had forced lots of smaller candy brands to cut back on production (or fold entirely), leaving two major companies to duke it out over market domination–Mars and Hershey. And forget Willy Wonka and Arthur Slugworth, the rivalry between Forrest Mars (an entrepreneur fueled by dreams of building an empire) and Milton Hershey (a philanthropist fueled by dreams of building a utopia) is the greatest candy feud of all time. To this day, when the companies aren’t developing new sweets they’re suing each other for trademark infringement (mostly over packaging and branding—candy recipes aren’t patentable).
For a brief period, the two brands were allies. At the start of the war, Hershey and Mars teamed up to create the M&M—a candy that soldiers could carry in tropical heat without it melting. Mars owned 80 percent, and the other 20 was held by Bruce Murrie, son of Hershey president William Murrie. (Mars was the first “M” and Murrie was the second.) This arrangement allowed the candies to be made with Hershey chocolate, as Hershey had a contract with the U.S. government granting them control of chocolate rations at the time.
As part of the deal, Murrie was tasked with drumming up M&M’s sales for Forrest Mars, but he grew increasingly frustrated with the candy magnate’s management style. According to the book The Emperors of Chocolate, which dives into the century-long family feud, if Murrie didn’t deliver the numbers Mars was looking for, he’d scribble the word “Failed” on his daily reports and post them in the men’s bathroom. Murrie eventually confronted Mars about these public floggings, and the encounter turned into a full-on brawl. In 1949, Murrie resigned, the Mars family bought his share, and the two companies’ arch-rivalry was cemented. Not long after, Hershey released Hershey-Ets, a candy nearly identical to M&M’s—just one move in an ongoing cycle of one-upmanship.
The Chocolate Bubble
Chocolate bars enjoyed pretty steady sales for decades after World War II, although innovation started to slow. People were eager to rediscover their old favorites during the economic boom of the 1950’s, and throughout the 1960’s, candy companies began to experiment with what Kimmerle calls “brand extensions”—slightly tweaked versions of classic candies (mini-size bars, for example).
But by the 1970’s, chocolate was starting to lose steam in favor of healthier fare. That is, until Godiva came along. The company’s former president, Al Pechenik—a man who ate half a pound of chocolate a day—was convinced that Americans never really got chocolate. If only he could awaken our inner chocolate snobs, he thought, he could restore some of the candy’s luster. “Americans are ruled by status,” Pechenik says in The Emperors of Chocolate. “It’s the Mercedes syndrome.”
Godiva’s first American ad—four truffles elegantly arranged on a dish, with the caption “Dessert”—immediately struck a chord upon its 1979 debut, and sent major candy companies scrambling to cash in on chocolate’s new cachet. (The Mercedes syndrom must be real, because between 1980 and 1985, per capita chocolate consumption jumped by two and a half pounds.) Mars’ DoveBar (they acquired the brand in 1986)—a simple dark chocolate bar—was one of the first mass candies marketed as luxury, and primed the country for the artisanal chocolate movement that was about to come.
The Sugar Crash
Though it’s hard to imagine a pre-Whole-Foods world, specialty grocery stores didn’t start taking off until the 1990’s. As Americans were introduced to a host of niche and international foods (this was around the same time we became aware of focaccia and sun-dried tomatoes), the country’s tastes in chocolate shifted. We wanted dark. We wanted single origin. And we wanted European (or at least the appearance of it).
Scharffen Berger, the world’s first widely-distributed “artisanal” chocolate bar, hit stores in 1997, causing chocolate aisles to rapidly expand (Hershey bought the company in 2005, granting them tons of shelf space). Soon, people were standing in checkout lines, deliberating between 74 or 82 percent cacao. “I think as Americans started understanding wine and coffee differently it totally made sense in retrospect that that was going to happen with chocolate,” Kimmerle told Food & Wine. “People want to know where it comes from and people are willing to spend a lot more.”
Around the same time, childhood obesity became a public health issue. (In 2003, Surgeon General Richard Carmona gave high-profile testimony before a congressional committee in which he referred to it as a “crisis” and an “epidemic.”) As kids’ diets became more closely monitored, and as the nation’s taste in candy bars trended towards the small-batch and serious, a space opened up for a new snack to challenge the chocolate bar’s reign.
Are Granola Bars Just Candy Bars Wearing North Face Fleeces?
In this era of turmeric mylk and cauliflower rice, it’s easy to see why mainstream chocolate bars can be a bit of a hard sell. So candy corporations are expanding their snack offerings (Mars, for example, bought a stake in Kind Bar last year)—and using some familiar marketing tactics. “The marketing of the candy bar during the Depression became the marketing of health food bars, which essentially are the same thing,” candy historian Susan Benjamin said in a phone interview, referring to health food bars’ positioning as a meal replacement. “So you have protein bars, you have high energy Clif bars with about 260 calories...the list goes on and on and on.”
“Candy companies now want their portfolios to include this notion of health food, even though, if you look at the ingredient deck of a Kind bar versus a Snickers bar, they’re not that different,” Kimmerle added. “They’re sugar and protein. If you stuck a couple of Kind bars on top of one another you’d almost have a Snickers bar.”
Still, it’s a start—and one that seems to be part of a larger overall plan for Mars. “We are committed to making 50 percent of all single-serve products 200 calories or less by 2022, and increasing portionable and ‘Sharing Size”’options,” Tanya Berman, Mars’ Vice President of Chocolate (USA Market) told Food & Wine via email. “We are working hard to improve the nutritional content and ingredients of our products without any compromise to taste or quality.”
That doesn’t mean Mars (or Hershey) has turned away from their iconic candy bars. In fact, you could argue that they’ve doubled down on keeping the public interested in their biggest hits (hence the release of products like the Birthday Cake 3 Musketeers bar, or Kit Kat Extra Crispy). There has been a shift, however, against launching entirely new candy bars (one exception being the Hershey Gold bar, which debuted last year)—a sense that any shadowy, Willy Wonka-esque characters in their candy labs have been replaced by branding teams armed with stacks of trend reports and consumer data.
If It Ain’t Broke
So, why have America’s two biggest candy manufacturers adopted a “no new candy bars” policy? “Their brands are so iconic that for them to really go outside the box is scary,” Kimmerle explains. “It’s sort of the risk that Coke took when they redeveloped their formula...consumers reacted, and they responded, and they were like ‘no, don’t change your formula, that’s crazy.’ That’s every large food company’s biggest fear, that they’re going to create something that people are going to respond negatively to.”
Familiar products become somewhat of a safe space for experimentation (provided their formula isn’t tweaked too much). For example, after noticing a steady six-year uptick in hazelnut acceptance (historically, Americans have been skeptical), Mars announced the launch of their newest M&M’s flavor—Hazelnut Spread. If it’s a success, great! If it’s a flop, it’ll be discreetly taken away, without the company having wasted money on the equipment it would require to develop a product from scratch.
Mitchell Cohen, the president of Economy Candy in New York City (a shop that’s been in his family since 1937) can barely keep up with the stream of classic candy bars in new flavors. “I think they’re getting to the point where they’re going to be releasing new ones seasonally and keeping people’s interest piqued instead of putting something out there and letting it fade away,” he told Food & Wine. “Then they have to scramble. They may even start rotating them out, take a product off the market for a little bit, then bring it back.”
With so many offshoots of chocolate bar standys, it’s easy to imagine a future where the word Reese’s causes everyone you know to picture a different candy—Reese’s Sticks, Reese’s Crispy Crunchy, Reese’s Dark—rather than the default milk chocolate two pack.
So, What’s Next?
Ten years ago, Mitchell Cohen set aside a shelf in Economy Candy for imported candy bars. That quickly became 20 shelves, and today, they’ve taken over an entire section of the store. “People started traveling more and they’d come back and want to get that favorite chocolate bar from when they were abroad,” he said. “We have every kind of Ritter, we have every kind of Cadbury, anything we can get our hands on.” (Other Economy Candy best-sellers: Green Tea Kit Kats and anything by Hands Off, a new line of candy bars from Amsterdam with inventive flavors like carrot cake and crispy cookie caramel.)
In fact, every chocolate insider we spoke to mentioned that Americans are demanding more adventurous candy bar flavors (matcha, tabasco) at an unprecedented rate—a development that large candy corporations, though they’re clearly trying, always seem one step behind on. “The Hershey Gold bar, it sold really well at first but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s not one of their line items a couple years from now,” Cohen said, referring to the pretzel-studded “caramelized creme” bar released in late 2017 (it’s delicious, but it came around years after we had reached Peak Salted Caramel). “A lot of the stuff that’s coming down the pipeline, the new products from these major brands, is stuff that some of these smaller batch companies were doing before.”
Dylan Lauren, owner of the ever-expanding candy store chain Dylan’s Candy Bar, cites wellness chocolate as a growing trend. “We’re seeing a lot of non-GMO, allergen free candy bars. Maybe there’s no soy, maybe it’s gluten-free, egg-free. We’re seeing those kinds of products that take a little bit more of a stance,” she told Food & Wine. “It’s either over over indulgence, where people come for decadence—like our candy bar blast sundae which has 12 candy bar flavors—or that same person can be like, ‘yeah, I’m also really healthy and I want to get a portion control bar.’” When we spoke to Jackie Sorkin, co-founder of the (very Instagram-friendly) Candytopia pop-up museum, she co-signed the OTT candy bar movement—citing potato chip-studded chocolate bars and white rainbow chocolate “unicorn bark” as best sellers.
About that whole unicorn chocolate thing (which, so far, no larger candy company has attempted to replicate): “Food and beverage have always been really informative to one another, but now it’s even more so,” Kimmerle explained. “If a beverage does well, like at Starbucks, whether it’s a unicorn item or a pumpkin spice item, the candy companies follow suit. And vice versa, if something is doing well in the world of candy, then beverages follow suit.” Meaning, this journey will eventually end the way most do these days: with a PSL.