Would you buy these food products?
Pasta in the shape of Texas.
Cola that has all the sugar and twice the caffeine.
A loaf of bread flavored with bacon and eggs.
Dorks, Zooks or Rinky Dinks.
Call them unique, call them useful or call David Letterman. Whatever your perspective, there are literally hundreds of thousands of food products introduced into the market every year predicated on ya-gotta-have-a-gimmick.
"We're trying to bring humor back into the industry," said C.J. Rapp, 27, who co-owns Jolt Cola -- the sugary, high-caffeine soft drink -- with his father in Rochester, N.Y.
In a country that prides itself on entrepreneurship, the novelty food company may be one of the best examples of this spirit. Often the firms that get into the business are simply individuals who think they have a great idea.
"Hey, Charlie, let's make so-and-so," the scenario between two prospective partners might begin, said Martin Friedman, editor of New Product News, a monthly newsletter that reports on new products.
For Wendy Fielding, for example, the impetus to produce Palm Beach Dog Biscuits, dog snacks in the shape of 1954 Bentleys, came from her golden retriever. Molly turned 12 last September, said Fielding, who wanted to immortalize the dog before it died. Now Rolling in Dough, as her one-woman company is called, sells the treats in Palm Beach, Fla., health food stores, beauty salons and dog parlors, and Fielding said she has talked with "people in New York" about the possibility of packaging the biscuits in a designer dog bowl.
While the 50 top-selling products in the supermarket today have probably been around for more than 50 years, said Friedman, many people will buy something once. And in a country with 240 million people, if even one out of a thousand people buys a product, a company could make a lot of money, he said.
Unlike for a large company, for a small food enterprise to be profitable, it may only mean making money over initial costs, said Robert McMath, chairman of Marketing Intelligence Services, Ltd., of Naples, N.Y. His corporation puts out a weekly new products bulletin, has a collection of about 75,000 current and historical products and does data base searches. McMath recalls a product called Male Chauvinist Pig Cologne (not a food) that miraculously sold in drug stores for about five years. He figures that the owner of the company was able to make a decent profit.
Other novelty food items have become enormously popular. When David Mintz, the New York kosher caterer, first introduced Tofutti to Manhattan, who would ever have thought mass America would embrace ice cream made with tofu? Paul Newman might make millions making movies, but his salad dressing, popcorn and spaghetti sauce business is booming, too. (In fact, instead of actors becoming politicians, there may be a trend in the works of actors turning into food purveyors. McMath said that after hearing of Newman's success, Don Ameche contacted him for advice on marketing a food product.)
Unlike large food companies that spend millions of dollars test-marketing and advertising a product before it gets into full distribution, many entrepreneurs don't have the resources to do so. That's often why an unusual name or packaging is the focus of the product. You don't have to give the consumer as much advertising or promotion information, said McMath; the label speaks for itself. The object is impulse buying.
In fact, for many companies, the goal is simply a quick buck, with expectations of sales that may last only for six months or a year. Friedman said that Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, the advertising agency that owns New Product News, was the agency behind a snack food called Down the Tubes. Customers bought it once, then it went down the tubes, he said.
Yet it's not always small entrepreneurs who have the monopoly on these products. Large food manufacturers spend far more time and money introducing items that people neither need nor buy.
Some examples of food products that never got out of the test market phase are featured in the failure section of the product museum at Marketing Intelligence Service Ltd. Included among them are General Mills' Body Buddies, a snack food in the shape of little characters; R.T. French's stick gravy (simply melt it down to make gravy), and United Commodities International's Moon Dust, a fruit-flavored granulated cereal topper that sounds as if it could ruin any nutritious cereal. (Good nutrition is obviously not the force behind many of these concoctions, which often fall in the snack, cereal and candy categories.)
Other times, offbeat product ideas are generated by food scientists at universities. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Kentucky produced a tobacco meringue pie, according to Friedman's New Product News. The product was made by crystallizing tobacco juice into a white protein and then whipping it up into a meringue.
At Rutgers University in New Jersey, food scientists developed a snack food called Fish Chewies (ingredients self-explanatory). And at Clemson University in South Carolina, a professor has devised a method for bleaching dark chicken meat so that it turns white.
Often, it's not the food itself that sells or doesn't sell a product, but the name. When hamburgers turned soy, they became Dynoburgers, Loveburgers, Gardenburgers or Feastburgers.
But there are reasons behind them all. Harley-Davidson Wine Cooler is so named because the company president rides a Harley-Davidson, according to Bruce Brown, marketing and licensing coordinator of Scooter Juice, the Santa Rosa, Calif., company that makes the drink. (Brown said the rest of the six-member company also ride motorcycles, but did not specify whether they are all Harleys.) The name of the company, too, is derived from the president's nickname, Captain Scooter, added Brown.
Al Jacobson, who owns the Garden of Eatin', a Los Angeles health food company, sells Bible Bagels, called such "because they're holey," he joked. And the name of Jacobson's non-dairy ice cream bar -- Nuclear Freeze -- came to him after he heard the words spoken on a television program.
Other companies are quite blunt about their product names. Philadelphia Chewing Gum of Havertown, Pa., has a bubble gum line in the shape and size of motel soaps. The company calls them Stupid Soaps. A confectionary in Chicago calls its miniature soft-drink-shaped candies Silly Soda. The Garden of Eatin' sells a tofu product called Jerky Soy.
Or maybe it's the company name that's the attraction. A company called Nibble on My Ear marketed edible earrings, for example. Cape Cod Waves makes rippled potato chips.
Some names seem as though they'd work to the product's disadvantage. Fruit Runts don't sound terribly appetizing, and neither does a steak condiment called Mac's Monkey Gland Sauce.
And there are lots of candies in the shapes of wriggly reptiles -- with names to match. Among them, Gummi Squiggles, Gummi Worms, Squirms or Sweet 'n Sour Snakes. Bears seem to have saturated the market, too, whether in Sweetie Bear Cookies, Bumpy Bear Salad Dressing or the ubiquitous Gummy Bears.
Once a trend starts, there are always numerous flavor extensions, i.e., the croissant or popcorn phenomenon. Hot dogs turn into hot dogs with cheese, chicken hot dogs with cheese, turkey hot dogs with cheese, tofu hot dogs on whole wheat bagels and so on.
Every imaginable flavor combination has been concocted, too, whether it's kiwi soda, ketchup- or chicken-flavored potato chips or vegetable yogurt.
Packaging extensions -- no matter how practical -- are often the road that companies take when looking for something new. There's pancake batter in an aerosol can, frozen jelly from Smucker's (can frozen peanut butter be far behind? wonders Friedman), and Heublein once marketed a dried packaged dinner called Wine and Dine. According to Janet Mansfield of Marketing Intelligence Service Ltd., the wine was for reconstituting the dinner, however, not for drinking.
Or things change shapes. A Chicago bakery sells round croissants, while Toastettes, which come in Natural Buttermilk Ranch Style, among other flavors, are round croutons. They have "more surface area" and a "higher flavor impact" than square croutons, said Prepco spokesman Michael Schall. In the equipment line, a Canadian company manufactures child-size shopping carts so that junior can learn the aisles. (Watch those bottom shelves!)
Then, of course, there is the plethora of unusual nonfood products often sold in supermarkets. Lure 'n Kill insecticide contains an "exclusive sex lure," which attracts roaches and kills them. It apparently works on both males and females, somewhat like a singles bar, said New Product News.
And since capital punishment hasn't been outlawed for ants yet, there's Yaard-Vark, an electrical device that executes the insects as they try to escape.
Then there is the perfume that contains iridescent particles that glimmer on the skin -- perfect for a date during an electrical blackout, said Friedman.