I may never win a Pulitzer Prize, but that doesn’t mean I don’t write about important things.
Like pancake syrup. Hungry Jack brand syrup recently changed the shape of its bottle, infuriating me and other consumers all across this great flapjack-loving land of ours.
You see, the old Hungry Jack bottle was a little plastic jug of high fructose corn syrup, water, and natural and artificial flavors. (Like most breakfast syrup, it’s never been anywhere near a maple tree.) Hungry Jack differentiated itself from its competitors by coming in a squat bottle that fit in the microwave. In fact, it was designed for that. Heat Hungry Jack for a minute or two and you have piping-hot goodness.
But on April 28, an ominous note appeared on the Hungry Jack Facebook page:
“As some of our most loyal fans, we want you to know that later this month we are changing the look and size of our syrup bottle! Our new bottle will be taller and thinner and will hold 24 oz. instead of 27.6 oz. As a result, we have decreased the suggested retail price so the cost per ounce stays the same as it was prior to the change. No changes are being made to the actual syrup. Please post any questions you have and we’ll do our best to answer each one. Thanks again for being some of our most loyal fans!”
The loyal fans were not happy. Although there was no mention of microwavability, a photo made things clear. The new bottle bears the legend “DO NOT MICROWAVE IN BOTTLE.” And it’s too tall to fit anyway.
Legions of Hungry Jack customers expressed their displeasure on Facebook.
“I really miss the short bottle,” one consumer posted. “Now your syrup looks like all the rest.”
Another commented: “Please bring back the microwavable bottle. Why do companies pull items like this? The heated syrup was such a winner.”
To every Facebook query, a Hungry Jack representative posted a similar response: “We made the decision to change our bottle based on a shift in consumer preference toward a taller, simpler bottle and a shift in consumer preference away from warming syrup in its original bottle.”
Yeah, but, nobody makes you microwave Hungry Jack. Isn’t it better to have a bottle that you don’t have to microwave but can, as opposed to a bottle you might like to microwave but can’t?
And that corporate explanation — “a shift in consumer preference” — sounds fishy. Conspiracy theories abound. “All is not as it appears in the microwave syrup debate,” posted a man from Martinsburg, W.Va.
So I spoke to Hungry Jack, in the person of Maribeth Burns, vice president of corporate communications at the J.M. Smucker Co., the Ohio-based food giant that makes the stuff.
Did Hungry Jack change the bottle because some idiot microwaved a bottle for 10 minutes, resulting in a disfiguring syrup explosion and an expensive lawsuit?
“Not that I’m aware of,” Maribeth said. “It was not a consumer safety issue.”
Did you discover that the old bottle leached unhealthy chemicals into the syrup when heated?
No, Maribeth said. All packaging meets FDA standards.
Let’s follow the money. Here’s what one disgruntled customer posted on Facebook: “My guess is that the new bottle design was a marketing decision to decrease shelf and packaging space and hence cut shipping costs while responding to the store’s demands for more efficient shelf use.”
Maribeth insisted that those considerations “did not drive the decision to change to the new package design.”
Well, can we decant new syrup into the old bottle?
“We would not recommend that,” Maribeth said.
Of course, we can pour the syrup out of the bottle into a microwave-safe container, but who wants to do that?
There is now a market for unopened bottles of the old Hungry Jack. They are selling on Amazon for from $13 to $30 apiece. Someone in Pompano Beach, Fla., is selling three on eBay for $39.98, shipping included. (A new 24-ounce bottle is $2.48 at Wal-Mart.)
Lisa McTigue Pierce, executive editor of the trade publication Packaging Digest, said: “I wonder what the folks who worked so hard to create that microwaveable bottle think about this design change. It was probably their baby, and now their baby’s gone.”
I imagine they feel the same way NASA engineers felt when the space shuttle got canned.
The old Hungry Jack bottle is a marvel of engineering. The handle is crimped so it stays cool to the touch. The front label includes a tiny image of a microwave oven that’s coated in thermochromic ink designed by a British company. When heated, the word “HOT” magically appears. Then there is the no-drip cap, an invention so ingenious that Smucker’s had it patented.
The new Hungry Jack bottle is inert.
The syrup world is primarily feminine in its anthropomorphism: Aunt Jemima battles it out with Mrs. Butterworth in a sticky cat fight. But Hungry Jack is masculine. He lives, I like to think, in a log cabin, an ax propped outside on the porch.
I feel sorry for him now. It’s possible that Smucker’s will discover that people were loyal to the bottle, not to the stuff that comes in it.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.