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How Goldfish crackers took over the world

The snacks we munched on after soccer practice have become a worldwide phenomenon, with huge sales growth and a ridiculous variety of flavors. And they might just salvage the fortunes of their flailing parent company.

How Goldfish crackers took over the world
[Photo: Flickr user Morgan]

In the spring of 2013, brothers Adam and Ben Forgash opened what Brooklyn magazine called “New York’s Only Perfect Bar.” Debatable for sure, but Dynaco is right up there. The dark, rustic, cozy spot has cool touches like a 25-foot bar, benches in the back carved out of an upstate pine tree, a floor-to-ceiling back wall constructed out of 1970s-era cabinet speakers, stained glass windows, and a working fireplace. What Dynaco doesn’t have is much in the way of food. In fact, there’s only one bar snack.

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“Originally, my brother and I wanted to serve something from our childhood, crocks of cheese spread and Ritz crackers that they served at our grandfather’s New Jersey country club, but we figured the Board of Health would nail us,” says Ben. “We figured out the next best thing. Patrons get so excited and can’t believe there’s an endless supply of Goldfish crackers.”

Yes, the house munchie at one of Bed-Stuy’s coolest watering holes is the same food being handed out to hungry school kids across the country since way before your childhood, but Dynaco is hardly unique. The once humble Goldfish has taken over the world. Available in 45 countries–in the U.K. they’re called Finz!–the little orange crackers have even been in orbit, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1988.

“A lot of legacy brands from the 1970s-80s have really slagged, but not that’s true of Goldfish, which have been killing it for years with double-digit growth,” says Josh Sosland, editor of Milling & Baking News, and president of the family-named publishing company founded in 1922. “It’s gone from a niche product, to the second most-popular cracker brand in the United States. Goldfish has been the standout year after year.”

In the last five years, sales are up 17.6% to the tune of $884 million dollars, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. The crackers total roughly 40% of Pepperidge Farm sales, even though the varieties make up less than a third of the company’s products overall (and the brand survived a voluntary precautionary recall due to a salmonella scare back in July). In layman’s terms, we Americans annually devour more than 150 billion of these suckers, nearly double our intake in the mid-2000s.

“There’s nothing else like Goldfish, we have carved out a spot in American culture. There’s something about the shape, the smile, and the wholesomeness of the product,” says Carlos Abrams-Rivera, president of Campbell Snacks. “Can we improve on it? Probably not. Can we expand on it? That’s our job, to make connections with parents, to continue building trust. Our sweet spot is kids six to 10 years old. They age out quick, so our challenge is to keep the brand fresh and relevant.”

Margaret Rudkin kneading dough. [Photo: courtesy of Pepperidge Farm]

Crackers cranked out on a Nazi code-breaker’s contraptions

Funny thing about Goldfish–in the early days, the crackers were more Dynaco than day care. To understand how a little Swiss fish became an American snacking whale, let’s go back to the origins of Pepperidge Farm. In 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, Margaret Rudkin was living a comfortable life as a married homemaker with three sons on a Fairfield, Conn. farm named after the local pepperidge tree. Her youngest son had severe allergies and asthma, but Margaret had no intention of following a doctor’s suggestion to move to the drier Arizona climes. Instead, she decided to change his diet.

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Not a baker, Margaret went full trial-and-error creating an all-natural stone ground whole wheat bread packed with vitamins and nutrients. She succeeded in making a bread that everyone loved. Soon, her stockbroker husband Harry was hauling loaves on the train, distributing them to specialty stores in New York City. At the dawn of the 1940s, Margaret Rudkin had sold her millionth loaf of bread.

Margaret Rudkin and her millionth loaf of bread. [Photo: courtesy of Pepperidge Farm]
“People talk all the time about mompreneurs, well she was one of the first,” says Beth Toovell, spokesperson for Campbell Snacks. “It gives me pride, and I love it when my kids tell their friends, ‘Mom makes Goldfish!’ Technically, I do.”

[Image: courtesy of Pepperidge Farms]
Pepperidge Farm gained a reputation for quality upscale products, so the jet-setting Rudkins started scouting internationally. Throughout the 1950s, they traveled to Europe, bringing back the rights to unseen items in America, like Milano cookies sampled in Belgium. By 1961, Pepperidge Farm had 58 products and sales of $32 million. Rudkin decided to sell the company to Campbell Soup, becoming the first woman on the board, and continued scouring the world for edibles. In 1962, she found a cracker in Switzerland made by a company called Kambly. It was shaped like a fish because the cracker creator’s wife was a Pisces. Rudkin brought the recipe back to Pepperidge Farm shortly before her 1966 retirement. Goldfish had crossed the ocean to the United States. (In Switzerland, Kambly still manufactures “Goldfish — The Original.” )

Unintentionally, the Forgash brothers began harking back to foodies of yore because the crackers were originally served with cocktails. No less a culinary legend than Julia Child put out Goldfish as her Thanksgiving appetizer, complimenting her “reverse martinis,” vermouth on the rocks with a floater of gin. A bar snack it became. For the first 35 years, the most interesting thing about Goldfish’s American profile was that the machines used to make the crackers came from a World War II Nazi code-breaker instrumental in convincing Hitler that the Allies were set to land in Calais, not Normandy. During the rebuilding of Europe, Ralph Hauenstein was in Germany and came across a man making dough into fish shapes with a hand-cranked press. Hauenstein had engineers design equipment to mass-produce the snacks, shared the technology with the German baker, and sold the machines to Pepperidge Farm.

“The Snack That Smiles Back”

Jump ahead to 1977, when the TV ads first ran. Slowly, Goldfish moved beyond the realm of happy hour snacks like peanuts and pork rinds and into Evel Knievel lunchboxes across the country. By 1997, with the company wanting to lure in even more kids and after nine months of research and development, including the expertise of experimental social psychologist Marianne LaFrance, a fishface was hatched.

“Data shows kids are drawn to smiling faces, and I consulted with Pepperidge Farm on what the smile should look like. It couldn’t be a smirk or some crazy Joker type of thing,” says LaFrance, a professor of psychology at Yale. “The face needed to be safe and warm. They mastered it beautifully.”

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[Image: courtesy of Pepperidge Farms]
There had been a smiling mug on the packaging, but never the cracker itself. The “Snack That Smiles Back” was originally a short-term experiment, but it was popular, and to this day every package still features 40% grins (obviously not all the fish in the sea are happy).

As sales grew, so did the Goldfish innovations like multi-colored crackers and options, like the “Flavor Blasted Xplosive Pizza.” (Maybe inspired by fictional foodstuffs like those featured on 30 Rock. Thanks, MeatCat!) Today, there are around 30 varieties on the shelf, including pretzel and graham cracker styles, ones made with whole grains and organic wheat, Disney Pixar tie-ins with Finding Dory, Incredibles 2, ear shapes for Mickey Mouse’s 90th birthday, and new for this holiday season: Hot Cocoa Grahams Goldfish with minnow-y marshmallow bits.

In 2006, a whole tank of talking fish, created by Aardman Animations of Wallace & Gromit fame, were front-and-center in a new campaign led by cracker creature Finn, who sported sunglasses so kids would know he’s cool. When Abrams-Rivera joined the company in 2015, it was decided that outside of the packaging, the wacky characters had more or less swum their course.

[Image: courtesy of Pepperidge Farm]
“I felt we needed to get out of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and get back to focusing on the product, food that is baked, never fried, and made with real cheese,” he says.

Two of the major trends in the way Americans eat have benefited Goldfish, the first being the transition to healthier snacks. The constant quest to provide something parents can feel less guilty about feeding their kids frees up the company from feeling the need to compete with Cheetos or Cracker Jacks.

“There are treats, like cookies or potato chips, tucked away on the top shelf, but that’s not our competition,” says Chris Foley, chief marketing officer for Campbell Snacks. “We’re down where kids can access their own healthy foods, so our competition is things like string cheese, granola bars, yogurt, and carrots with hummus. We make a promise to parents about what our product is and we better live up to it.”

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Goldfish contain no artificial flavors or preservatives, and the dyed crackers are colored by beet juice and the like. A single serving of 55 crackers is only 150 calories. (Granted, next to an apple at the farmer’s market, a bag of processed food can only be so healthy.)

“I love the idea of snacks nutritionally, as it helps curb cravings and keeps kids full and satisfied with consistent energy throughout the day. I advocate having one ‘healthy snack’ such as a fruit and veggie, and one ‘munchie’ snack per day, so kids can feel a part of the group at school, which is important for their emotional well-being” says Beth Warren, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Secrets of a Kosher Girl. They’re advertised as containing real cheese, natural ingredients, no artificial preservatives, and 0 grams of trans fat, and they are fortified with Vitamins B1, B2, folic acid, calcium, and iron (which means they are added to the product and are not natural). As Warren notes: “It’s nice that they have two grams of fiber per serving because of their inclusion of some whole grains, but it would be better if they made the product completely whole grain for even more fiber and a more natural use of the vitamins and minerals.The product is also pretty high in sodium, especially compared to other carbohydrate based snacks on the market.”

The second major trend that’s arguably been an even bigger boon for Goldfish is the way Americans eat and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat…

“When I was growing up, it was three square hot meals a day and snacking was considered a no-no,” says Foley. “It’s not the case anymore.”

And this is why, as Josh Soland explains, “Snacking has been the most attractive and aggressively pursued segment of the food business for the last 15-30 years.”

Goldfish will be ready for a slight makeover thanks to a $6.1 billion merger between Pepperidge Farm and Synder’s Lance’s (Kettle, Cape Cod, Emerald Nuts, Pop Secret, Snyder’s of Hanover, etc.) last March. It opens up under-tapped sales avenues for Goldfish where Snyder’s has a stronger presence like convenience stores and vending machines. Naturally, the merger allows for the sharing of logistics and processes, which is why the Epic Crunch version–think Goldfish-meets-tortilla-chips–debuting in January 19 is being manufactured in Synder’s Wisconsin plant. The Epic Crunch offers a new texture, the goal being keep kids interested in Goldfish past that elementary-age wheelhouse.

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“We hear that Goldfish are often part of care packages to college kids, so nostalgia is now part of our story,” says Toovell.

We asked eight-year-old Goldfish aficionado Molly S., a third-grader in Brooklyn, to review a variety of flavors (Out of five fishes):

The merger will have its inevitable growing pains, but the newly formed Campbell Snacks is a bright spot for the parent company. For more than half a century, Pepperidge Farm has more or less operated as a fiefdom within Campbell Soup Company, and that’s a huge plus at the moment. The parent company is flailing; former CEO Denise Morrison abruptly retired in May following a prolonged three-year sales slump. Even without a CEO in place, Campbell’s is scaling down and divesting itself of its international and fresh food businesses. In his opening remarks on Campbell’s Q1 2019 earnings call, interim CEO Keith McLoughlin said that the next fiscal year will be one full of transition as they “take steps to turn around the company” and that the “top priority is to stabilize and improve the performance of our soup business.” He declared Campbell Snacks “robust,” giving praise to Pepperidge Farm for its 16th consecutive quarter of organic growth, but on the whole, this was a distress call.

It could have been a disastrous year for Goldfish because in July, the company enacted a voluntary recall due to the potential of salmonella in four cracker varieties. One of Pepperidge Farm’s ingredient suppliers notified the company that the whey powder used in seasoning was possibly contaminated. No illnesses were reported, but having the word salmonella in the same sentence as the food product could spell doom for any brand.

“The recall was the right thing to do, an easy decision to make, but a challenge to execute,” says Abrams-Rivera. “It was getting toward back-to-school time of the year and it disrupted our distribution. We had to not only pull the products, but we also had to take all our machines apart and sterilize them, which interrupted production, but we proceeded with the utmost caution. Trust is a glass house, hard to build, easy to break.”

As of November, sales were still up for 2018 at .4%. Goldfish keep plugging along. They’re everywhere. A highly non-scientific stroll through a Brooklyn Target found Goldfish in six totally different parts of the store, as opposed to three at the Stop & Shop across the street.

Back in Bed-Stuy, local drinkers are settling in for winter. The fireplace is blazing, the booze and conversation are flowing, and the snacks… It’s Dynaco’s secret ingredient, a conversation piece in their own right, the little fishies that swallowed the world whole.

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“Everyone loves Goldfish crackers,” says Ben. “Even if they’re too cool to admit it.”

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