CLOSE

The Clucking Sweet History of a Candy Bar Called Chicken Dinner

The history of candy bars is a graveyard of odd and outlandish ideas. For every Milky Way and Hershey bar that found lasting success, there are hundreds if not thousands of Fat Emmas, Baby Lobsters, Coffee Dans, Dipsy Doodles, Prairie Schooners, and Choco’Lites. The short-lived Sal-le-Dande bar was named after a stripper, while the Vegetable Sandwich bar was an unfortunate combination of celery, peppers, and dried cabbage coated in chocolate. Candy historian Ray Broekel estimates that between the first and second World Wars alone, more than 30,000 candy bars came out. As with the film industry and the lottery, many have tried, and very few succeed.

All of which makes the success of Chicken Dinner quite remarkable. Yes, you read that right: a candy bar called Chicken Dinner. Introduced in 1923 by the Sperry Candy Company of Milwaukee, the oddly named bar sold for 10 cents and featured a roasted chicken on each package. “An expensive, high-grade candy” was how a 1924 Sperry ad described Chicken Dinner, giving it a puzzling air of exclusivity considering it didn’t contain any actual chicken (it was filled with nuts instead, and was coated in chocolate), and kids were the target market. Customers may have been tempted to simply stare at the succulent image of the roasted chicken rather than fork over the 10 cents.

But Chicken Dinner’s popularity was all about marketing. By naming its bar after a meal, Sperry was one-upping other manufacturers who had linked their candy bars with wholesome ingredients. Ads for Milky Way, which came out the same year as Chicken Dinner, drew a comparison with malted milk drinks, while ads for Mounds and Almond Joy showed the bars spilling out of a coconut. Sperry also seemed to understand the value of standing out in a crowded marketplace. While other candy bars adopted sweet and silly names (Jujubes, Peanut Chews), Chicken Dinner went the counter-intuitive route with a name was pretty out-of-left-field, even by 1920s standards. Sperry embraced the product’s oddness with marketing copy that touted the bar as “Distinctly Different.”

And yet, there was also something comforting about a chicken dinner at that time in U.S. history. Released six years before the Great Depression struck (numerous sources have incorrectly linked its release with the Republican Party’s 1928 campaign pledge to provide “a chicken in every pot”), Chicken Dinner seemed to promise value for cash-strapped Americans. As Broekel wrote in The Great American Candy Bar Book:

“In the years following World War I, the economy made many families feel fortunate if they had one good meal a day on the dinner table. A whole roasted chicken on a candy bar wrapper symbolized something substantial in terms of food value.”

Sperry helped sales along by aggressively marketing Chicken Dinner with billboards, magazine ads and, most notably, a fleet of trucks decorated to look like chickens. After Sperry dropped the price of the bar to five cents, the decked-out chicken-mobiles canvassed the U.S. Apparently the trucks’ horns would cackle and crow when pressed.

Production of Chicken Dinner bars ceased in 1962 after Pearson’s, the makers of Bit-O-Honey, bought Sperry. All told, Chicken Dinner spent an impressive 40 years on shelves. Although it’s often referenced as one of the more outlandish relics of candy’s colorful history, Chicken Dinner was ahead of its time as a cleverly advertised, out-of-the-ordinary product. It’s not too farfetched to imagine it in the candy section of Trader Joe’s today. Case in point: In its recent rundown of the 13 most influential candy bars, Time put Chicken Dinner at number six, calling it a nutrition bar that paved the way for contemporary energy and meal replacement bars like Power Bar, Clif, and Luna. Winner, winner!

arrow
Food
Former NECCO CEO Has a Plan to Save the Company

It’s been a month of ups and downs for fans of candy company NECCO and its iconic sugary Wafers. In March, The Boston Globe reported the company is in desperate need of a buyer and that CEO Michael McGee notified the state of Massachusetts that most of their employees—around 395 of them—would likely face layoffs if a suitor isn't found by May.

That news caused a bit of a panic among candy lovers, who stormed CandyStore.com to hoard packs and packs of NECCO Wafers, should the company go under. In the weeks since the news about NECCO’s uncertain fate hit, sales of the company's products went up by 82 percent, with the Wafers alone increasing by 150 percent.

Seeing the reaction and knowing there is still plenty of space in the market for the venerable NECCO Wafers, the company’s former CEO, Al Gulachenski, reached out to CandyStore.com to lay out his plan to save the brand—most notably the Wafers and Sweethearts products.

The most important part of the plan is the money he’ll need to raise. Gulachenski is set to raise $5 to $10 million privately, and he’s creating a GoFundMe campaign for $20 million more to get his plan into motion. Once the funding is secure, the company will move to a new factory in Massachusetts that allows them to retain key executives and as many other employees as they can.

“I can promise you that if you donate you will own a piece of NECCO as I will issue shares to everyone that contributes money,” Gulachenski wrote on the GoFundMe page. “This company has been in our back yard for 170 years and it's time we own it.”

Gulachenski also elaborated that, as of now, there is another buyer interested in NECCO, but that buyer “is planning to liquidate the company, fire all the employees and close the doors of NECCO forever!”

So far, Gulachenski has raised only $565 of the $20 million needed. “I know it seems like a long way to go but I do expect some institutions to jump on board and get us most of the way there,” Gulachenski wrote in a GoFundMe update. “It is also likely we can get most of the company if we get to half of our goal.”

There is still a bit of a sour taste for candy fans to swallow, even if NECCO does get saved. According to Gulachenski, the Wafers and the Sweethearts may be the only products that the reorganized NECCO continues with. This could leave lovers of the company's other candies, like Clark Bars and Sky Bars, out in the cold.

“The sugar component Necco Wafer and Sweetheart is certainly the most nostalgic and recognizable brand, more than the chocolate,” Gulachenski told The Boston Globe. “It’s all going to depend how they decide to sell the company and liquidate.”

While you can still order the Wafers in bulk from Candystore.com, the site itself even says it has no idea when or if shipments will stop coming, especially as NECCO's future remains uncertain.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
arrow
Food
People Are Panic-Buying Necco Wafers Before They Disappear From Shelves
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The sugar wafers everybody loves to hate may not hold their spot on candy shelves for much longer. Necco is in need of a buyer, and according to CEO Michael McGee, the candy company may need to shutter for good if it doesn't find one within the coming weeks. As a result of the company's threatened status, Necco Wafers are suddenly a lot more popular, as the graph below from Candystore.com reveals.

News of the New England Confectionary Company's situation spread on March 12 when The Boston Globe reported McGee's announcement. That same day, Necco Wafer sales spiked more than 50 percent on CandyStore.com. Over the course of the month, sales of the candy rose 63 percent overall.

Necco Wafers Panic Buying from CandyStore.com

For any other candy, this sort of "panic-buying" wouldn't be surprising. If a beloved product looks like it might be taken off the market, people will hoard as much of it as they can while it's still available. But Necco Wafers aren't typically characterized as "beloved." In an earlier list of the best and worst Halloween candy published by Candystore.com, Necco Wafers ranked the fourth worst. Commenters compared the candy to both chalk and Tums, with one hater even declaring that, "Necco Wafers suck all moisture out of my mouth and all joy out of my soul."

Though they may not be the flashiest or tastiest candy, Necco Wafers do strike a nostalgia nerve in some buyers. Necco is the oldest continuously operating candymaker in the U.S., dating back to 1847. "It is a love/hate type of candy and people are super passionate about it," Clair Robins of Candystore.com tells Mental Floss. "They are perceived as an old-school classic, and even patriotic—soldiers ate them in the World Wars (both). But others think it's dry and gross and should die a painful death."

If Necco goes under, its signature wafer won't be the only product to go with it. The company also produces Clark Bars, Sky Bars, Mary Janes, Candy Buttons, and Sweethearts, so stock up on these classic candies while you still can.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios