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!