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The Snacks-by-Mail Company Graze Turns Snacking into a Science

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When they’re delivered, the boxes look almost like a regular package: Plain brown cardboard, small enough to fit in the mailbox. But these aren’t regular packages, because inside, there are snacks—delicious snacks, healthy snacks, curated just for you, and in perfect portions to boot. They are Graze boxes, and they’re popping up in offices everywhere.

Graze is the brainchild of a group of UK-based men who, a decade ago, were looking for a smarter way to snack. They were tired of the chips and candy they found around their offices, and wanted a healthier option. Some of them had founded the Netflix-like DVD rental service LoveFilm, and that led to an idea: What if they married technology with snacking?

So the seven men quit their jobs and got to work on what would become Graze. The company, which launched in the UK in 2008, sent its 20 millionth box there in 2012; two years ago, it expanded to the United States. “Word of mouth got around. There were waiting lists,” says Shelly Huang, Graze’s head of U.S. Consumer Marketing. Initially, the company shipped boxes from the UK, but it wasn’t long before demand became too great. Graze built a factory here. “Two years later, here we are,” Huang says. “We have two offices in Jersey City and in Manhattan. We have hundreds of thousands of subscribers that love our snacks. We’re having a lot of fun.”

Graze has more than 100 snacks, and the site uses a proprietary algorithm called DARWIN (Decision Algorithm Rating What Ingredient's Next) to tailor each snack box to each individual subscriber based on their personal preferences. “When you sign up, you can go through the whole entire range of snacks and rate them,” Huang says. There are four options: Love, like, try, and trash. Users can also use the “My Preferences” section to alert the company to allergies, intolerances, or dietary restrictions. 

The algorithm remembers those preferences for future boxes, and tries to pack in a good balance of what you’ve liked before, new snacks, and an even spread of sweet and savory treats. And the more you use the rating system, the more awesome your box will be. “The more a subscriber interacts, the better his or her options become,” says Eva Scofield, whose title at Graze is, awesomely, Snack Huntress. “Because it is a similarity-based algorithm system, it opens up those options.” Graze offers four-snack variety boxes and eight-snack variety boxes, but if variety isn’t your thing, you can select a box of all one product, or get sharing bags for bigger groups.

The company has a big board that tracks snack ratings. Scofield is always looking at the ratings, seeing how snacks rate before a person receives them versus how they clock in afterward, and, if a rating has gone down, analyzing why that might have happened. And as you might imagine, DARWIN reveals a lot about how people snack, and what they like. “We’ve found a lot of the tastes are regionally-based, which is really interesting,” Scofield says. “For example, the New York Everything Bagel snack does the best in the northeastern region. It’s almost like it creates this sense of pride, and we have that with a lot of our other products. We have things like southwestern corn crunch, or Louisiana wild rice and beans. So, it’s a cute little endearing metric that we find, that people embrace these snacks that we name after the regions by which they were inspired, and then in fact, you end up loving them.”

Among the most popular snacks are the company’s flapjacks—based on a UK snack—and its deconstructed desserts (mental_floss got deconstructed carrot cake, and it was yummy). “One of our most popular snacks is the whole-grain banana caramel dippers, and it’s been likened to Dunkaroos of our childhood,” Scofield says. “So, there’s a playful aspect to it all. You’re healthy and you’re nourishing yourself, and it’s for sustenance, but you’re also having fun with it.”

As Graze’s Snack Huntress, Scofield’s job is part analyzing trends, part traveling the world looking for the best and tastiest ingredients. “I’m constantly going to food shows all over the country and trying to stay on top of what’s popular, what people are into, but still kind of maintaining what’s healthy,” she says.

Creating a snack, of course, starts with finding the right ingredients. “If there’s one particular ingredient that I find really interesting, I’ll get in direct touch with the vendor and negotiate pricing and shipping logistics, and work out whether or not it’s a standalone product,” Scofield says. “Then I can dig into our entire library of existing products and decide, OK, these two flavor trends are really hot right now. Will they go together well?” If she thinks they will, she figures out exactly, down to the gram, how much of each ingredient will go into the snack pack and then continues to negotiate costs with the vendor. I’m also in constant touch with the UK team, she says, because we often bounce ideas off each other to see, is this U.S.-specific, or do we want this in both geographies? Iit’s an ongoing, exciting little adventure.”

All the while, Scofield is also testing the snacks on her coworkers, gathering their feedback and tweaking the snacks based on that. She also enjoys walking around the office with weird ingredients and making her coworkers try them. One such ingredient was the mung bean sprout. Scofield had met a man from Colorado who soaked the beans in water until they sprouted, then roasted them with different spices and flavorings. “He just puts them in a bag, and if you did a blind taste test, it would be like eating a bag of potato chips, but it is exponentially more healthy for you,” she says. “It’s incredible. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve found, being here.” Huang says the Graze team “couldn’t stop eating it.” The biggest challenge now is figuring it out how to package the beans.

The time from concept to deployment varies greatly. “It can be a matter of three months, if we’re using the same ingredients, we already have pricing, we have supply chain down,” Scofield says. “I’ve been here for a little over a year, and there are still products that I started my first month in that I’m working on. We really want to be sure that we’re as proud as we can be about our product before we put it out. If that means having to wait a little while, we’d rather do that than force it out.”

Even after deployment, there’s fine-tuning: For example, Scofield says, “We’ve got really good ratings on the combination of kale and edamame, but we’re finding that the kale itself doesn’t actually ship well, and due to its fragile nature, we actually had to reformulate the entire product.” Because they love kale, they’re attempting to create a Kale Caesar salad snack.

Scofield says that she sometimes has to be reeled in “because I have, like, big wacky ideas about weird stuff that we could do.” Right now, she’s looking into making snacks out of seaweed. “It’s becoming a really popular ingredient, just due to its sustainability—sustainability in food sources is a really hot topic right now,” she says. She’d also love to incorporate insect flour into Graze’s snacks. “Eighty percent of the world eats insects on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “The United States is one of the few countries left in the world that’s not familiar with eating insects, and so, if it was up to me, I’d love to start introducing insect protein as an option in the range. But I think that we’re pretty far off from making that a reality.”

You can sign up for Graze here; use the code MENTALFLOSS to get one box free!

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
iStock

Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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