It was the spring of 2021 and 35-year-old Brooklyn resident Avi Bonnerjee was out shopping. While browsing the pasta shelves, something caught his eye: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Mac ‘N Cheese.
“The package had a very cool cheetah in it, which seemed like a weird way to sell macaroni and cheese, or any food. And it was bright red, with Guy Fieri-esque pictures of flames,” recalls- he. “I felt compelled to buy it.”
He took it home and did nothing quickly, leaving it “to languish in the pantry for months”. And then came Thanksgiving.
He and his partner were ordered to show up at a friend’s house with a dish for the table. In the end, they brought two: a container of stuffing and a casserole of Flamin’ Hot Mac’ N Cheese, on which Bonnerjee had sprinkled small pieces of Cheeto.
“You eat with your eyes. People were very put off at first – there was a lot of hesitant sniffling. But once I got in it was extremely recognizable. The noodles were very soft. The sauce was too creamy. But it was quite evocative. And honestly, it was pretty good,” he says. “It wasn’t the first novelty food I tried,” he says. “And it probably won’t be the last.”
Bonnerjee is just one of many participants in a seemingly endless modern food trend: novelty snacks that seem to be proliferating on grocery store shelves at an alarming rate.
In the past few years alone, Americans have discovered products like Mini Funfetti Unicorn Pancakes — which contain little bits of candy and, oddly enough, nothing unicorn-shaped — in the freezer section, fries flavored like a chicken sandwich Wendy’s in the snack food aisle, and Little Debbie Cosmic Brownie Cereal on the breakfast shelves. There are collaborations between separate brands, like with Pillsbury’s Lucky Charms Sugar Cookie Dough, and there are unique brand experiences, like Blue Heat Takis. There are boxes of Twinkies cereal and stacks of birthday cake waffles. There’s mayonnaise flavored like a Cadbury Creme Egg, and it’s complete chaos. We live in the golden age of snacks – or maybe the dark ages.
“We do not have [numbers] about that in particular, but it seems like there are more new or extreme flavors coming to market,” says Barb Renner, US consumer product manager for Deloitte.
Shock-jock-branded dining moments exist, of course, long before the first Cheetos Sweetos Cinnamon Sugar Puffs or Limeade Oreos hit the shelves — probably even before the first competitive eater crammed him 13 hot dogs. at Coney Island on the fourth of July 1916.
And at a basic level, it’s no wonder: “If you think about the marketing funnel, awareness eventually moves to consideration, then to trial, then of course to conversion or purchase, then retention,” says Brandon Perlman, founder and CEO of marketing firm Social Studies, Inc. “Going viral is like maximizing awareness. It might not get a customer to convert , but notoriety will definitely put you in the consideration set.”
But why more? And why not now? Grocery stores and snack producers were suspicious when I reached out to ask, in no uncertain terms, what was going on. After walking me through a lengthy email exchange, a representative from General Mills PR directed me to the company’s public website. A representative from Whole Foods wrote, “Whole Foods Market has always been an incubation platform for fun, exciting and unique items. Beto Galvan, Vice President of Private Label Product Management and Innovation at Albertsons, sent me a cheerful and cryptic response noting that “out-of-the-box” items are currently “in demand”, and very few others. Gristedes never answered, and Kellogg’s ghosted me.
One vendor, however, was happy to spill. His name was Jonathan Rodriguez and he was boarding a plane to meet Wiz Khalifa about a limited edition cereal. Rodriguez is director of partnerships at Soflo Snacks, a Miami-based company that sells what he calls “collectibles” in the snack space – “like a physical NFT.”
“[We’re seeing more novelty snacks] because the demand is there — we are seeing a demand for new flavors and new tastes. People want to try something new,” he says. “Before this wave, everyone was offering the same thing for eight years.
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Mac ‘N Cheese was Soflo’s most successful product to date. Perlman refers to social media channels as virtual echo chambers that make it seem to consumers that there are more of these novelty snacks, regardless of the actual numbers.
“More people know about them than ever before,” he says. “There are more trees falling in the forest, and there are more people in the forest.”
Renner posits that pandemic dynamics are also at play: “Now that things are opening up, CPG product innovation pipelines have two years of ideas waiting to be tested. In order to grab attention and reduce noise, surprising and extreme combinations and variations can help companies achieve this.”
In other words, even to enter the echo chamber, brands see their best bet as either an over-the-top stunt product – a shocking little challenge in a crinkle, colorful package – or a serious attempt at over-the-top delight, like Cinnamon Toast Crunch flavored Cinnadust Betty Crocker Frosting.
At either end of the spectrum, flavors and concepts seem handpicked from another ongoing trend: targeting millennials with their own nostalgia.
“There are no new ideas. Everyone is taking your memories and selling them to you now,” says Bonnerjee. “Larry David sells cryptocurrency. There’s The Lion King, only now it’s CGI, not animated. People feel like their best years are behind them. They sink deeper into this fictional world where all their memories and nostalgia are.”
Elana Berusch, a 29-year-old who lives in Denver and develops products for a frozen sandwich company, developed such a fondness for Cheetos growing up that her wedding featured baskets of Flamin’ Hots on tables for all the guests. . (It’s unclear if her dress had extra pockets for Tide pens.) Berusch tried the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Mac ‘N Cheese after coming across it while on a grocery run for a hangover.
“Our generation has all these memories of Dunkaroos and Cookie Crisp and Twinkies,” she says. “Companies can market this: ‘We tried this new thing, but it has a nostalgic flavor to you.’ And then, even if you don’t want to buy the Twinkies cereal, it takes you to the cereal section of the grocery store,” she says.
Whatever the force behind this wave of candy-coated, neon-tinted snacks, it shows no signs of slowing down.
Perlman estimates that just three years ago, about one in 100 inquiries he received from food customers was for a marketing stunt that consumers might deem “buzzworthy.” Today, he says, “it’s 10 requests out of 100”.
Even Bonnerjee, who openly acknowledges that his role in these “cynical marketing pieces” perpetuates some of these “artefacts of late capitalism”, says he’s not ready to put down his fork just yet.
“There are still some that I want to try, but I haven’t found the courage,” he says.