The snack with the little red stick
A definitive (really!) history of Handi-Snacks
Hello, Snackers. For the last post of 2022, we’re digging back into the archives to the early days of Snack Stack for an encore presentation of a post read by a whopping 43 people but significantly updated below.
Wishing you and yours a most excellent 2022. May it considerably less exhausting than 2021!
The story of consumerism since the 1950s is, in large part, one of making things more convenient. There are the prominent, lifestyle-altering things like the drive-thru, which came of age in the 1950s; cupholders in cars, which debuted in 1984; and the USB flash drive, which dates to 1999. But there were also plenty of products that were mere repackaging of existing goods, making them slightly easier to enjoy when you’re in a rush: the Eggo (1963), Easy Cheese (1964), or today’s treat, Handi-Snacks.
Like other foods we’ve covered here before, including Kudos and Jell-O Pudding Pops, Handi-Snacks were a product of the 1980s, when more and more parents were working outside the home and wanted ostensibly healthful snacks to push into their kids’ hands as they rushed out the door.
The roots, though, go back to an earlier generation of convenience foods: Kraft originally used Handi-Snacks as the brand name for a line of spreadable cheeses that launched in 1951, seen below in an ad from Life.
(I was trying to think of a joke to describe these … logs … but nothing was remotely tactful. I even asked some friends for help in the ol’ group chat, and they agreed it was impossible. My friend Laura described the situation accurately: “All of it invokes a preteen chortle, at minimum—and often a full blown Beavis and Butthead giggle fest.”)
Anyway. The cheese came first! What you have here is a glimpse into the early stages of snack evolution, always a fascinating topic (indeed, it seems like this may all relate back to my theory of rarebit-to-snack evolution).
Do you see what’s interesting about this? I’m kinda bouncing in my seat as I write this, because I find it so fascinating. Just looking at the changes in this one snack, you can see all kinds of shifts in gender roles, cultural norms, and society in general.
Let me spell it out: Handi-Snacks started as a processed cheese intended to speed up the process of making party snacks—they were coded as a helper for the overwhelmed hostess of the early 1950s. Thirty years later, when the kids from those households were having their own children, Handi-Snacks morphed into a product for overwhelmed working moms to shove into their kids’ lunchboxes. (Not just moms, of course, mostly moms, and that’s who the ads targeted.) Between 1950 and 2000, the number of women in the American labor force soared from 18 million to 66 million, according to the Department of Labor, and with this came a change in cultural expectations of The Ideal Woman, from “being the perfect mom, keeping the perfect house, and throwing the perfect party” to, well, still doing all that, to the extent possible, and also “being a a perfect corporate leader.” In both cases, the expectations are completely unrealistic and unhealthy—but Kraft Handi-Snacks™ are here to help!
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The brand name “Handi-Snacks” was first used for cheese and crackers on February 20, 1980, per a Kraft trademark application. “Can something this wholesome be so much fun?” read one of the early advertising slogans, the “fun” here coming from the little red stick that kids could use to spread the cheese on the cracker themselves—minimally DIY food as entertainment, in the manner of a 1950s dinner party, but for for the school lunchroom.
Handi-Snacks were a precursor to Lunchables, which launched in 1985 and joined the Kraft brand, through the magic of corporate mergers, three years later. Kraft pitched Handi-Snacks to schools, as a convenient addition to the lunch offerings, but—as with Lunchables—the main appeal was to parents, with a particular push to bundle them with other Kraft products, namely Capri Sun and shelf-stable Jell-O pudding. The basic idea: fill your kid’s lunchbox with Kraft products, with Hand-Snacks as the main course. They’re all so healthful and convenient!
Kraft bet big on Handi-Snacks, pouring $10 million into a single advertising campaign in 1997, organizing a giveaway of Magic Schoolbus CD-ROMs in 1999, and, in the early 1990s, sponsoring Nickelodeon’s “Slime Time Sweepstakes,” an outgrowth of its show Double Dare. That last bit of information comes courtesy of a 1993 book called Marketing To and Through Kids, which was an excited how-to manual rather than a cautionary tale, celebrating the “record sales and profits” that came from brands targeting kids. The lessons were ones that Kraft clearly understood well: Handi-Snacks—which I need to point out once again were simply regular crackers and cheese, but put together in a little package, with small, cheery, firetruck-red stick for added convenience—brought in $79 million in 1996. Marketing is an amazing thing.
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Handi-Snacks are still around, although they’ve lost their novelty as a convenience food. Even so, the evolution of the snack continues, in small ways. You can now get a Premium version—featuring a more natural, higher-quality cheese, apparently—and, to the great disappointment of Twitter and Reddit, Kraft discontinued the little red spreader a few years ago, on the grounds that they weren’t “eco-friendly.”
These changes, though relatively small, offer an interesting regression of sorts, an incremental shift back toward Handi-Snacks’ roots as a party cheese. Given the recent vogue for 1980s and 1990s throwbacks—see, for example, the return of Saved by the Bell and Dunkaroos and, somehow, fanny packs (WHY)—it seems entirely plausible to think that Kraft, too, will try to capitalize on millennial nostalgia and introduce some throwback items for the grown-up set. Specifically, I’m thinking Handi-Snacks for adults or, even better, or version of that cheese in a jar, marketed to forty-somethings hosting dinner parties in the eventual/possible/🤷♂️/????? post-pandemic boom in in-home socializing, red plastic spreader sold separately on the Kraft website. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même cheese.
Amazingly, there’s basically nothing else written about this particular snack, no matter how far you dive into the archives. This post is the definitive deep-dive. Hope you liked it!
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