The snacks inside a soda can
The curious history and unexpected legacy of Doritos in a can
Hello, Snackers. We’re heading back to the late 1990s to find some chips, pretzels, and other salty-crunchy-tasty goodies hidden inside a beverage container. A literal snack stack!
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First things first: We are not talking about soda inspired by or intended to taste like snacks, like Flamin’ Hot Mountain Dew. If you enjoy such things, great. Happy for you, I’ll pass. We are here, instead, to talk about the time Pepsi decided to put actual Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, and pretzels inside aluminum cans of the exact size and shape of a soda can.
Recall, if you will, 1997. The year of Titanic, the year of the first Harry Potter book. Missy Elliot was all over the radio, ER was in the middle of its hundred-year run, and, in personal news, I scored precisely one goal as a winger on my high school soccer team. The internet hadn’t taken over our lives, although it was a background presence around the USA, and there was still plenty of We are living in modern times! swagger, even if modernity had not yet delivered the hoverboards of Back to the Future Part II.
Enter PepsiCo, whose vision for the bright days ahead included machines that could sell both beverages and prepackaged snacks all in one place. Futuristic!
Pepsi’s brand portfolio included not only sodas but all of Frito-Lay and its assorted chips and munchies, so the corporation decided, as corporations do, to pursue synergy. They would put Frito-Lay products inside the same soda cans usually filled with actual soda—although with a modified top that lifted right off—and then sell them from soda machines, alongside their liquid comrades. Push this button for Mountain Dew, that one for Dr. Pepper, that one down there for Cheetos. You get the idea.
Here’s how one analyst explained it to The New York Times, and please enjoy the cameo from another memorable product of the 1990s:
“Pepsi can use vending machines as a promotional outlet to introduce new products such as its Olean potato chips,” Mr. Goldman said, referring to the brand name for olestra, the fat substitute that Frito-Lay is experimenting with in test markets in the Midwest.
(If you want an Olestra deep dive, please enjoy this episode of the excellent podcast Maintenance Phase.)
Pepsi’s snacks-in-cans also started in test markets: Birmingham, Alabama; Des Moines; Indianapolis; Kansas City; St. Louis; and Seattle. Sales met expectations, and Pepsi announced that a nationwide roll-out was coming soon.
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Though the precise style of container was a new development, as was the way Pepsi intended to sell it, there’s a long history of chips packaged in can.
The most famous example, of course, is Pringles, which launched in 1974. As it happens, a brand called Dittos Potato Chips launched the same year with same concept. We’ll dig into that another time, but for now please enjoy the delirious goofiness of this ad, featuring people who were clearly consuming something a bit stronger than chips just a few minutes earlier.
Convenience was always a selling point of chips in a can, but by the 1990s, when Pepsi had its big idea, American desire for such products had skyrocketed, especially when the packaging let them eat on the go, in the car. This was the era when drive-thru fast food became a major part of American life, as Adam Chandler documents in his excellent book Drive-Thru Dreams:
By the late 1980s, the number of McDonald’s locations with drive-thrus had grown to seven thousand strong, each with the capacity to serve 144 cars an hour or one every twenty-five seconds. In 1988, for the first time more than 50 percent of McDonald’s sales were conducted through the drive-thru window.
There were plenty of ripple effects in the changes in how and where Americans ate, including the rise of cupholders. Chandler points to the early 1990s as the turning point for those now-ubiquitous features of cars, and quotes materials from the 2004 Chicago auto show:
The catchphrase in the auto-design community is McDonaldability, the ability of any vehicle to accommodate standard-size fast-food beverage cups and some of the extras that come with Happy Meals as well.
Within this cultural context, Doritos in a can had another selling point: the container fit neatly into a cupholder, a perfect car snack.
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Despite all this, Pepsi’s experiment doesn’t seem to have lasted long. The news coverage peters out after 1998, with no indication that the snacks in a soda can ever made it to a national market.
Sales were surely the key issue—perhaps consumers just weren’t mentally prepared for their drinks and chips to be sold in the same machine—but it surely didn’t help that a man named Mark Kirkland sued Pepsi, claiming that he had patented the food-in-a-can format in 1993.
I looked up his patent application and, yeah, he has a point. Here’s how he describes his invention:
A container structure for solid retaining foods, such as cookies and snack chips, or non-food items, such as first aid products or golf balls, is disclosed which is sized and configured to be vendable from a vending machine which is configured for dispensing canned drinks.
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By the early 2000s, the snacks in a metal can had disappeared entirely. But Frito-Lay had built on the concept, tweaking it to avoid lawsuits and allow for even more snacks in the containers, with a new cupholder-friendly plastic container. Car designers had adapted to food trends and now food packaging designers were adapting to car trends, as summed up by the headline and graphics on this Tucson Citizen article from 2002:
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You can still find some of the old cans of Frito-Lay products as collector’s items on Ebay and the like, alongside Crystal Pepsi, the company’s most famous flop of the 1990s. The latter made a brief comeback a few years ago, and as a promotional giveaway earlier this year, but it legacy is largely stuck in the realm of corporate gimmicks like the aforementioned Flamin’ Hot Mountain Dew. It was a novelty that burned bright and then instantly fizzled out. But chips in a can, as goofy as they might seem, may have the longer—if lesser-known—cultural impact, as a precursor to packaging trends that live on.
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This blog is my inspiration for starting my own! Thanks!
What the actual...any snack food in a can = hard pass for this foodie!
Thanks for the bonus Crystal Pepsi throwback. And the cup holder connection.