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The century-long feud between Hershey's Chocolate and Hershey's Ice Cream, two companies established in the same place in the same year
Hello, Snackers. Today it’s a Keystone state confection controversy spanning more than a century. Enjoy.
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Hershey’s v. Hershey’s: An Investigation
(Quick note to the paid subscribers: I know that on Monday I promised you a different topic for this post … but that one needs a bit more time and consideration. Next week!)
This is the story of an often ridiculous dispute between two companies that has gone on more or less since they were both founded, in 1894, which is to say this feud is older than any human alive today. In one corner, we have Hershey’s Chocolate, the giant corporation with annual sales of more than $8 billion; in the other corner, there’s Hershey’s Ice Cream, which is sold primarily in the eastern part of the USA, with sales just a hair under $70 million, which is entirely respectable when you’re not making the comparison to, you know, a global behemoth of a brand.
So: Similar name, same founding date, and, crucially, they were established in the same place, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
I didn’t know any of this until I saw a tweet the other day:
When I first read that, I thought, Huh, interesting, but how much griefing can there really be, given the size difference between the two?
Well, it turns out … A LOT. There are all sorts of twists and turns here, endless episodes in this corporate tragicomedy. Let’s dig in.
* * *
Here’s the very first thing I found when I searched in the newspaper archives: an ad that Hershey’s Chocolate ran some fifty times in 1934 and 1935, mostly in Pennsylvania but also in some papers in New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland. Please read all the way to the end.
The exasperation here runs deep: It’s not just “Hey, we don’t make ice cream,” it’s “Tell your friends we’re sick and tired of this crap; stop listening to those imposters; we’re the real Hershey’s and we’re FROM Hershey, the CHOCOLATE TOWN, dammit.”
It’s important to note here that both have a completely valid claim to the brand name, which comes from the respective founders themselves. Hershey’s Chocolate was started by Milton S. Hershey; Hershey’s Ice Cream was founded (as Hershey Creamery Company) by Jacob Hershey and his brothers Isaac, Paris, Ephraim and Eli Hershey. Everything I’ve read, including the current About page on the Hershey Ice Cream website, insists that the two Hershey clans weren’t related.
* * *
Part of the early rivalry appears to relate to the local milk supply, dairy being an essential ingredient for both companies. In 1910, a story in the Lebanon, Pennsylvania Evening Report detailed a series of deals and consolidations of various regional creameries that had effectively put the two businesses in control of the regional dairy industry.
This overlap sometimes made things confusing for area residents. In 1916, when a typhoid outbreak was traced to a creamery run by Hershey’s Ice Cream (a local headline screamed that there were “too many bacilli to count!”), the newspaper coverage included a statement from Hershey’s Chocolate saying that they had “absolutely no connection” to that other business and also did “not deal in milk, ice cream or butter.” But this clarification apparently wasn’t enough, as the candy company president complained, with evident frustration, in a long letter to the editor:
In spite of these published statements, there is confusion in the public mind and the Hershey Chocolate Company is receiving inquiries as to the facts.
… We ask, therefore, that you inform your readers, either by the publication of this letter or otherwise, that the Hershey Chocolate Company, the Hershey Industrial School, the Hershey Farms, the town of Hershey and all interests associated with the name of M.S. Hershey are wholly distinct and separate from other organizations using the name of Hershey.
None of the Hershey interests here has any connection, direct or remote, with the Hershey Creamery Company, which is a concern owned mainly by persons living in other counties.
From the tone here, and in the ad included earlier in this post, and in everything else I found in the newspaper archives, it’s clear that from the very outset, the chocolate company considered the ice cream company to be second-string chumps, not real rivals to the claim of The One True Hershey.
Hershey’s Chocolate was proud not just of its most famous products but also its specific role in the economy and very identity of the place—it was the Hershey behind Hershey, a company town that maintains that status even today, with hotels and a chocolate-centered amusement park originally built for company employees and now a much larger tourist attraction. Again, I’ll call your attention to that letter to the editor and its closing line, an unnecessary dig that highlights these bigger issues of claims to regional identity: “Hershey Creamery Company … is a concern owned mainly by persons living in other counties.”
Two years later, in February 1918, Hershey Chocolate bought up more creameries, “the whole milk output of the upper end of the county.” It was a power move, one built on business; given the broader stakes and Milton Hershey’s evident desires to be a sort of local king, it seems likely that he was also simply trying to flex a bit. The Lancaster Intelligencer ran this graphic at the top of its front page, overshadowing multiple headlines about the war raging in Europe:
* * *
I can’t prove that this is where Hershey’s Ice Cream got feisty, but something seems to have snapped right around this time, because by 1920—and perhaps a bit earlier—it had spun off a new company, Hershey Brothers Chocolate. Not subtle!
Hershey’s Ice Cream ran giant newspaper ads touting its new French chocolate flavor, using chocolate processed by Hershey Brothers Chocolate, highlighting the relationship between the two companies. That, perhaps, might have been acceptable to Hershey’s Chocolate—the original one; I realize this is all getting complicated—but Hershey Brothers had greater ambitions.
Soon enough, Milton S. Hershey hired an investigator to see what his rivals were up to. Michael D'Antonio recounts the episode in his 2007 book Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams:
He found that the brothers were selling chocolate bars and a bite-size chocolate drop candy that were nearly identical to Hershey’s products. The brothers also used packaging and lettering that made their candy look like Milton Hershey’s. Ziegler found that retailers sometimes substituted the imitations for real Hershey chocolates and in other cases were fooled by salesmen into thinking they had ordered from Milton when they were actually buying from Jacob, Isaac, and Eli.
In Harrisburg, just a few miles from Hershey, Ziegler was surprised to find an elaborate display of the brothers’ “Hershey’s Kisses” in a confectioner’s window. Ziegler asked a police officer to stop traffic for a minute so he could step into the street with his camera and take a picture. As he raised his camera one of the Hershey brothers, apparently on a sales call, happened to step out of the shop and was caught on film.
(Let’s just pause to observe that this was long before the days of cell phone cameras, so taking this photo would not have been quick or subtle, making it all the more amusing that the Hershey brother was accidentally busted.)
Milton Hershey’s lawyer sent the ice cream company a threatening letter, but they didn’t stop, so in 1926, he sued, and won. The Hershey brothers were legally forbidden from using their name to sell chocolate or cocoa products. Once again, though, they didn’t stop—they simply took their operation out of town, hoping that the specifics of the legal restrictions wouldn’t travel too far. Unfortunately for them, both brand awareness and the telegraph already existed. In 1929, Milton received a telegram from one of his reps in Omaha, who had heard that Hershey Brothers were at it once more in Nebraska, trying to sell chocolate under the Hershey name.
Foiled yet again, the Hershey brothers finally—finally—shut down their chocolate company, by which I mean they renamed it Eatmor. It continued on for a few more years, before the business failed, finding it much harder to compete without the famous name attached.
* * *
For a few decades after the Omaha incident, it appears that there was something of a truce between the two companies, or at least they managed to keep their battles out of the headlines. But in 1966, it was Hershey Chocolate’s turn to play the bad guy. The company, then making $212 million every year, wanted to get into the ice cream business, using its branded chocolate as the coating for a bar produced another corporation. Hershey’s Ice Cream—by now a major underdog, doing $8 million in sales at the time—sued, and the two companies eventually settled in court. The deal was this: Hershey’s Ice Cream had exclusive right to sell ice cream with the Hershey’s brand name. Hershey’s Chocolate, meanwhile, could use its name for pretty much anything else.
Fast forward to 1990, when a new food trend arrived and, with it, another lawsuit.
Hershey’s Ice Cream wanted to make frozen yogurt.
Now. Frozen yogurt is not ice cream, as every purveyor of frozen yogurt is quick to point out (BTW: Pinkberry got busted a while back for its claims that its product was “all natural” and therefore better for you). But they occupy adjacent places in grocery store freezers and in consumer perceptions. It’s like ice cream, or at least sufficiently so that most reasonable people might agree that frozen yogurt is fair game for a company with exclusive rights to marketing a particular brand name of ice cream.
Hershey’s Chocolate, naturally, had other opinions, and pointed back to the 1960s settlement (which, again, pointed back to earlier lawsuits; it’s just an endless chain of animosity). Hershey’s Chocolate took the stance that ice cream is ice cream, and that this new product was “likely to cause confusion by giving consumers the false impression that the Creamery’s frozen yogurt originates from Hershey Foods.”
Which … come on. To me, this feels incredibly petty, the sort of thing that could only come from a rivalry that has gone on for many decades. (Also, frozen yogurt wasn’t a commercial product in the 1960s, and therefore was never part of the negotiations back then.)
The two companies battled in the courts for three years before settling, with Hershey’s Chocolate effectively prevailing, not just on the frozen yogurt front but, additionally, by requiring Hershey’s Ice Cream to explicitly state, in all publicity materials and on all packaging, that it’s not part of the candy company.
* * *
And so it is today that the two companies remain rivals, although there’s a tremendous asymmetry to the contentious relationship. Here’s the court-ordered fine print on every cup of ice cream sold at the Hershey's scoop shops:
Hershey’s Chocolate, for its part, prefers not to even acknowledge its competitor, and apparently has not legal obligation to do so. Its website has an entire ice cream section, touting its products as toppings, with nary a mention of what ice cream, exactly, one should use as the base.
If you go to Hersheypark, you’ll find plenty of synergy with other brands. There’s a Pepsi Pop Star Store and a Chik-fil-A and a Dunkin’ stand and a Starbucks and a Nathan’s Famous and a Subway. If you want ice cream, there are various options, including several kiosks selling Dippin’ Dots.
But there is, of course, nowhere to buy Hershey’s Ice Cream, despite it being a historic brand from just up the road. The closest thing you’ll find at Hersheypark is a place called—pay close attention to the name here—Milton's Ice Cream Parlor, which was “inspired by Mr. Hershey's early ventures in sweetness that came before his famous chocolate factory.”
It’s a bit of revisionist history, a little dig at a rival that just won’t quit.
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If you liked this post, you’ll probably also enjoy Boston Baked Beans, Chinese chicken fingers, gummi worms, carob, or the story of the two feuding brothers who both claimed to have invented the six-foot hero.