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Could Crispy Crunch be the border-crossing chocolate bar?

As one of Canada's favourite chocolate bars, Crispy Crunch seemed like a slam-dunk south of the border. But as the CBC-TV show Venture found out, it wasn't going to be that easy.

Canadian confectioner Neilson took a run at the U.S. market in 1991

Can Crispy Crunch make it in the States?

30 years ago
2:14
The company that makes one of Canada's favourite chocolate bars tries to convert Americans to its unique taste. 2:14

As one of Canada's favourite chocolate bars, Crispy Crunch seemed like a slam-dunk south of the border.

But as the CBC-TV business show Venture found out in 1991, it wasn't going to be that easy.

Crispy Crunch was made by the Neilson chocolate factory in west Toronto, along with brands Mr. Big, Sweet Marie, and Malted Milk.

It was the oblong peanut butter-centred bar that the company was convinced could be a cross-border success.

"It's different than anything we have here in the United States," said an American in a group that was offered a taste and gave the bar good reviews.

But the cutthroat nature of the American candy market meant that being "Canada's favourite bar," as it was pitched, wasn't going to be a home run for Crispy Crunch on the saturated shelves south of the border

'We're not playing junior league here'

"I would rate putting a new product into the U.S. market as horrendously difficult," said Steve Forster, an expert with the trade magazine Candy Marketer. (Venture/CBC Archives)

"This is a hardball league. We are definitely in the majors," said market analyst Leonard Teitelbaum at Merrill Lynch. "We're not playing junior league here."    

And so Neilson launched what it called Operation Crispy Crunch U.S.A.

With the advent of free trade in 1989, Neilson's new CEO, Arthur Soler, saw an opportunity for the company to expand beyond the Canadian market, which had come to be dominated by multinational corporations. 

The fight for shelf space

Getting product on the shelves is the hard part

30 years ago
2:20
Americans might like the candy bar, but they won't buy it if they can't find it. 2:20

"You can't sell a chocolate bar down here unless you can get it on these shelves," said Venture reporter Linda Sims, standing in front of a convenience store array dominated by American bars made by Hershey and Mars.

"Many will get shelf space on a trial basis, but will not sustain within the American market," said Steve Forster of Candy Marketer magazine.

And so Neilson had partnered with a company called Pro Set, whose core business was selling trading cards but already had a distribution toehold in stores.

'Wherever there's a cash register'

A countertop box was one way that distributors could get the product in front of candy-buyers. (Venture/CBC Archives)

"We don't care if it's a bowling alley," Soler told a gathering of Pro Set distributors. "We're going to be there wherever there's a cash register."

Two marketers, who viewed the American Butterfinger bar as Crispy Crunch's closest competition, were seen deploying several strategies on a road trip to Milwaukee.

One was a standalone countertop box for Crispy Crunch; the other was convincing a wholesaler to take 16 cases.

"It's a constant ongoing battle," said Pro Set's Dick Starcovic. "Because you have an influx of new items out there every day."

In October 1993, the Globe and Mail described Neilson's Operation Crispy Crunch U.S.A as "no great success" for the company.

"If Neilson is successful with this product, it's going to take an awful lot of people by surprise," said Teitelbaum. "Me included."

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