The Sad Tale of the Zagnut Bar at Chocolate World

Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, Hershey had always held a special interest to me. Here, in my own state, was a city dedicated to candy. A candy city! The rest of the United States could have their fantasy surrounding Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. For those of us within driving distance, we had a real live candy park nearby.

And not only did they have chocolate. They had an Hersheypark as well, an amusement park combined with all things candy! Imagine the joy you would have as an adult of a stock portfolio that returned 15% annually, AND automatically paid your mortgage. This was the equivalent joy that Pennsylvanian children held in regard to Hershey. It was the living manifestation of Christmas and Halloween on the same day.

As I drove down Chocolate Avenue, all concern about corporate politics and civic history went out the window. Suddenly, I was seven again, albeit one with knowledge on how to drive a car.
When Chocolate Avenue crossed with Cocoa Street, I giggled with joy. As I passed the streetlamps, I opened up the windows and stuck my head out in order to get a better view of the Hershey Kisses that adorned their top. And once th ewindows opened, the aroma of cocoa permeated the air. I smiled and laughed. It had taken me nearly a generation, but I had finally made it to Hershey.

The sky was blue, the temperatures were in the mid-sixties, and the Saturday promised to carry with it a return to childhood. I took a breakfast of an omelet and scrapple at the Hershey Pantry, a local diner aimed a bit at both the locals and the tourists. As I downed my last swallow of my diner grade coffee, I looked at my itinerary for the day. Hit Hershey’s Chocolate World first, followed up by a quick visit to Hersheypark, and then end up the day at the Milton Hershey Museum. By the end of the day, I hoped to have the full Hershey experience.

I drove over to the tourist attractions, parked the car, and walked into the line waiting for Hershey’s Chocolate World to open, where I was greeted by a trio of anthropomorphic mascots, one shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss, another like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, and the third looking like the Classic Hershey Bar, each with their own eyes, nose, arms, legs, and smiles that seemed to indicate that they knew that you were about to eat their kin, and they didn’t mind in the least. My mind wandered back to the Bassett’s All-Sorts mascot, who also was presented as a living, breathing, sentient piece of candy. I shuddered at the uncomfortable thoughts that arose from this macabre practice.

It used to be that anyone off of the street could walk into the Hershey Company during their working hours, and take part of the tour that took them through the actual production facilities, but those days have been gone for nearly a generation now, with Chocolate World designed to replace the tours, and the production facilities could now pay lower insurance premiums and prevent prying eyes from rival companies to see what was going on. Chocolate World opened for business in 1973, and has seen millions of visitors walk through its doors.

While at Chocolate World, one can take a trolley ride that takes them around the city, pointing out key aspects of the history of Hershey, both the town and the company. If an hour long trip around the town isn’t desirable, parents could take their children into an area where they could make their own candy bar.

Or, if one so desires, a 3-D movie can be seen where the aforementioned creepy, anthropomorphic mascots “come to life as never before” and resident chocolate historian Professor D.P. Quigley takes the viewer “on a magical journey through HERSHEY’S entertaining history”. For children, the movie was a bright and shiny object that kept them entertained through sugary jingles, clever computer animation, and bells and whistles such as seat ticklers, butt kickers, fog, bubbles, snow, spritzers, confetti air cannons and a chocolate smell that reminded me of the Kellogg’s cereal Cocoa Krispies. For adults, it was the closest they could get to paying six dollars to experience a bad acid trip sponsored by a candy corporation.

There are two other major aspects to Chocolate World, and the respective importance of each is determined by one’s perspective. If you’re a tourist, that centerpiece is bound to be the Chocolate Tour, where one waits in line for up to thirty minutes (depending upon the time of day one visits) before being seated in a cart that whisks a family through a post-modern recreation of what a chocolate factory could be, if said chocolate factory included animatronic cows extolling the virtue of using the right kind of milk in milk chocolate, while faux chocolate candies were whisked over one’s head at thirty-five miles per hour.

If I sound cynical about this enterprise, it’s because I am an adult, and such a ride was not made with me in mind. The ride was made distinctly for the kiddies and should never be considered an authentic recreation of the chocolate making process – not unless purchasing a picture of your family in a cart being sold to you for a profit could be considered even remotely an authentic chocolate making experience.

After purchasing said picture, one is handed a bite sized piece of Hershey’s chocolate, unless there’s an unveiling of a new product, in which case one can get a full sized candy bar handed to them. From there, the tourist heads into the area where Hershey’s management believes is the most important part of the tour – the gift shop.

I’ve been to many a corporate gift shop before, for companies both popular and not, and I can say without fear of hesitation that Hershey’s gift shop exists on a scale that is not often matched. It is the first gift shop that I’ve been to that has it’s own food court within.

But I was here for one thing only, the thing that I had been dreaming of since I was seven – the candy. Hershey Bars were everywhere, in sizes from their forty-three gram sized bar, to one that weighed in at close to five pounds (only $39.95!). If you wanted your Hershey Kisses, you could buy them in a souvenir coffee mug, or in a twenty-five pound case (yours for only $95.00!)

Memories of my youth came soaring back to me, with Heath Bars to the left, Payday bars to the right, and Almond Joys directly in front.

Then I saw it. Off to the side, and buried next to the Zero bars was the Western Pennsylvanian candy bar Zagnut. My poor, poor Zagnut bar shunted off to the side like a Charlie-in-a-Box. Hershey owned Zagnut? Who knew?

Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, there were two candy bars that we could proudly call our own. There was the Clark Bar, the choclate covered peanut butter crunch bar, and the Zagnut bar, a peanut butter crunch bar coated with roasted coconut. When the owners of these two brands, the Pittsburgh Food and Beverage Company, entered bankruptcy in 1995, both properties were sold. The Clark Bar went to the New England Confectionery Company (aka NECCO), but I had no idea what happened to the Zagnut. And here it was, sitting lonely on the shelf, treated like an unwanted step-child. I grabbed a bar and put it into my shopping basket.

The shelves were packed with variations of Twizzlers (in black licorice, strawberry, cherry, and chocolate), Jolly Rancher (in classic flavors, the more recent sours, and the new fruit smoothies!), and America’s favorite comfit, Good N’ Plenty, which sat next to the Fruit n’ Plenty, and the rarer Hot n’ Plenty. None of these brands were “discovered” by the Hershey’s company. Even as an adult, this idea is difficult to wrap my arms around. Aren’t companies supposed to be leaders in innovation? Acquisition (as the term is so affectionately termed in the business arena) seems diametrically opposed to that of innovation.

This activity wouldn’t bother me so much if the purchased brand was treated with care and respect. But here, in front of me, was indication that Zagnut not only wasn’t the priority of the Hershey corporation, it wasn’t even the third, seventh, or tenth priority. As a brand, it languishes in the background, neglected due to its inability to meet a certain market threshold.

Logically, I understand this. Businesses exist to make money, and if a brand is a draw on resources rather than a contributor to it, then plans must be put in place to make the brand more effective to the companies bottom line.

Emotionally, I want to lash out at Hershey’s, at least from a consumer’s point of view. This was a candy bar I grew up with, a regional specialty of which those of us in Western Pennsylvania could be proud, And here was the Willy Wonka of my youth telling me in market terms that this candy bar just didn’t have what it takes to be a national brand.

At least Zagnut is still being made. It may be on life support, but it is still alive. History of the Twentieth Century is littered with brands of candy no longer being made, from the ever famous Marathon Bar, to long forgotten candies such as the Seven-Up Bar and the Black Cow.

Nostalgia is a weird thing. It’s the combination of sadness mixed with fond remembrance that occurs when you are forced to recognize that something from your past is gone for good. But Zagnut wasn’t gone. It was here in my shopping basket. Hershey’s has saw some value to it, enough so to at least purchase the brand.

But they don’t care for Zagnut the way my friends and I did back thirty years ago. That they can’t find value in the candy bar, that they can’t see their disinterest is disrespectful, that they can’t make it work for them as a company, lessens them in my eyes.

As I paid for the candy bar, I couldn’t help but think that it’s silly to have such a strong opinion for a candy bar, and that I allowed it to illicit such feelings. It’s just a confection, after all.

But I had forgotten how much I had tied this candy bar (and the Clark bar) to my youth. To see it diminished to nothing more than a commodity made me realized that growing up was inevitably a cynical endeavor. At that moment, I hated Hershey’s for pointing that out.