It began with a tweet to Donald Trump about, of all things, Oreos.
America’s No. 1 cookie, wrote Ellia Kassoff, was looking downright un-American: its maker, the giant Mondelez International Inc., was offshoring some production to Mexico.
Before long, the nation had its next political talker: Oreo-gate.
But behind that tweet last July -- and the resulting finger-wagging by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton about keeping jobs in the U.S. -- is a bizarre tale of corporatized cookies, bakery brinkmanship and, just maybe, redemption for a brand that was given up for dead.
No, not the Oreo. The Hydrox.
Because Kassoff, it turns out, is the man behind Hydrox, America’s other cream-filled chocolate sandwich cookie. Introduced in 1908, four years before the Oreo, the Hydrox all but disappeared in 1999, after its original maker, Sunshine, was bought by Keebler, and then Keebler was acquired by Kellogg’s.
Enter Kassoff. His great-uncle, Sol Leaf, was one of the founders of Leaf Brands, a company behind Whoppers, Milk Duds and Jolly Ranchers. Now Kassoff, 48, has set out to re-create some sugary brands of old -- Hydrox being his latest pet project.
Taking on the Oreo is a tall order, particularly with a cookie called Hydrox. If the name sounds like something out of chemistry class, that’s because it is: It comes from the elements that form water, hydrogen and oxygen. In 1908, the folks over at Sunshine thought that would evoke purity.
Kassoff filed paperwork to acquire the defunct brand in 2013 and sensed opportunity last summer as Trump proposed building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and turned trade into a hot issue. Oreo-maker Mondelez, which planned to move a fraction of its production south of the border, became the perfect target for Hydrox.
“We have to be very creative in taking advantage of certain things,” Kassoff said. “This was something that was basically free.”
Using the Twitter handle @HydroxCookie, he tweeted on July 27: “@realDonaldTrump We’re making our @hydroxcookie in US, not like @Oreo moving to Mexico.”
Oreos Never Again
Within weeks, Trump was proclaiming he’d never eat Oreos again, and Kassoff, who says he’s a political independent, was sending Hydrox to the Trump campaign.
Whether the Hydrox tweet unleashed Oreo-gate on its own doesn’t matter to Kassoff: Having presidential candidates criticize a giant competitor is reward enough. Plus, Hydrox -- a brand many Americans have forgotten, if they ever knew it at all -- got lots of free publicity. Spokespeople for Trump’s campaign didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment.
Kassoff, it’s safe to say, will never outdo the Oreo. By his own count, his company, Leaf Brands, had sales of $1.5 million in 2015. Its stable includes Tart n Tinys and Farts candies, as well as Astro Pop, the 1960s space-age lollipop shaped like a rocket (Kassoff acquired the defunct brand in 2010).
As for Hydrox -- which now proudly proclaim “America’s Original” on every package -- Leaf is making them in Los Angeles and selling them via Amazon.com. Kassoff also recently signed a national distribution deal with grocery giant Kroger and is in talks with other major retailers. He hopes sales will hit $5 million this year.
He didn’t even mind when Stephen Colbert poked fun at Hydrox as the late-night star fawned over a package of Oreos.
“I had 5 million millennials watching Colbert, asking ‘What’s Hydrox?’” Kassoff says.