The early 20th century was a banner era for crackers. A prevailing health movement of the day championed by Presbyterian minister, weirdo, and Graham cracker inventor Sylvester Graham held that, compared to other foods, crackers provided less stimulation and curbed sinful cravings—a quality that made them one of the country’s first health foods (although given how inhalable Cheez-Its are today, that seems to have backfired). At around the same time, Dayton, Ohio, had become something of a hotbed of innovation. Known as “the invention capital of the United States,” the Midwestern city’s contributions to society included airplanes, cash registers, soda pop tops, and what may be the greatest cracker of all time, the square, orange, anything-but-humble Cheez-It.
Introduced in 1921 by the Green & Green Company, Cheez-Its represented a departure from the Dayton Cracker, a very un-stimulating hard butter cracker that made the business’s predecessor, the Wolf Cracker Bakery, a household name. With their Edgemont line, father-and-son duo JW and Weston Green were betting on something more delicate and flavorful to win over consumers, and their bet paid off.
Cheez-Its were originally meant to conjure the toasty, cheesy flavors of Welsh Rarebit, a broiled cheese-sauce toast that was popular at the time, though now it’s probably safe to say the proxy has surpassed the popularity of the original, netting over $1.2 billion in sales in the US annually.
How did Cheez-Its do it? Let’s follow the crumbs.
Explain it like I’m five!
The supremacy of Cheez-Its
There’s just something about the sheer, unmatched snackability of Cheez-Its that defies easy explanation. Yes, there’s salt and fat, two things that tip our brain over to the “I’m just so happy right now” side of things, but there’s more to it than that. It’s the size—smaller than a potato chip but bigger than a peanut—that seems tailor made for consuming by the fistful. Then there’s that mysterious hole in the center, which has both a functional and aesthetic function (and also a name: the docker hole). Perhaps we’re all just contemplating the void within every time we take a bite.
Also, Cheez-Its seem to trigger the kind of pleasant dissociation that results in getting to the end of a box with very little memory of the journey itself. Even high-brow food mags can’t help but sing the gospel of the Cheez-It.
By the digits
102: Years of Cheez-Its
50,000: Boxes of Cheez-Its filled per hour
200 million lbs (90.7 million kg): Cheez-Its made per year
240+: Number of Cheez-Its per box
Up to $13.6 billion: Projected total sales that Cheez-Its maker Kellanova stands to make this year
Big business, little cracker
Though Cheez-Its have been made roughly the same way for over 100 years (i.e. with real cheese and lots of it), the brand has changed hands many times over in its history. After establishing Cheez-It’s brand, in 1932, the Green & Green Company of Dayton, Ohio, was acquired by Kansas City’s Sunshine Biscuit Company, whose logo continued to appear on the bright red box for years after that brand had become the property of the Keebler elves in 1996.
Hungry for more snacks in their portfolio, Kellogg gobbled up Keebler in 2001. Over the next two decades, Kellogg grew the Cheez-Its portfolio to include new formats like ridges and puffs, plus a staggering number of flavors—its answer to the snacking trends of the moment. In a search for viral marketing opportunities, Kellogg has led Cheez-Its down some pretty wild and wacky paths—a very stoner-friendly Cheez-It cake available via Goldbelly to celebrate the brand’s 100th birthday, an “aged by audio” campaign that partnered with Pandora to create a hip hop playlist for maturing crackers, and most recently, the world’s first Cheez-It Stop, a filling station in Joshua Tree National Park in California, where a fuel pump sprayed bags of Cheez-Its into open car windows.
Now, as part of Kellogg’s newly configured offshoot, Kellanova, which debuted on the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 2, the brand is poised to bring in big bucks. According to Kellanova CEO Steve Cahillane, snacks represent 60% of Kellanova’s sales, and the category presents massive international growth opportunities for the $13 billion-dollar business, which now slings orange squares to the lucky residents of 20 countries.
Which of the following is NOT a real flavor of Cheez-It?
B. Queso Fundido
D. Italian Four Cheese
C. Buffalo Wing
We blasted the flavor to the bottom of this email, so go grab a taste down there.
March 31, 1921: The Green & Green Company introduces Cheez-Its to the masses
1932: The Sunshine Biscuit Company acquires the Green & Green Company and their Cheez-Its
1996: Keebler acquires the Sunshine Biscuit Company, and now elves make the Cheez-Its, presumably in a tree, though the mechanics aren’t entirely clear
2001: Kellogg acquires Keebler, putting thousands of elves out of a job
2014: The groove is in the heart thanks to new Cheez-It Grooves
2019: Thin and crispy Cheez-It Snap’d enters the chat
2022: Puff, puff, pass. Puff’d Cheez-Its are now a thing.
Despite marketing themselves as a square-shaped cracker, Cheez-Its measure 26 x 24 mm (1.0 by 0.94 in), making them technically rectangular. We’ll give you a second to collect yourself.
This 1975 Cheez-It ad really captures the “it” factor—When you’ve got it, everybody wants it. Perhaps this is what the makers of the 1990s “juice” drink Squeezit thought, though nobody really wanted it.
And now, a recipe.
Chili crisp Cheez-Its
Those toasty little squares get a glow up, courtesy of your favorite jar of chili crisp in this dangerously craveable two-ingredient snack.
1 (12.4 oz) box Original Cheez-It
¾ cup (177ml) chili crisp
- Preheat oven to 250ºF (120ºC)
- In a large bowl, mix together the Cheez-Its and chili crisp until combined.
- Spread Cheez-Its in an even layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and bake for 15-20 minutes. Allow to cool. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
Choose your Cheez-It texture!
- Light & airy Puff’d
- Thin & crispy Snap’d
- Mega-crunchy Grooves
- Flaky, delicate Cheez-It OG
We have strong opinions about this, but we’d rather munch on yours.
💬 Let’s talk!
In last week’s poll about wheat trading (which, without it, we wouldn’t have Cheez-Its), the majority of you (44%) said you’d pick tortillas over wheat flour bread as a dinner side dish. 35% of you would reach for cornbread, 17% would nibble on a spelt loaf, and just 4% would choose harcha, which just leaves more for us.
Today’s email was written by Stephanie Ganz (the unofficial snacking champion of Richmond, Va.), edited by Susan Howson (will flip this table if the next thing she learns is that the Dorito is not a triangle), and produced by Morgan Haefner (knows it’s really all about that white cheddar popcorn).
The correct answer to the pop quiz is A., Kimchi. Kimchi isn’t among the over 50 Cheez-It flavors yet, but consider this our way of moving the needle.
Thanks to Quartz reader Stephen for the idea for this one!
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