Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fighting over sugar

The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and MarsEaster is almost here and looking at the grocery store shelves you wouldn't know there was a higher meaning to the holiday than candy.  So, in that sugar-coated spirit I'm writing about one of my favorite books, The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars by Joël Glenn Brenner.  It's one of the first histories that got me interested in reading more non-fiction and I read it almost ten years ago, back when I was still working on my MBA. It was assigned reading for one of the classes and it's probably the only required school book I ever deliberately chose to keep instead of trying to sell it back to the university bookstore.

For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes ItBut first, another good book about sugar: If you're my age or older you'll remember the "Cola Wars" between Coke and Pepsi back in the 70s and 80s. Pepsi challenged cola drinkers to "Take the Pepsi Challenge" where you could try both Coke and Pepsi without knowing which was which and see which one you preferred - the idea being that more people would realize they actually liked Pepsi better. (I did it at the Utah State Fair and picked Coke.) Then sometime in the early 80s Coke responded by changing their formula (to something sweeter like Pepsi, I think) and came out with "New Coke." It was a hugely embarrassing flop and they brought back "Coca-Cola Classic" and "New Coke" soon disappeared altogether. If you want to read more I recommend For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It by Mark Pendergrast. It's very good (and pretty long, too) and discusses all kinds of other controversies. You've probably heard that Coke originally contained cocaine? But did you know that the caffeine content was an even bigger scandal back then? (And yes, the "secret formula" is there in the book.)

But all this was nothing in comparison to the 'wars' between American chocolatiers Hershey and Mars. Hershey, of course, makes Hershey bars and Kisses and Reese's; Mars makes pretty much everything else: Snickers, Three Musketeers, M&M's, etc. And while there are other companies such as Nestle, this book focuses more on the two major American companies (although there's plenty of history on the whole industry), their triumphs and mistakes, and the fierce competition between them. Corporate espionage? These guys wrote the book! But it's not all business, there are lots of mouth-watering stories here, like how the problem of combining milk and chocolate was resolved (milk is water-based and chocolate is an oil, and everyone knows water and oil don't mix). You also find out how Reese's Peanut-Butter Cups are made and the secrets of getting the M's just right on the M&M's.

Milton Hershey and the Mars family are fascinating as well.  Hershey was a generous philanthropist who established his own city around an orphanage and amusement park, while the Mars family was secretive and suspicious - possibly to the point of mental illness - but they had the better heads for business. In fact, Hershey failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity following WWII - they had guaranteed servicemen would be able to get a nickel Hershey bar anywhere in the world, and a lot of those bars went into the mouths of local children which created a market they ignored, and Mars filled the international market when Hershey declined to do so. Mars was also smarter when cocoa prices skyrocketed, creating candy bars that contained far less chocolate (like Three Musketeers and Snickers) than a solid Hershey bar. But Mars was so suspicious and paranoid that they refused a young filmmaker’s request to use M&M's in a strange movie about a boy who befriends an alien and Hershey stepped in with Reese's Pieces, scoring a huge marketing coup.

I enjoyed this book so much that I finished it while on vacation at the beach even though it was a homework assignment! One caution, however: be certain to have a good supply of sweets on hand. Just reading about all that candy is enough to make your mouth water!

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