RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Hydrox cookies are back, pretty exciting for the few who remember them. They look like Oreos, but were actually first. Launched in 1908, Hydrox was the original two-chocolate-wafers-with-white-cream-in-the-middle cookie. They were discontinued in 1999. And now, Planet Money's David Kestenbaum looks into what it takes to bring back a brand from the dead.
DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Ellia Kassoff grew up in one of those families where, if a package of cookies from the supermarket somehow made it into the house, it was hard to think about anything else. His mom usually had a ban on that kind of stuff.
ELLIA KASSOFF: We were, like, the first ones to go to health food stores in the '70s (laughter). So it was a big thing for me to have a Hydrox in the house.
KESTENBAUM: When Kassoff got older, he built a business bringing brands back from the dead. He revived his favorite childhood lollipop, Astro Pops. But with Hydrox, there was a problem. The name Hydrox was trademarked, originally by the company Sunshine that had made the first cookies over a hundred years ago. The trademark had been passed on to Kellogg's, this huge company. But Kassoff looked into trademark law and learned that if someone owns a trademark but is not using it, there's a chance you can snag it.
KASSOFF: We had to show proof that they weren't using it.
KESTENBAUM: You called Kellogg's and be like, hey, you guys going to do anymore Hydrox?
KASSOFF: It is a methodology that we have. It's kind of a little proprietary thing...
KESTENBAUM: Oh, come on.
KASSOFF: Because if other people knew how to do it (laughter)...
KESTENBAUM: I looked up Kassoff's legal filings. One of his tricks was to write Kellogg's consumer affairs saying, hey, I'm a huge fan; is there any place I can get Hydrox? Kellogg's wrote back saying sorry and explaining that Hydrox had been discontinued and that there was, quote, "no plans to reintroduce it." Kassoff had what he needed. He forwarded the letter to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which said, OK, Kellogg's doesn't want it. You can use Hydrox.
How did that feel when you got that saying it's yours?
KASSOFF: Oh, my God, it's - yoo-hoo, I can't believe it's mine.
KESTENBAUM: You all of a sudden control this cookie (laughter), something that, like, your dad used to bring home, right?
KASSOFF: It is a very bizarre feeling.
KESTENBAUM: Kassoff finally had the name, but then there was the harder task. He was going to have to rebuild the cookie from scratch. He looked around for a while and found a supplier who could get him the original cocoa and another who could get him the vanilla for the filling.
KESTENBAUM: Is it vanilla number 6532 or something? Like...
KASSOFF: Yeah, I mean, it really is that specific.
KESTENBAUM: He was cagey about the details - you know, secret recipe and all. Kassoff found a food scientist to make some prototypes, and he found some experts to do the taste-testing. One was Linda Miller. She grew up in South Carolina eating lots of Hydrox.
LINDA MILLER: Hydrox meets all your needs - comfort, great taste. I mean, I think that was the best life there was.
KESTENBAUM: The Hydrox life?
This is one of those products where people took sides. There were Hydrox people and Oreo people. Linda Miller is a Hydrox person. She thinks Oreos are yucky.
MILLER: Once you've had a Hydrox, you don't want anything else because it's just a fake.
KESTENBAUM: But they're both cookies, and they're pretty similar, you know? (Laughter).
MILLER: No, no, no.
KESTENBAUM: They have chocolate wafers on the outside and some cream in the middle.
MILLER: (Laughter) No, they're not similar. They're not.
KESTENBAUM: They are similar.
MILLER: OK, well, they're the same color.
KESTENBAUM: Linda has tasted the Hydrox prototypes and says they are as she remembers. She's excited to be able to buy them again. The question is, how many Lindas are out there? I asked Ellia Kassoff about the fact that his small company was going up against Oreo, against big cookie.
Is it true Oreo is the best-selling cookie in the United States?
KASSOFF: Actually, it's the best-selling cookie in the world.
KESTENBAUM: In the whole world?
KESTENBAUM: Can you beat Oreo?
KASSOFF: Beat... Beat... I think from a flavor perspective, absolutely.
KESTENBAUM: (Laughter) I mean from a sales perspective. They're the number-one cookie in the world.
KASSOFF: Hey, you've got to aim high.
KESTENBAUM: The truth is, he doesn't have to beat Oreo. The world has changed since Hydrox went away. He can sell the cookies through Amazon to a smaller group of fans. And the supermarkets are stocking more cookies than they used to, though a lot of them are Oreos - regular Oreo, Oreo Golden, Oreo Mint, Oreo Thins, Double Stuf, Mega Stuf. I'll stop there. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.