Cheez-It crackers are a testament to American snacking ingenuity. Introduced in 1921, the amazingly popular, one-inch-square, 100% real cheese snack crackers have maintained a steadfast ability to reach nearly every consumer demographic, with an inherent, near-universal appeal. Today, Cheez-It is one of the top cracker brands in the world, owned by Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, MI, and responsible for over $1.2 billion in U.S. retail sales—and growing.
But the first century of Cheez-It crackers was only the beginning. In recent years, Cheez-It has launched a series of innovative new products, expanding the brand’s reach, earning new fans, and introducing more consumers to a diversity of Cheez-It flavors, formats, and fun. Through an astute combination of benchtop innovation and savvy go-to-market strategy, Cheez-It continues to see growth of its primary, century-old product line while adding strong incremental revenue from its innovation pipeline.
To honor this amazing century of brand strength, growth, and ingenuity, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery is pleased to celebrate Kellogg Co. and its Cheez-It brand as the 2022 “Snack Producer of the Year.”
Letting the Sunshine in
Cheez-It crackers traces its original inspiration to Welsh rarebit—essentially cheese on toast—a British dish popularized in the 1800s. Green & Green Co. of Dayton, OH, led by brothers Weston and Joseph Green, filed the trademark for its “Cheez-It” crackers in 1921. Then in 1930, Green & Green joined forces with Loose-Wiles Biscuit Co., a bakery famous at the time for its “Thousand Window” Long Island, NY production facility it opened in 1912, reportedly the largest bakery building in the world at the time. Loose-Wiles designed the unique bakery production facility to allow ample sunshine into the work environment.
In 1946, Loose-Wiles officially changed its name to Sunshine Biscuit, Inc., and a steady path toward continual Cheez-It brand growth ensued across the decades. In 1996, Keebler acquired Sunshine Biscuit from G.F. Industries. Then, in 2001, Kellogg Co. acquired Keebler. Today, the Cheez-It brand remains as a core snack brand at Kellogg Co., currently available in over a dozen varieties and flavors, including:
Italian Four Cheese
Hot & Spicy
Buffalo Wing Scooby-Doo
An innovation streak
Over the past several years, the Cheez-It team has delivered a string of innovative new product formats that extend the brand into new directions:
- 2014: Grooves, crackers with a deeper crunch and crispy ridges and edges
- 2017: Duoz, pairing two popular Cheez-It flavors in one box
2019: Snap’d, extra thin and crispy crackers (finalist in 2019 SF&WB “Best New Snack & Bakery Products” voting)
- 2022: Puff’d, airy, puffy snack crackers that melt in your mouth
Fans love the new products, notes Erin Storm, senior director marketing, Kellogg Co. “Over time, as we’ve launched more sub lines, we’ve seen not only these new brands grow, but we’ve seen our core line grow, as well, with new household penetration with each launch.”
Cheez-It taps into a strong consumer desire for deeply savory, cheesy snack foods. “Consumers are crazy about cheesy snacks,” says Ally Borozan, senior director, salty snacks innovation strategy, Kellogg Co. “They just can’t get enough. And Cheez-It is all about 100% real cheese. There’s so much we can do with the brand, and consumers are hungry for more.”
American love of cheese runs deep, notes Jeff Delonis, vice president marketing and innovation, Away From Home, Kellogg Co. “In fact, the average consumer’s consumption of cheese has more than doubled over the last 40 years. Of course, Cheez-It crackers are made with 100% real cheese. Cheez-It crackers provide a unique and distinctive cheese snacking experience. There’s nothing else quite like it on the market.”
A lot of imitators have come and gone since the brand launched in 1921, says Delonis. “But the brand remains very distinctive. It’s a great solution for consumers, whenever they’re looking for a snack, when they’re craving cheese and a salty combination of flavors. The brand is fun, yet unassuming—a brand that can attract people of all ages. All of those pieces combined keep it a snack-time favorite, and it’s a reason why, after more than 100 years in the market, it’s still one of the fastest-growing billion-dollar retail food brands.”
Part of the impetus for the recent string of Cheez-It innovations is a desire to enter more snacking categories. “We can put Cheez-It crackers in almost every snacking occasion,” says Borozan. “I think the key for us was understanding different snacking occasions—designing the food to fit the occasion. Cheez-It Snap’d was our foray into afternoon snacking.” The light and crispy crackers form an alternative to potato chips or similar snacks and are currently available in:
Cheddar Sour Cream & Onion
Cheez-It consumption in the U.S. has grown exponentially over the past several years, with the Snap’d line introduction seeing particularly notable growth—enough that Kellogg Co. had to add production capacity.
“Cheez-It Snap’d has earned the brand into a whole new set of occasions and turned out to be one of the biggest and most-successful new food launches in the history of the company,” says Delonis. “We’re in our fourth year in market with Cheez-It Snap’d, and it’s still growing at double digits at retail.”
The new Cheez-It Puff’d line aims for slightly later in the day and into the evening. “Cheez-It Puff’d, our brand-new launch, is pushing into more of the late afternoon and evening,” says Borozan. “The way the food is designed is even more manageable, bite-sized, light, and airy.” She notes it’s similar to a popcorn snack experience. “Afternoon and evening snacking are the biggest occasions in the snacking world,” she notes.
Cheez-It Puff’d is available in three varieties:
Cheez-It Puff’d Double Cheese
Cheez-It Puff’d White Cheddar
Cheez-It Puff’d Scorchin’ Hot Cheddar
The new Cheez-It product introductions have seen strong sales, notes Delonis. “They’ve exceeded expectations, we’ve seen a lot of great customer and consumer reactions.”
And across every Cheez-It product line, flavor innovation has increased the diversity of the growing group of fans. “Bold flavors and that crunch attracted a younger adult audience to the brand,” says Delonis.
And while Cheez-It is synonymous with the cracker category, that isn’t stopping Kellogg Co. from branching out into new categories with the brand. In early 2021, Cheez-It released its limited-time Loaded Popcorn products, available in two varieties:
Cheez-It Loaded Cheddar Popcorn
Cheez-It Loaded White Cheddar Popcorn
The Cheez-It Bowl
In 2020, Kellogg Co. and its Cheez-It brand launched their sponsorship of the Cheez-It Bowl, part of the college football bowl season, played in Orlando, FL, providing significant brand exposure during the holidays.
“Retail sales are strong throughout the year, but our lowest point for the brand every year would fall in the month of December right around that holiday timeframe,” says Delonis. “Many other brands, including within the cracker category, are marketed around the holiday theme, and it is hard to break through.”
Delonis notes sports viewing represents a shared snacking occasion that’s important to the brand, so the Cheez-It team sought to elevate engagement. “The Cheez-It Bowl gives us an opportunity to connect our brand to a highly relevant occasion and experience, and in a timeframe where we wanted to boost our sales.”
It also offered the brand an opportunity to provide a whole new Cheez-It experience, continues Delonis. “We’ve had quite a bit of fun with that, including featuring a giant bowl of cheese crackers at the game, box seats built on top of the world’s largest Cheez-It boxes, animatronic cheese wheels in the stands, and even the first mascot specific for a bowl game, introduced this year.” Prince Cheddward made his debut at the 2021 Cheez-It Bowl, which took place on December 29 between the Clemson Tigers and Iowa State Cyclones.
“It’s been a phenomenal success for us in terms of the sales that we’ve managed to generate in the month of December—and continuing into January and February,” says Delonis. “The success that we’ve seen there has led to increased sponsorship of college football, like the college football playoffs, and helped us build equity in the brand.”
A natural pairing
The aged flavor notes in the myriad permutations of wine and cheese delight the senses. So it’s only natural that Cheez-It would extend its innovation into co-branded relationships that pair with wine.
Starting in summer 2019, Cheez-It partnered with House Wine to offer a product package that joins the two at retail. “We wanted to do something distinctive,” says Delonis. The first co-branded pairing was House Wine Original Red Blend & Cheez-It Original crackers, with House Wine Rose & Cheez-it White Cheddar crackers following the subsequent year.
“The idea took off in that first year and earned a lot of media attention,” says Delonis. “The first batch of products sold out within minutes.”
Multiple subsequent product box pairings have followed. A “Cheez-It and Cheerz It” flavor pairing guide from House Wine offers these other recommendations:
- Extra Toasty & Sauvignon Blanc
- Cheddar Jack & Cabernet Sauvignon
Extra Cheesy & Pinot Grigio
Duoz Sharp Cheddar/Parmesan & ChardonnayGrooves Zesty Cheddar Ranch & Malbec
Cheez-It fans had been doing this for years. “We always look to our brand fans for inspiration,” says Delonis. “We wanted to see how they were talking about the brand, how they’re consuming Cheez-It snacks. What we discovered was that there was already a group of consumers treating themselves to an occasional snack experience of Cheez-It crackers and wine. So we took that as a mission for ourselves, to make it even easier to bring those two products together.”
When considered as an ingredient, Cheez-It crackers open new doors to innovation.
Chef Mason Hereford keeps Cheez-It crackers in his culinary “bag of tricks,” including at his renowned New Orleans restaurant Turkey and the Wolf where they might adorn a sandwich. Including snacks in sandwiches is one of the celebrated chef’s signature techniques, as seen in his famous Fried Bologna sandwich with house-made vinegar-brined potato chips in the build. The elegantly homespun—refined, yet approachable—approach on display at Turkey and the Wolf has attracted national attention via Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and 2017 “Best New Restaurant in America” honors from Bon Appétit.
Hereford finds himself drawn to the rounded, depth of flavor in Cheez-It crackers—both as a chef and a consumer, frequently grabbing a handful as he passes through the kitchen. “They’re perfectly savory. There’s something about that Original flavor,” he says.
Cheez-It crackers are a natural component in sweet-savory pairings, notes Hereford. “I think that Cheez-It crackers have a versatility that we can use a lot of different ways,” he says. “But I lean toward pairing them with sweet things.”
Hereford’s June 2022 cookbook, “Turkey and the Wolf: Flavor Trippin’ in New Orleans,” includes a recipe that calls for Cheez-It crackers atop ice cream. “It’s something I do like three times a week,” he says. Peanuts can also go into the topping mix. “It might be the one thing in my life that I eat more of than anything else.” His personal favorite ice cream for this treatment is cookies and cream.
Hereford notes the pastry chef at his breakfast restaurant, Molly’s Rise and Shine, also in New Orleans, has made an impressive Chocolate Chip & Cheez-It cookie.
“Another recipe that’s pretty neat is from a bakery in Houston called Fluff Bake Bar,” says Hereford. He notes Chef/Owner Rebecca Masson does “guest chef” cookies every once in a while. “One that she did with us was a Candied Cheez-It cookie, using Original flavor Cheez-It crackers. It was almost like how you would make candied peanuts, but she did it with Cheez-It crackers. And she used that as an ingredient in a cookie. She’s famous for her Couch Potato cookie that has potato chips in it.”
A century young
In 2021, Cheez-It had the opportunity to celebrate its 100th birthday, a milestone event dubbed its “Cheez-Itennial.” And the brand even got its own cake, the Cheez-It Cheez-Itennial Cake by Chef Stephanie Izard, sold nationwide for a limited time on Goldbelly. The quintessentially sweet-savory Cheez-Itennial Cake contained ground Cheez-It crackers in the flour, and in the shortbread crumble between each cake layer. Swirls of caramel featured throughout, and chocolate-covered Cheez-It crackers adorned the top.
The celebration also called for a toast, so Cheez-It offered up a “So Extra” Toasty Experience bundle that included a Cheez-Itennial Cracker Coupe glass paired with limited-edition Extra Toasty flavors available on the brand’s new direct-to-consumer Cheez-It shopping destination, CheezItHQ.com (a discount offer accompanied the sale to purchase the Brut pairing separately at UsualWines.com). The limited-time Cheez-It Extra Toasty flavors included:
Cheez-It Extra Toasty Extra Cheesy
Cheez-It Extra Toasty Extra Spicy
Cheez-It Extra Toasty Cheddar Jack
Innovation by design
In early 2021, Kellogg Co. unveiled a new Design Studio to serve as a focal point for ongoing product innovation. “Kellogg made an amazing investment in the Design Studio,” says Borozan. “We’re always trying to get better and innovate, identifying new tools and different ways to solve problems and explore.” For all Kellogg Co. brands, the facility is an opportunity to translate foods into new occasions and address new consumer needs, she notes.
The 40,000-square-foot studio is part of the company’s Innovation Suite at the Kellogg Institute for Food & Nutrition Research located at its Battle Creek headquarters. The facility also includes a Center for Sensory and Consumer Discovery, the Kellogg Center for Culinary Innovation, and an Innovation Engine Room.
The Design Studio is a strategic catalyst for go-to-market strategies. “We have been able to move a little more quickly, and be more agile,” says Borozan. Kellogg Co. also uses the Design Studio to experiment with direct-to-consumer sales and develop customized offerings. Then the marketing team can collect consumer feedback and data while driving some buzz on the brand. “You get a sneak peek at some areas where we might go from an innovation perspective more quickly,” she says. The Design Studio has already proven instrumental to increasing the speed at which Kellogg Co. can innovate and drive additional insights, she notes.
Kellogg’s Away From Home also offers its Menuvation Center as a resource to operators and to help solve their challenges. The Menuvation Center marks a major investment by Kellogg’s Away From Home in culinary innovation and partnership with operators. “We like to invite our prospective partners into that space and we compare ideas from our chefs and culinary experts with the partner team, to build out new ideas and creations together,” says Delonis.
But the starting point for the Cheez-It brand is always the cheese. “Offering consumers 100% real cheese in different formats is our North Star, elevating consumers’ love of cheese to absurd heights,” says Storm.
“There’s so much runway on the innovation side,” says Borozan. “I think we’ve really just hit the tip of the iceberg. We’re going to continue to think big about the world of cheesy snacks. We’re super excited, and the future is really bright for Cheez-It.”
AT A GLANCE
Company: Kellogg Co.
Headquarters: Battle Creek, MI
Jeff Delonis, Vice President Marketing & Innovation
Erin Storm, Senior Director Marketing
Ally Borozan, Senior Director, Salty Snacks Innovation Strategy