Bland, pleasant, unambitious: Why Coffee Crisp is the ultimate Canadian treat

OPINION: This Halloween, thousands of these inoffensive chocolate bars will be handed out to children across the country. Here’s why they’re a part of our heritage
By Corey Mintz - Published on Oct 31, 2019
coffee crisp
Coffee Crisp’s marketing seems merely to suggest that eating one is better than nothing. (iStock.com/robtek)

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While on a visit to my aunt Sharon in Los Angeles, I was shocked to discover a half dozen Coffee Crisp bars in her fridge. It may be only my imagination that everyone in L.A. is a health nut, but it seemed odd that she had a vegetable drawer filled with candy bars. Until, that is, she told me that she can’t get them in the States. Like many former Canadians, she has a soft spot and sweet tooth for Coffee Crisp, which is produced in Toronto and available only in Canada.

To me, Coffee Crisp is a Halloween bar. When I was a kid, a full candy bar was a rare treat. But going door to door at Halloween, I’d get a sampler of every brand and product available. Coffee Crisp showed up in my bag alongside bite-sized portions of Snickers, Mars, and Oh Henry!, and rarer delicacies such as Special Crisp. Given its distribution on Halloween, I figured Coffee Crisp was just part of the universally popular pantheon. I didn’t know it was a regional specialty. The others are all sold in America. And, unless I grossly misunderstand Americans, they like chocolate and coffee as much as Canadians do. The bar is produced by Nestle, a global corporation. So why don’t they sell it in the States?

The story of the Coffee Crisp begins in England during the 1930s. The bar was an offshoot of Rowntree’s Wafer Crisp — the Frasier to its Cheers, if you will. Seeking to break into the North American market, Rowntree negotiated a manufacturing partnership with struggling Toronto-based chocolate maker J.W. Cowan, a Canadian company that had launched in 1886 as a purveyor of cocoa but had overextended and been losing money for two years. It was initially sold here as Biscrisp; in 1938, a coffee variation took off and was dubbed Coffee Crisp.

The bar was a hit. In an era when regional candy bars came and went, Coffee Crisp stayed in production. It was briefly introduced to the United Kingdom in 1961, but Rowntree feared it was too similar to Kit Kat, which made up 20 per cent of its sales. In 1969, Rowntree merged with Mackintosh; the larger company was acquired by Nestle in 1988.

Since then, there have been endless variations of Coffee Crisp: triple chocolate, orange, raspberry, French vanilla, triple mocha, café caramel, latte, maple, yogurt, chocolate crunch, thins, etc. Through it all, the bar has maintained a cultish popularity among Canadian expatriates.

“Canadians in the U.S. often ask me about the bar,” says Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. “To me, the Coffee Crisp is sort of like Australia’s Violet Crumble — a bar that you can only get in one country and which proves just how intimate and particular our taste relationships are, especially with candy bars. Coffee Crisp is made by one of the Big Three, but, because it has limited availability, there’s that same sense of connection and pride.” (Similar to Cadbury’s Crunchie bar, the Violet Crumble is sponge toffee coated in chocolate.)

“Coffee is tough as a candy flavour because of the bitter notes, and I found the original Coffee Crisp a bit washed out, flavour-wise,” says Almond. “But I got my hands on the 70 per cent dark version they made briefly and liked that quite a lot.”

If you truly love coffee, the flavour of the bar probably reads as weak. But adding a faint coffee note to a chocolate-enrobed wafer cookie creates a nice balance. My own hot take is that the combination of crumbly wafer and tempered chocolate coating makes for one of the worst movie-theatre candy bars: it inevitably crumbles into your lap, and the chocolate then melts and sticks to your pants. But, at Halloween, Coffee Crisp hits above its weight class because the crumb-prone bar is mess-proof at the one-bite size.

Nestle doesn’t seem interested in U.S. sales. A spokesperson says that the U.S. and Canadian companies are considered different businesses and that the Coffee Crisp is merely a “local brand.” When it comes to the bar’s popularity in this country, it’s perhaps not the product but the marketing that speaks to Canadians.

Candy bars (or chocolate bars, or confections) were once very local products: every town, state, or province had its own brands. Fly into Nashville, and you’ll see signs proudly declaring Tennessee as the home of the Goo Goo Cluster. Being local, these brands built loyalty without flashy wrappings or advertising. For national sales, however, you sell the sizzle, not the steak.

According to Robert Fitzgerald's Rowntree and the Marketing Revolution, the British company’s sales director objected to the then-modern reliance on packaging and advertising, saying it was “not suitable to our English temperament.” But the geographic size of the U.S. and Canada necessitated a broader promotional approach.

Early ads featured an image of the 10-cent bar in front of a steaming cup of black coffee, and the words “Give yourself a better break with … Coffee Crisp!”

That may seem pretty basic by today’s standards — or even compared to Rowntree’s contemporary slogan for Aero, “A chocolate milkshake in a bar!” Now that’s a boast. The underselling “better break,” though, is in keeping with the later slogan “Makes a nice, light snack.”

Unlike Snickers, which promises to satisfy, or Butterfinger, which warns, “Nobody better lay a finger on my Butterfinger,” Coffee Crisp’s marketing seems merely to suggest that eating one is better than nothing. Perhaps, as is the case in our political arena, where we often hold our nose and vote for the lesser of evils, Canadians react well to an unambitious pitch that claims only that the product on offer isn’t the worst. Maybe we like a candy bar that matches our lack of hope and ambition.

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