In January of this year, Hershey’s started selling a new chocolate spread—as well as two chocolate-nut spreads. According to the food industry trade magazine FoodNavigator, The Hershey Company’s CEO John Bilbrey said in a Q4 earnings call in February that the new products give the company a chance to get consumers eating chocolate first thing in the morning. “It can be on traditional bread at breakfast occasions,” Bilbrey said, “but it [is also for] healthy snacking throughout the day.”
There’s already one formidable competitor on American shelves: Nutella. Sales of its chocolate-and-hazelnut spread, which is also marketed in part as a breakfast food, have tripled to $240.4 million in the United States over the last five years. And there are several smaller American brands that have been selling chocolate spread in the United States, including MELT Organic, Artisana, and Whole Earth, as well as a few European brands that export some of their chocolate spreads to the United States. But Hershey’s is the first major company to sell a true chocolate spread—no nuts, just chocolate—in America. As Hershey’s enters the market in a big way, with a massive advertising campaign, chocolate spread stands a real chance of becoming popular for the first time in the United States.
Of course, chocolate spread—for breakfast, or as a snack—is nothing new to Israelis and Jews who have visited Israel, where it has long been a pantry staple. Cheap, tasty, and spoil-proof, it quickly became popular when it was introduced 57 years ago by a small candy factory in Haifa called Hashachar Ha’Oleh (The Rising Dawn). Founded by the Weidberg brothers, who immigrated to Palestine from Romania in the 1930s, they opened their factory in 1949 and sold various confections like halva, chocolates, and jams. But when they invented chocolate spread several years later, they knew they had a winner, eventually suspending production of their other products.
Moshe Weidberg, son of founding brother Alter Weidberg, is now the CEO of Hashachar Ha’Oleh. He told me in a recent phone interview that when chocolate spread first hit the market, Israel was a poor country. While he doesn’t know for sure why their chocolate spread became so beloved, Weidberg speculated that the low price and the fact that “it’s very tasty and very easy for mothers to put it on a sandwich to send to school” may have contributed to its popularity.
Many Israeli children have memories of it being spread on white bread and packed as a sandwich in their school lunches. And it stayed with them as they got older, even appearing in their army rations. For many, it has become something nostalgic, a part of their family’s and country’s tradition.
Amit Aaronsohn—Israeli culinary journalist, restaurant critic, and master student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy—remembers everyone eating chocolate spread when he was in elementary school. “We used to rush quickly to the football field to play, and the teachers would sometimes demand that we finish our meal before leaving the class,” he recalled. “Some kids would devour their sandwich in a few quick bites, always leaving two brown stripes of chocolate on their faces—one on each cheek.”
Aaronsohn surmises that one of the reasons it became so popular was that “it’s not only quick but also cheap and maybe most important [for those who keep kosher], it could be pareve, meaning not dairy and not meat. This means that chocolate spread could be consumed after every meal as a dessert, as opposed to many other sweets, which contain dairy products.”
Passover is an especially popular time for eating chocolate spread in Israel, with sales spiking as people look for something to spread on their matzoh. In 2008, there was a mild panic when several pallets worth of the spread were stolen from the Hashachar Ha’Oleh factory right before the holiday.
All in all, Hasachar Ha’Oleh sells about 7,000 tons of chocolate spread each year in Israel. Although it has competitors—Elite brand chocolate spread and Nutella—the company retains the largest market share for chocolate spread in Israel.
But for some reason, chocolate spread never really caught on outside of Israel. My husband told me about moving to New Jersey from Israel at age 7 back in the 1980s, and his mother packing him the usual chocolate-spread sandwich to bring to school for lunch: “Instead of being impressed with this new and delicious snack—a chocolate sandwich!—my classmates made fun of me for what they saw as a bizarre ingredient.”
Nutella, even though it is made primarily from hazelnuts with a “hint of cocoa,” did a lot to change that perception. “Nutella became very popular in the States,” said Weidberg. “It comes from a very big company, which has a lot of money to invest.” Nutella has the financial backing from its European parent company, Ferrero—enough to have made a huge impact on the U.S. market and spawn dozens of local competitors, including Jif, Justin’s, Peanut Butter Co., and even Shop Rite.
Perhaps another reason Nutella was able to infiltrate the U.S. market is precisely its nuts. Americans perceive nuts as being healthy, and Nutella capitalized on this in its early marketing campaign, advertising it as “part of a nutritious breakfast.” (This soon caught up with the company, and in 2012 Ferrero was sued in a class-action lawsuit for false advertising that led people to believe Nutella was healthy and nutritious, when in fact a two-tablespoon serving contains 200 calories, including 99 calories from 11 grams of fat—3.5g of which are saturated—and 80 calories from 21 grams of sugar. In an April 2012 settlement, Ferrero agreed to pay $3 million and was were required to make changes to Nutella’s labeling and marketing.)
Hershey’s is marketing its new line primarily as a treat, with the tag line, “What will you make delicious with Hershey’s Spreads?” This approach is more in line with that of Hashachar Ha’Oleh, whose slogan is “l’yahanut c’moh yeled!” or “Enjoy like a child!”
“The Hershey Company has been creating chocolate experience for well over 100 years and the addition of spreads helps us continue this legacy,” company spokesperson Anna Lingeris told the New York Daily News in February. It is unknown whether Hershey’s is aware of Hashachar Ha’Oleh and the popularity of chocolate spread in Israel; the company did not return multiple requests for comment.
Tastewise, Hershey’s chocolate spread is similar to Hershey’s syrup; it skews to the darker end of the scale, but is certainly not bitter. Its consistency is a little closer to buttery frosting than a spread. Hashachar Ha’Oleh, which offers several flavors, including dark (pareve), milk, and white, has a smoother feel; the dark has that slight bitterness that dark-chocolate lovers enjoy while the milk is sweet and creamy.
Weidberg said the Hershey’s spread is “a very nice product,” noting that since it’s nut-free, “in this way, Hashachar is very similar to Hershey’s.”
While it’s a big item in Israel, Hashachar Ha’Oleh still hasn’t found its way onto most American supermarket shelves. “We are a small company,” said Weidberg. “We tried to go out into the regular market, onto the kosher shelves, but we don’t have enough money for this. Somebody like Sabra, who is coming from Israel, and who joined eventually with PepsiCo—they can make hummus a very big item in the States. If Sabra was coming by themselves, probably the hummus wouldn’t have become such a big item.”
For now, Hashachar Ha’Oleh sells about 150 tons of its chocolate spread in the United States every year. “We are selling in all the kosher stores in the United States,” said Weidberg. “We wish to sell much more, but this is what we are selling.” But he is optimistic that having a big new competitor can actually be good for business: “I think that with Hershey’s on the market, there can be a very big demand for our stuff, too.”
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