I Ate Every Variety of Pepperidge Farm Cookie
What I learned about baked goods—and the human condition—from the Milano, the Verona, the Geneva …
Jared Konstanty, senior vice president and general manager of PF’s snacks division, had explained to me earlier that once the Innovation Center is up and running, PF’s inventors and engineers—who currently work out of a rather cramped, windowless space—will be able to produce new ideas at a more rapid clip than ever before. “Our plants are quite pressed for capacity, so every time we dream up a new sweet snack ... we have to stop the production line in one of our plants,” he said. “The supply chain team does not love when we do that.” Starting in September, “instead of having to schedule something in a plant three weeks away, [the R&D team] will be able to walk down the hall.”
In the next six months, PF is planning to issue a new line of dessert-inspired soft cookies, including a pumpkin cheesecake variety and a caramel apple pie one. The Milano Slices line, an open-faced number dressed with crunchy toppings, is also going to debut new models: Any day now you should see Salted Pretzels ones on shelves, and around Christmastime expect the arrival of crushed peppermint.
With all these new products in mind, I asked Konstanty—who spent his high school summers baking for Pepperidge Farm—if he thought the role that cookies play in people’s lives is changing. “Consumers are always looking for new ways to satisfy similar needs,” he said. “Generally most people between lunchtime and dinnertime start to look around for a little something to snack on, and generally in the afternoon that need is satisfied with a sweet treat. It also comes back after dinner, several hours after eating. Generally the sweet snack world exists in those two places. The human condition is not a new one, right?”
* * *
On a recent Saturday afternoon, after fasting all morning, I spread out the contents of the cardboard box Pepperidge Farm had sent me on the floor, arranging the bags Periodic Table-style, in hopes of being somewhat systematic about my consumption. My first move was to separate the new from the old, which required opening my sampler packs, where some vintage cookies (the Lido, the Orleans) that have apparently stopped pulling their weight as stand-alone items are now huddling together for survival. I found it was surprisingly easy to divide the Pepperidge Farm family into branches based on their basic elements. Some are driven by their use of chocolate (Lisbon, Brussels), while others are built around creative fruitiness (Verona, Montieri). Some foreground texture or shape over flavor (Melbourne), while others are all about the subtlety of the aftertaste (Bordeaux). Some are spartanly stripped down, and demand to be appreciated for their improbable potency (Lemon), while others are baroque and busy with nuts (Geneva). And though there is definitely a lot of overlap between varieties, there are nevertheless meaningful distinctions to be made, and I suspect all of us have some taxonomy in mind, however subconsciously, when we’re standing in the cookie aisle and deciding which bag to bring home.
The Pepperidge Farm people have some sense of the dilemmas their products present. In the 1980s, they aired a TV commercial in which a charming old spokesman, played for decades by the late radio actor Parker Fennelly, is preparing a tray of cookies for a small party. He goes through his guest list: Charlie likes Milanos, Terrence likes Bordeaux, and Gladys likes Genevas. “Pepperidge Farm Distinctive Cookies inspire fierce loyalty,” he says. “Everybody thinks their favorite is the best. They’re right.”
In my experience, people tend to have the strongest, most personal feelings about what we might call Pepperidge Farm’s classics: the dainty, proudly idiosyncratic ones that are packaged in slender bags and named for European locales. By contrast, the bigger, more generic varieties—the round and chunky cookies that come in the squat bags and are named after American vacation spots, like Nantucket and Maui—are more straightforward in terms of their appeal: A cookie-lover who’s into oatmeal raisin is definitely going to like Santa Cruz, and that’s pretty much all there is to say about that. On the other hand, a person who loves Montieris—the mellow, dense fruit tarts dusted with powdered sugar and built like tiny little pies—is going to have to dig a bit deeper in order to explain his preference.
When I began my investigation, I was hoping to learn that Pepperidge Farm targets particular demographics with each cookie—that there are Verona people, Geneva people, and so on. But though there is a five-question, multiple-choice quiz on the official PF website that helps customers decide which cookie they’re in the mood to eat (when I described myself as being into skydiving, alternative rock, Italian leather boots, and traditional Ethiopian cuisine, I was informed I should try a Sausalito) it would seem that PF does not actually possess such granular data on the people who love their cookies. At least none they were willing to share: When I asked Konstanty to describe the different taste profiles of his customers, he answered in disappointingly broad strokes.
“People either love chocolate or they love non-chocolate,” he said. “Generally we find that slightly older consumers tend to prefer the non-chocolate options.”
But Konstanty did deliver one surprise: It turns out that most of Pepperidge Farm’s customers are women, and more specifically, moms.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer at the Boston Globe Ideas section.