Food technologist Bill Post devised a lot of unusual foodstuffs at the Kellogg's plant he supervised in Grand Rapids, Mich., and he also devised a great way of testing all of them. He brought the goods home for his kids to eat. The children didn't care for many of the prototypes, but one of them they liked a great deal. "Bring those fruit scones home, Dad," they said.
In 1964, "fruit scones" was just an in-house name for a flat, rectangular pastry with fruit filling that, following a successful test in the Cleveland market, became what it is today: Pop-Tarts, the 30-second breakfast ejected by your toaster.
And that, said Barb Stuckey, chief innovation officer for food-development firm Mattson, was its marketing mojo. "What Pop-Tarts did was use an appliance that had only been used for sliced bread," she said. "Breakfast pastry had been around forever, but making it convenient was truly unique."
It was also well timed. The novelty of the 1960s turned into the urgency of the '70s and '80s, as moms entered the workforce and a quick, no-fuss breakfast from a box became a daily imperative. Kellogg's doesn't release sales figures for Pop-Tarts, but as recently as 2003, some 2 billion boxes went into American shopping carts.
Pop-Tarts marketing director Aleta Chase said that the product has stayed popular lo these 50+ years because of a steady stream of new flavor introductions (the original four flavors have since morphed into 33, including S'mores and Wild Cherry). Pop-Tarts markets aggressively to adolescents, and the company listens to them, too. "You cannot believe how many of our social media posts are new flavor suggestions," Chase said. A solid teen demo is also why Kellogg's no longer uses Milton, the talking toaster that starred in TV ads in the 1960s and '70s. Milton signifies nostalgia to adult consumers, and "teens will turn away from anything that reminds them of their parents," Chase said.
Stuckey cautions that even teens—like their parents—are starting to eat healthier breakfasts these days, and brands like Pop-Tarts could be in for a tough time in the years ahead if they fail to innovate. Still, she added, the toaster pastries have managed to hold their ground for a reason that actually has little to do with flavor. "The act of toasting a Pop-Tart makes you feel like you're cooking," Stuckey said.
Which raises one last key point: Roughly half the people who eat Pop-Tarts don't toast them at all. That includes Bill Post himself, who is long retired but still samples all of the new flavors—raw, right out of the box. "I eat them cold," Post told a local Michigan paper a few years back, "just the way they are."