Rick Nichols: The 25 million-dollar baby carrot

Posted: September 23, 2010

The baby carrot had its day. By the end of the '90s, little more than a decade after it was invented (it's a "baby-cut carrot," whittled from an adult), it was credited for jumping carrot consumption a hefty 33 percent.

In a world ruled by fries and chips, it was the carrot that roared: It was the healthful snack, and portable to boot.

But that was then. At 25, even a baby carrot slows down. Sales have tapered off. Which explains the pocket-size packet that showed up in the office the other day, inscribed with fightin' words: "Eat 'em like junk food."

The contents, still the same stubby babies, have been repositioned ("the ultimate extreme snack") and redefined ("crunchier than chips, orange-ier than cheese puffs"), looking to steal the opposition's thunder, perform a little marketplace jujitsu.

So the curtain rises on the latest skirmish in the unequal battle of raw produce for shelf space - and, let's face it, a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t - here in Fast Food Nation. (Can we defer the discussion of food-miles and packaging waste to a later date, please?)

The carrots previewed recently in Cincinnati and Syracuse, where high school students are said to be snapping them up from vending machines at 50 cents a pop.

But in a week or two, Bolthouse Farms, the Bakersfield, Calif., grower, plans to have them in Philadelphia markets - three-ounce packs of scary, Halloween-themed "Scarrots," priced ounce-for-ounce roughly the same as Halloween candy.

Not a peep about healthfulness. No big deal about convenience. Bolthouse and a consortium of smaller carrot growers are selling, this time around, the awesomeness of crunch.

And they're putting their money where your mouth is. From a current advertising budget that one industry insider describes as "nothing," the "Bunch of Carrot Farmers" are assembling a $25 million-a-year war chest, the minimum to even pretend to compete against junk-food snacks that outspend veggies roughly 100 to 1.

One can lament, and I do, the passing of a time when the all-American carrot didn't need reshaping and repackaging. (Just peel and serve! And save about $1 a pound.)

One can mourn the moment when claims of "superfruit" (dried cherries) and "high in antioxidants" (pomegranate juice) lost their thrill. (Too overexposed!)

One can even regret the fruit-and-veggie world's internecine backstabbing: "Ounce for ounce, bite for bite, better than apples," reads the label on Sunsweet pitted prunes.

But time moves on: When Crunch Pak, the Washington processor of presliced apples, started 10 years ago, the marketability of pouches of sliced apples seemed as far-fetched as, well, baby carrots or bagged lettuce once did.

Now, says Tony Freytag, the company's marketing director, schoolkids who once tossed whole apples away in the cafeteria scarf down the bagged slices: Crunch Pak has grown 50-fold in the last 10 years.

At Disney World (and Land), a major client, Mickey Meals (of hot dogs, hamburgers, and grilled cheese) that once came with sides of fries now come with sides of sliced apples, grapes, or baby carrots. (You can still get fries, but you have to ask, and they cost extra.)

"That's a mind-shift," Freytag says: "We are the new junk food."

Which, all things considered is not a bad shift.

As long as kids don't forget that apples grow on trees.

Or never experience the fresh, sweet snap of a just-yanked carrot - of the grown-up persuasion.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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