America’s ice-cream lovers suffered a blow this week when Unilever confirmed rumors that it was discontinuing its Klondike Choco Taco bar, a favorite on treat trucks and in supermarket freezer cases for nearly 40 years. But the Choco Taco is only the latest in a long string of casualties over the past two years as large food corporations have adjusted to inflation and supply shortages by adjusting their product lines.
“We’ve experienced an unprecedented spike in demand across our portfolio and have had to make very tough decisions to ensure availability of our full portfolio nationwide,” the Klondike Twitter account wrote on Monday.
The Choco Taco, a vanilla ice-cream core topped with peanuts and crispy chocolate and wrapped in a sugar cone-like shell, was especially beloved by connoisseurs for the way it was possible to get all the elements in one bite instead of piecemeal, as with the Good Humor Drumstick.
Some Twitter mourners admitted that they had not had a Choco Taco since childhood, but the pain was real. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut announced that he was “introducing legislation to invoke the Defense Production Act to mandate the continued manufacture of Choco Tacos”. Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit, offered to buy the rights to the Choco Taco from Unilever “and keep it from melting away from future generations’ childhoods”.
The ice-cream portfolio of London-based Unilever is vast: it also includes Ben & Jerry’s, Magnum, Good Humor, Breyer’s and Talenti – as well as Popsicle. Coca-Cola, which has a similarly large beverage portfolio, justified its 2020 discontinuation of Tab diet soda and Odwalla juices by explaining that those products were not performing well. “The objective is to drive impact and growth,” Cath Coetzer, the company’s global head of innovation and marketing operations, said at the time. “It’s about continuing to follow the consumer and being very intentional in deciding which of our brands are most deserving of our investments and resources, and also taking the tough but important steps to identify those products that are losing relevance and therefore should exit the portfolio.”
Similarly, many restaurant chains streamlined their menus during the pandemic, including Denny’s, Applebee’s, Ihop, McDonald’s and Taco Bell, in order to maintain profit margins in the face of rising supply and labor costs.
A spokeswoman for Klondike noted in an email that there had been a steady churn of products in the company lineup: last year, the Klondike Donut was taken off store shelves with little fanfare and eventually replaced by a new line of shakes and cones. The Klondike Donut, however, didn’t have the celebrated status of the Choco Taco, which had, according to a 2016 history in Eater, inspired several unlikely legends about its creation as well as high-end imitations from celebrated chefs including Dominique Ansel, the inventor of the cronut.
Perhaps the closest analog to the Choco Taco is Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza. (Coincidentally, Taco Bell also served the Choco Taco in a limited promotion earlier this year.) A mixture of beef and refried beans sandwiched between two tortillas and served with a topping of melted cheese, the Mexican pizza also enjoyed cult status for more than 30 years, particularly among South Asian Americans and vegetarians who liked that it tasted essentially the same without the beef, but it was one of the first items to disappear during Taco Bell’s menu purge in late 2020: the restaurant claimed in a press release that the Mexican pizza’s packaging accounted for more than 7m lb of paperboard annually in the US, which interfered with the company’s commitment to a smaller ecological footprint. In addition, the Mexican pizza had a more complex assembly process than other Taco Bell items, which put a strain on a smaller labor force.
But after a year and a half of steady petitioning from fans, Taco Bell announced it was bringing back the Mexican pizza this May. (In celebration, Dolly Parton and Doja Cat announced they would be appearing in a TikTok video called Mexican Pizza: The Musical.) The company said it had trained its workers and prepared them for an onslaught of fans, but the demand was overwhelming: in a notice on its website, Taco Bell reported that one store had sold 1,000 Mexican pizzas in a single day, one fan had ordered 180 at once and overall, the demand had been seven times higher than when the item had previously appeared on the menu.
Some conspiracy-minded fans of both the Mexican pizza and the Choco Taco could not help seeing a similarity. Perhaps the discontinuation of the Choco Taco was just a publicity stunt to revive interest in a longstanding food item through engineered scarcity, similar to the shortage of Popeyes chicken sandwiches in the fall of 2019, which only made them more popular.
“My friends, the Choco Taco is 100% gonna come back and they’re gonna say our outrage is why it’s back, just like the Mexican Pizza,” tweeted the TV director Payman Benz. “This is the new thing brands are doing with old favorites that don’t sell like they used to.”
This week, Taco Bell once again conceded defeat and told customers that it was discontinuing the Mexican pizza until supplies could be restocked, possibly in September. There’s nothing like limiting supply to drive up demand.