The Mad Genius Behind The Rebirth Of Hydrox, Astro Pops And Maybe Marshall Field’s

We’ve all felt the sting of losing a beloved brand when a company goes out of business, stops making your favorite candy or gets sold off bit by bit to the highest bidder. But what if you could resurrect those treasured relics of days gone by and bring them back anew? And how would it even be possible?

Here’s where Ellia Kassoff comes in. Inspired simply by childhood memories of his favorite candies, Kassoff found himself wondering why he couldn’t just raise those beloved brands from the dead. Though to be fair, Kassoff’s childhood memories of candy and treats were a bit different than your average kid growing up in the 1970s because his uncle Ed Leaf’s uncles and father happened to be the founders of Leaf Brands, the company behind candies like Jolly Ranchers, PayDay, Whoppers and Heath, among others.

By the time Kassoff was an adult working in the world of executive recruiting, Leaf had been sold off Huhtamaki Oy, a Finnish company, which in turn sold off some of the more famous brands to Hershey in 1996.

And that brings us to the present, or at least the very recent present. Consumerist heard Kassoff had resurrected Leaf and happened upon the announcement that Kassoff was bringing back Hydrox, Tart n Tinys and other beloved but, until recently, dead (or were they just mostly dead?) products.

Combine these resurrected treats with a list of 21 regional department stores Kassoff lists as falling under the ownership of his company, Strategic Marks LLC, we were intrigued. Would things taste the same? Look the same? How could he possibly be able to launch a new Marshall Fields, a new Joseph Magnin, or heck, a new May Company?

A Man With A Mission

“It’s very selfish,” Kassoff tells Consumerist of his reasons for bringing these bands back from the grave. “A lot of these brands are just the brands that I remember. I’m 46 years old, and so I grew up with a lot of these brands… I love that time of my life and the memories that were so important during that period. My dad used to go to the store; we were a kosher family, and all we bought was Hydrox. So ultimately, it was stuff that I wanted to bring back myself.”

Kassoff had particularly fond memories of the Astro Pop, the conical, tricolor lollipop from the early days of the space race, when children everywhere dreamed of rocketing off to the moon. After around 50 years, production of the retro treat ceased in 2004.

“I couldn’t believe it!” says Kassoff about the first time he realized he could no longer buy Astro Pops. “I’m like, ‘This is a part of Americana! What do you mean they don’t make it anymore?'”

While you and I might just throw up our hands and gripe about the death of another beloved brand, Kassoff called Spangler Candy, which had been acquired the Astro Pops brand in 1987, and spoke to the company’s president, who explained that the product just didn’t fit into the Spangler plan anymore. On a whim, Kassoff offered to buy the brand.

“It just popped out of my mouth,” he admits. “I never thought of it, but I couldn’t let it die. I figured somebody’s got to take the torch.”

After a couple of years of back-and-forth talks, that rocket-shaped lollipop was Kassoff’s to do with as he pleased. And the first thing he did was bring back it’s original shape.

At some point in the Astro’s recent history, Spangler had reversed the position of the lollipop’s stick so that the pointy end of the pop was now at the bottom.

“They were worried that for safety reasons people might poke themselves or whatever with it,” says Kassoff. “The pop had been around since 1962, 1963, and there were no real problems with it. There was an occasional idiot riding a skateboard and he was sucking on it and he claimed to have fallen on the pop when he fell off of the skateboard.”

The Resurrection Of Leaf

The rebirth of Leaf is a bit tangled. Back in the ’80s, the candy brand was split into Leaf U.S. and Leaf International, with Hershey getting the former and Finland’s Huhtamäki Oyj getting the latter. However, while Hershey purchased the U.S. rights to Leaf’s products, the actual Leaf Brands name went to Leaf International.

“I started doing research and found out that I didn’t see any Leaf products in the U.S., and if you don’t have Leaf products in the U.S., you can’t use the trademark,” explains Kassoff, who then filed what’s known as a forced-cancellation with the Trademark Office. His argument was simple: Huhtamäki Oyj was not using the name Leaf stateside, so it had ceded its right to the trademark.

To his surprise, the Finns didn’t put up a fight over the Leaf name in the U.S., setting Kassoff on his path toward breathing life into other dormant brands.

What About Hydrox?

Image courtesy of Bluwmongoose

Contrary to popular belief, Hydrox cookies — which Kellogg quietly killed off about a decade ago — were not Oreo knock-offs. Sunshine introduced Hydrox in 1908, four years before Nabisco introduced the Oreo.

And yet, possibly because people weren’t tantalized by Hydrox’s chemical-sounding name (which Kellogg changed, in a last-gasp attempt to save the product, to Droxies), Oreo would go on to dominate the market while Hydrox developed a devoted fan base, including Kassoff, who is now planning to bring the sandwich cookies back to supermarkets this fall.

Much like with the Leaf trademark, Kassoff had to demonstrate that Kellogg had not used the Hydrox trademark in years before he could launch a resurrected version of the cookie.

“You’d be surprised how many companies are hoarding trademarks,” he tell Consumerist. “In other words, to be blunt, they lie to the Trademark Office.”

The big question is whether he’s just bringing back the Hydrox name and hoping to cash in on nostalgia, or if he’s also bringing back the Hydrox recipe so that the cookie’s fan base won’t riot.

“We actually have the exact recipe, and that’s all I can tell you,” says Kassoff coyly. “All I can tell you is that we have people that know how to make a Hydrox, that they might have made it in the past, maybe.”

While Leaf’s Facebook page for Hydrox shows a photo of a plant where the cookies will be made, Kassoff says it’s not like he’s going out and building a factory just to put out one cookie. Instead, just like electronics manufacturers who hand off most of their assembly to third party companies, Leaf depends on contracted companies to do its production.

“We outsource everything,” he explains. “The efficiencies have changed where you’ve got large companies that make specific types of product. I don’t want to be in the capital business. I don’t want to have a bunch of machinery and equipment when there are plenty of companies that can make it for you. You would be surprised by how many products out there are made by other candy companies or other manufactures. I mean, that’s just the way the business is.”

From Sweets To Dead Department Stores

Image courtesy of bluwmongoose

Stepping away from Kassoff’s candy-and-cookie quest, there’s an interesting list on his LinkedIn profile of 21 regional department stores, including some very well-known ones, that no longer exist under their original names.

He wants to bring these back as online stores and to test them out as pop-up stores in the regions where they were once dominant retailers.

“I want to bring back the regional flavor, the regional buyers, the regional feel of these communities,” says Kassoff, “because what they did, is they ripped out the heart of each one of these communities. They lost a lot of money — if you add up the sales, they lost a lot of sales when they went to Macy’s because now Macy’s is just some big ass brand from New York.”

Just like his candy ventures, his retail brand adventure began with research into once-popular trademarks that have not been used by the companies that claim to hold those marks. Every ten years, the companies affirm to the Trademark folks that they are indeed using those marks, but if you can prove that it’s years since the mark was actually used in commerce, it could be up for grabs.

That’s how, Kassoff claims, he got the trademark to Marshall Field’s, the once-beloved Chicago-based department store chain that Macy’s parent company purchased in 2005 and subsequently converted to Macy’s stores.

According to Kassoff, Macy’s Inc. (formerly Federated Department Stores) hasn’t been on the up-and-up with its trademark filings.

“They weren’t using these trademarks,” he claims. “We have proof they weren’t using these trademarks… Macy’s went to the Trademark Office and said, ‘No, no! These are ours! These are ours! We started it! This has our heritage! It’s our heritage!’ And the Trademark Office said, ‘Sorry, but you’re not using it. You haven’t used it in years.'”

Kassoff now lists Marshall Field’s, along with dozens of others, in the portfolio for his business called Strategic Marks.

But Macy’s isn’t letting go that easily; it’s filed a federal lawsuit to keep him from using the trademarks.

He also says that, in the wake of his trademark claims, Macy’s began selling items branded with the logos of Marshall Field’s and other long-dead department stores that the company had acquired over the years.

Consumerist reached out to Macy’s for a chance to comment on claims made by Kassoff during this interview; as of the publishing of this story, we have not heard back.

Plans for these stores to re-enter the consumer world are on hold while the two parties fight over the trademark in court.

Can I Make My Own Resurrected Brands At Home?

Image courtesy of Karen Chappell

“I’m not the first one to do this,” admits Kassoff. “There’s about three to four of us that I know who are doing it. I, for one, think that there’s a real viable business in it because I am coming from a branding and marketing perspective… that’s what I really enjoy.”

But while there might be any number of dormant brands out there waiting to be claimed and brought back to the marketplace, he cautions that it still requires a lot of money to actually get resurrected products on store shelves.

Additionally, just because you apply for a trademark doesn’t mean you’ll get it.

“Anyone can apply for the trademark, but the cost can be very high if some company like Macy’s challenges you,” he explains. “As long as you have an attorney that partners with you, you could really have a nice little business — and the feeling you get of bringing back something that is not just for you, but for tons of other people is awesome.”

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