In the 1920s, Ed Leaf, along with his dad and brother, started Leaf Candy company. They created Whoppers, Jolly Rancher, Payday, Milk Duds, Heath Bar and other well-known confections. But in the 1990s, Leaf was acquired by Hershey.
“It was the fourth largest candy company in the U.S. when Hershey bought them. When Hershey bought them, they just tossed the name away,” said 47-year-old Ellia Kassoff, Ed Leaf’s nephew.
Cut to a few years ago, when Kassoff realized his favorite childhood candy was missing from store shelves. Astro Pops are a tri-color, rocket-ship-shaped lollypop created in 1963 by actual rocket scientists who quit the space program to make the candy.
“I called the company, which was Spangler Candy, and I talked to the president and I said, ‘What happened to Astro Pops?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we felt it wasn’t part of our core marketing mix and we stopped making them.’ So I just kind of threw it out there, I said, ‘Would you sell the rights?’ And he said, ‘yeah!’ I said to myself, ‘I can’t let something like that just die off.'”
But Kassoff wasn’t in the candy business. He had spent 18 years working as an executive headhunter. But the thrill of holding a candy seance and reviving his favorite treat was too tempting to pass up. So he bought the rights to Astro Pop. Which, it turns out, is the easiest part of bringing a product back from the dead.
“With Astro Pops, all the machinery was already sold off as scrap metal years before,” Kassoff said. “So we did get some of the artwork. We did get some of the old advertisements. We did get all the formulas. We got a lot of support from Spangler to help us. It’s a very complex product to make.”
But once the candy was back on the market, the positive response he got from other Astro Pop fans got him hooked, and he set out to see what other products he could bring back to life. Kassoff’s most famous revival has been the Hydrox Cookie.
“It was the original sandwich cookie in 1908, it was invented by Sunshine. And Nabisco, four years later, built Oreo as the knock-off to Hydrox. I don’t believe they really pushed the fact that Oreo was the knock-off,” Kassoff said.
“So you fast forward to the mid-90s, Sunshine was sold to Keebler, Keebler decided, ‘You know what, we don’t like the name Hydrox, it sounds like a chemical.’ Hydrox was a combination of hydrogen and oxygen,” he said. “They wanted to make it a name that evoked clean. Remember, this was 1908, they didn’t really know too much about marketing.”
Keebler changed the name to Droxies and added high fructose corn syrup, which caused devoted customers to stop buying them. In 1999, Hydrox went to cookie heaven. That is, until Kassoff brought the product back using the original recipe. He was raised on Hydrox, the kosher alternative to Oreos, which are made with lard.
“My dad, I kind of surprised him. I took him to the local Gelson’s in Irvine and I didn’t say anything. We were on our way to the movies and I said, ‘Hey, I need to stop off at the supermarket and get something,'” Kassoff said. “He was going to stay in the car, I said, ‘Get out of the car, Dad. I’m going to be a little while.’ He follows me, I walk to the cookie aisle and I go, ‘Oh! what’s that?!’ And there’s Hydrox in the cookie aisle.”
“He’s like, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s there!’ There was an employee who was restocking. [My dad says],’That’s my son’s cookie! That’s Hydrox! Sell lots of it!'” he said.
Under the Leaf brand, Kassoff has bought the rights to, and produced, Wacky Wafers, Bonkers and Tart N Tinys, and he uses his old headhunting skills to track down some of the original candy creators, factory workers, and suppliers to piece together the recipes and proper machinery. Unless the product is exactly like it was before it disappeared from store shelves, it won’t sell.
“We started sending out samples [of Hydrox] to people on our Facebook page. There are certain people who know the actual nuances of the cookie,” Kassoff said. “For example, someone said, ‘I remembered it being a little shinier. What’s going on?’ I wrote back: You know what? You’re absolutely right, we’re working on creating a little more shine to it now. How the heck you can remember that is beyond me. It’s hilarious how these people really know the product better than anyone.”
Kassoff loves hearing from happy customers who are as nostalgic about these candies and cookies as he is.
“To wake up one day, to say to yourself, I own my favorite candy in the world, is a pretty cool feeling,” he said. “All of these old products I bring back, it’s so much fun. I don’t even feel like I’m working. It’s just one of those things.”