Where have you gone, Cool Ranch Doritos?
Amid pandemic, producers have been forced to trim certain offerings
It was almost impossible to find a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in Canada for two months this spring.
Little Short Stop, a chain of 30 convenience stores in southwestern Ontario, didn’t have them. Neither did the big supermarkets. Nor did #1 Convenience in Calgary: “Nobody has those Cool Ranch Doritos,” owner Vishal Vashisht said earlier this month.
Cool Ranch Doritos’ mysterious disappearance first occurred in late March. But even as panic buying faded through April and empty shelves became more rare in supermarkets, the chips somehow stayed missing.
By May, fans of the flavour had grown restless. They lodged hundreds of complaints as to the whereabouts of Cool Ranch with Pepsico Foods Canada, which manufactures Doritos.
“I’ve been holding this in for weeks, ‘cause it’s not important in the grand scheme of things, but I can’t stand it anymore,” Jody Edwards, a watercolour artist in St. Catharines, Ont., wrote in a tweet to the company on May 4. “Where are all of the Cool Ranch Doritos?”
The answer: nowhere, except perhaps for a few older bags still making their way through the supply chain. But Cool Ranch was out of production, indefinitely — one of dozens, of products temporarily halted in March as manufacturers struggled to keep pace with the ballooning demand for snacks.
What’s clear, though, is that the pandemic has brought about an end to the era of endless choice in consumer goods, at least temporarily.
And, as it turns out, having fewer flavours and package sizes is simpler, cheaper and easier to keep stocked if demand unexpectedly jumps.
The question now is: will retailers and manufacturers ever go back?
In mid-march, as mass restaurant closures squeezed all food sales into grocery stores, Pepsico had to make a tough decision on Doritos. It wouldn’t be to meet the demand for the chips with its production lines operating as normal. The way around that was to make more chips by producing fewer flavours.
Switching a Doritos’ production line from one flavour to another is complicated: It has to be cleaned of all previous seasoning, it needs to be retooled with new seasoning and new packaging, and there are extra cleaning rules if the product involves an allergen such as powdered cheese. The whole process can take four to 18 hours per changeover.
“We’re talking about thousands of pounds per hour,” said Ajay Venugopal, vice-president of supply chain at Pepsico Foods Canada. “Every hour is important.”
As a result, a team of Pepsico executives and analysts had to pick which Doritos flavours stayed in production, as well as for its Tostitos brand.
“We had to make decisions along the way and make them fast,” said Ian Adler, chief marketing officer at Pepsico Foods Canada. “Doritos is definitely one that caused a great deal of discussion, knowing that a fan favourite like Cool Ranch could be in jeopardy.”
Pepsico could only keep three flavours in production and Cool Ranch is not a top seller nationally.
Original Nacho Cheese Doritos is the top flavour in Canada, according to Nielsen data, followed by Sweet Chili Heat and Zesty Cheese. Cool Ranch is fourth, out of eight flavours, so it was cut, along with Bold BBQ, Jalapeno & Cheddar and Spicy Nacho.
It seems like an easy call, but the national ranking doesn’t show how preferences swing wildly from region to region. For example, Cool Ranch is last in Quebec, but has a huge following in Ontario, passing Zesty Cheese for third place.
“It’s a pretty simple business when you really think about it, but it’s wildly complex,” Adler said. “We knew that we would hear from consumers.”
They did. Pepsico received about 400 inquires by phone, email and social media in the two months after Cool Ranch dropped out of production in late March.
“Half of them are from Ontario,” Adler said.
Most big food manufacturers are facing similar tough choices.
At Kraft-heinz Co.’s production plant in Montreal, lines are still running 24 hours a day to produce certain shelf-stable products that have had sales gains of between 50 and 80 per cent compared to last year, including Kraft Dinner and peanut butter.
But the Kraft Dinner line has been cut to just eight flavours and package sizes, from a total of 16. The line is devoted to only turning out original KD, and extra creamy, at a pace of 400 boxes a minute. The Sharp Cheddar flavour is out of production, as is Cheese and Tomato, and the versions with alphabet pasta or spiral pasta instead of macaroni.
On the peanut butter side, Kraft was making Smooth, as well as All Natural, Crunchy and Smooth Light. Among those cut were Extra Creamy, Extra Roasted, Whipped, and Unsweetened Unsalted.
Kraft made those decisions based on a consumer insights concept known as “substitutability,” said Peter Hall, senior vice-president of sales at Kraft-heinz Canada. Substitutability is about predicting what consumers will do if a product is missing from a shelf.
Hall said they will usually do one of three things: in scenario A, customers don’t buy the product at all, or buy it from a competitor; in scenario B, they leave the store and look for the product somewhere else; in scenario C, they substitute another type of the product within the same brand.
In picking what product flavours to hold back, Kraft wanted “C” to happen. For example, in the case of Kraft Extra Creamy peanut butter, customers are likely to settle for Smooth.
“They’re saying, ‘OK, I might not have the absolute one I love,” Hall said. “I might not have Extra Creamy, but I’ve still got Smooth and I’ve got enough Smooth for me to do everything I want to do. I can have Smooth four times a day every day and I’m fine. I can go out and buy one every week.”
As Kraft-heinz gradually reintroduces some flavours into production in the coming weeks, Hall said it will start with the products that don’t have easy substitutes.
But with demand in some categories still well above normal levels, the industry is likely months away from a return to normal, if it ever does, according to Food and Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC), the largest industry association of manufacturers of food, beverages and consumer goods sold in Canadian grocery stores.
Cool Ranch Doritos are out of production, one of dozens, of products temporarily halted in March as manufacturers struggled to keep pace with the demand for snacks.