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a product that didn’t happen

I work sometimes for a company that brokers supermarket and "club store" food products, the same people about whose oatmeal package I posted last week. Several years ago they had what I still think is a brilliant food product idea: a frozen macaroni and cheese to be made with Vermont’s Cabot cheddar cheese and marketed, under license from Cabot, with the Cabot name. This prospective product would contain only macaroni, milk, real cheese, buttermilk, water, and butter, with a little guar gum and sodium phosphate. Not bad, ingredient wise, compared to the competition, with its chemical phantasmagoria of preservatives, flourescent orange coloring, and other additives. It would taste far better, too—and I can attest to this, because I actually ate some pre-production samples. Almost homemade.

The cheese would come from Cabot, but the product would be manufactured elsewhere. My client found a manufacturer with the capacity to meet the projected demand, and worked with them and consultants over a period of many months to refine the recipe, while my friend Anthony and I worked on the packaging. We developed a look that drew liberally on Cabot's own labels (which we did not design), but was a little slicker, more attuned to the mass market. We commissioned photographs, shooting the product with varying amounts of oven browning. With the client, we wrote copy, refined cooking directions, sweated over every detail of the packages, and assembled designs for three sizes, bringing them to the very brink of sending them off to the box manufacturers.

Then the factory burned down—the only one in the country that was both able and willing to produce the product to our client's specs at a cost that worked.

There was a moment of hope when our client located a manufacturer in Canada that could take on the job, but (as I understand it) Cabot was unwilling to have an imported product sold under its name. So the project died, and this category in supermarket freezers everywhere is still dominated by Kraft and Stouffer’s. Yuck.

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