SimplyOz Blog: Aussie Delicacy Vegemite Loses Some of Its Savory AppealNews
Aussie Delicacy Vegemite Loses Some of Its Savory Appeal - Yeasty Spread Is Acquired Taste, but Kids Today Are a Hard Sell; Edgers and Streakers
By RACHEL PANNETT
Vegemite is Australia's best known snack, but maker Kraft Foods has been struggling to get a new generation of Aussies to eat it. Now, some chefs are seeing the strongly flavored spread as a unique gastronomic opportunity. WSJ's Rachel Pannett reports.
SYDNEY—Vegemite, Australia's best-known condiment, is leaving a bad taste in little mouths.
Russell Crowe eats it with tomato. President Barack Obama once described Vegemite as "horrible." Beloved for generations Down Under, it has been derided elsewhere: Formula One race-car driver Mark Webber travels with it in his kit and actor Russell Crowe eats it with tomato. President Barack Obama once described Vegemite as "horrible."
Vegemite's maker is struggling to recruit young Aussies to eat the thick brown salty spread that their parents have always adored.
In a quest for reinvention, Kraft Foods KFT +0.49% —which acquired the Vegemite brand in 1926—has tried blending the stuff with cream cheese to create a concoction briefly known as "iSnack 2.0," and has played with quirky advertising campaigns to enliven the historic stuff.
Now its latest gambit to tone down Vegemite's pungent flavor and win new customers has fallen flat with both the mothers and toddlers it was designed to seduce. A lower-salt, mild version of the vitamin B-rich spread called "My First Vegemite" aimed at infants was recently pulled from supermarket shelves just over a year after its launch because of poor sales.
"I refused to try the kids' version," said Fiona Glaskin, a mother in Canberra who started eating Vegemite as a child. "Part of the appeal of Vegemite is the saltiness."
Kraft dropped the less-pungent My First Vegemite after it didn't sell well.
Introduced in 1923 as a way of using yeast extract that is a byproduct of beer brewing—in the U.S. the castoffs are more likely to become animal feed—Vegemite is as much a part of Australian culture as beer and the barbie. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd regularly described his mood by using an advertising jingle for the product from the 1950s: "I'm a happy little Vegemite." Generations of Australians have spread Vegemite on bread as avidly as Americans spread peanut butter and jelly.
Celebrating Vegemite's acquired taste is a national pastime. In a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign in 2008 by Kraft, Vegemite fans were ranked in a "Vegemite Census" into categories like Slapper—someone who spreads Vegemite thickly on bread as a bricklayer would do with a trowel; Edger—one who is very particular about the Vegemite and likes to spread it right to the edge of the slice; or Streaker—a person who "doesn't like having much on" and prefers just a few light streaks of Vegemite on buttered toast. Such antics have long puzzled non-Australians and it appears they no longer resonate with young people here, either.
"The core Vegemite is loved," said Simon Talbot, Kraft's Melbourne-based director of corporate affairs. "We just need to get more Vegemite to them in a better way, rather than try and reinvent a new product."
At Artamon Public School on Sydney's North Shore, where about half the children are of Asian origin, Vegemite is losing the battle for the young taste buds of increasingly worldly pupils. Kids in the school's cafeteria shun Vegemite sandwiches for new delicacies like "Want Want" rice crackers, Singapore noodles and honey-soy chicken, said mother-of-three Margaret Heppell and volunteer school cafeteria manager, who served 20,000 meals to kids last year. "If you didn't have Vegemite as a child yourself, I can't imagine you would feed it to your own children."
The same story is playing out on supermarket shelves. Although eight out of 10 Australian homes still have a jar of Vegemite in the pantry—smeared thinly it lasts a long time—sales have flat-lined. On average, Australians buy just one jar of Vegemite a year, and sales drop off sharply when children leave home. The new version of Vegemite sold just 350,000 jars in its first year, according to Kraft, compared with about 22 million jars of the standard product, which sells for about $3.20 for a five-ounce jar.
Faced with the similar challenge of selling a uniquely flavored spread to a new generation of consumers, Vegemite's older British rival Marmite, introduced in 1902, has taken the opposite approach. Instead of softening the product's taste and brand image, Marmite's maker, Unilever, UN -0.42% celebrates the difference of opinion. Marmite has found renewed momentum through social media, supporting "love it" and "hate it" pages on Facebook and Twitter.
"Eat Marmite? You'd rather rip the wings off live chickens. You'd rather be naked in public. You'd rather swallow rat's tails and snail shells…. Enough already! We get the picture," the Marmite-supported "Hate Fan Club" website proclaims.
In New Zealand, where a local version of Marmite is more popular than Aussie Vegemite, a crisis dubbed "Marmaggedon" unfolded after the country's only factory closed late last year for nine months to repair damage caused by an earthquake in Christchurch. New Zealand food company Sanitarium asked consumers to restrict their use of Marmite until production resumes in July, and Prime Minister John Key said he had been forced to ration his use of the spread. A jar of the so-called "black gold" sold at a charity online auction for 2,115 New Zealand dollars (US$1,674).
For some people, Vegemite's strong flavor offers a uniquely Australian gastronomic opportunity. Chase Kojima, the San Francisco-born chef at Sydney's Sokyo Restaurant, pairs Moreton Bay bugs—a type of flathead lobster—with burnt butter mayonnaise, passion fruit jelly and Vegemite croutons.
"Being from the U.S., I didn't understand Vegemite at first. After experimenting with it in my cooking, I can now appreciate the flavor," said the 29-year-old chef. "It has similarities with umami flavors, very much like miso in Japanese cooking."
Umami, or "savoriness" has been called one of the five basic tastes along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Like umami, Vegemite's taste is best described as meaty but with a lingering salty coating sensation that makes you smack your lips.
Even if Vegemite sales are stuck in neutral in Australia, Kraft hasn't given up hope of reaching 1.6 million homesick Australians who live overseas. In a high-tech operation, Kraft says it is monitoring social media sites and chat-room discussions where Vegemite is trending to help it find groups of Aussies abroad whom it can supply. It is available in the U.S. at specialty stores and from online retailers. One, www.aussieproducts.com, has in stock 5.5 pound tubs at $124.75.
Vegemite has found some high-level allies in its bid to win over Americans to the spread. At a May 5 open house at the Australian Embassy in Washington, staff served mini-Vegemite sandwiches—white bread diced into "Vege bites"—to about 5,300 visitors. The embassy couldn't say exactly how Australia's offering stacked up to French foie gras or Russian caviar among the 187 embassies and cultural centers taking part in the annual Passport D.C. event. Still, the proof could be in the eating: Trays of sandwiches were returned to the kitchen with nothing left but crumbs.
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