Nearly a decade ago, I ate the perfect chip: a Dorito designed to taste like a cheeseburger.
The flavor printed on the bag in the bright font of neon signage was “Late Night, All Nighter, Cheeseburger,” as if the Doritos brand couldn’t decide if the diner burger you were supposed to be eating in chip form was a meal appropriate for 10 p.m. or 3 a.m. The chip was dusted in a slightly spicy, nutty cheese blend that gave way to a smokier, somewhat beefier flavor. As I munched, letting the dust of fake spices settle on my tongue, another extremely distinct taste wiggled into the whole experience: a bright, sour pickle, as clear as if I had eaten one out of a jar. Later I learned that the chip’s flavor was due to a mixture of beef stock, mustard seed, and onion powder (though none of that explains the phantom ghost pickle residue).
It was 2011, and just as soon as I was standing in my childhood home lazily eating Late Night, All Nighter Cheeseburger Doritos, an impulse purchase from a recent suburban grocery haul, they seemed to disappear. The Frankenstein’d chips were discontinued sometime in the 2010s, a relic of a one-off experiment from Frito-Lay, and my sporadic Googling to acquire more bags in the past decade always turned up cold. (Doritos, FritoLay, and a number of people from the brand’s research and development teams did not respond to my pestering emails asking them to enlighten me on how new Doritos flavors get designed and retired.) But the cheeseburger chips, enthusiastically reviewed by early snack bloggers, attracted a cult fan base, united not just in their push to bring the chips back but also in their current misery.
There are Facebook pages calling on the company to Bring Back Cheeseburger Doritos, and at one point there was even a Change.org petition. “My roommate rolls her eyes every time someone offers me Doritos because I’ve boycotted them ever since they got rid of the cheeseburger flavor,” one commenter wrote on Facebook. “Please bring them back. I can’t do another decade without them,” another pleaded. “If they have braught [sic] back Crystal Pepsi, why not this?” read the now-shuttered Change.org petition, which racked up a measly 132 supporters. In an era when big corporations are so eager to drum up brand loyalty that they’ll actually pretend to be individuals on social media, people have seized on that reality to lobby for the most frivolous requests, knowing that if they make enough noise on social media, a brand will have to take notice.
In 2016 Crystal Pepsi, the clear version of the namesake drink that debuted in the 1990s, returned to the market for a limited time, and then again for a limited promotion in 2017, largely due to an aggressive online campaign that rallied around its return. A Change.org petition accumulated over 38,000 signatures; there was a hashtag spam campaign on Pepsi social media posts and even a series of billboards asking for the drink back around Los Angeles, all spearheaded by Youtuber and competitive eater Kevin Strahle. “We all have a passion, and we just want to see Crystal Pepsi come back and share the joy, that’s all,” he told ABC News at the time. Pepsi relented.
Nostalgia for discontinued and niche snacks has led to a burgeoning online re-selling market, where people pining for old Dunkaroos or their favorite, long-lost cereal from their childhood can buy them (usually expired) from a variety of specialty sites. But some aren’t content to scour Ebay and, if they’re lucky, grab a few bags of their retired snack of choice. Some hold out hope their chosen snack food will be revived, manufactured for the masses and back on the shelves if even for a moment.
On Facebook, there are campaigns crying for the return of the twisted chocolate Cadbury Spira bar (which has over 34,000 likes), Keebler Pizzaria chips (over 6,000 likes), and Carnation Breakfast bars (over 9,000 likes). There are campaigns for everything from grape Swedish fish (alluring) to a Subway seafood sandwich (terrifying). Some pages, even with their minuscule “like” counts, still update regularly, while others appear to have jumped ship, the dream of rallying enough support to win back this one, weird, long-forgotten food item dead on arrival. “I mixed a package of imitation crab meat with Hellman’s mayo and Mrs. Dash,” one commenter wrote on the Subway “Seafood Sensation” page a few months ago, an offering to fellow fans looking for a dupe in the absence of the sainted original. “It was absolutely delicious!”
But others actually achieve the dream. In June of this year, representatives for PepsiCo announced they would be bringing back Tasty Toobs, an Australian chip that was discontinued in 2001, then brought back, then discontinued again in 2015. After its departure, a number of Facebook campaigns emerged to bring back the beloved chip, a spiced and puffed, tubular potato chip, including one from News.com.au. One group even referred to the fanbase with terms like “Tooblets” or “Tooberinos.”
“At first when I started it, I thought if we did a page maybe they will see that we’re quite serious about this,” Melissa Gordon, who started the page for “BRING BACK TASTY TOOBS” six years ago, tells Jezebel. “And then as the years went on and I had messaged them a few times, they said no, they’re discontinued, they just weren’t popular enough. I kind of got a bit disheartened and thought well, this isn’t going to happen. I didn’t think we’d get them, but I’m quite happy we did.”
Since 2011 Richard Axton has run the Facebook page for the “Beefy Crunch Movement,” which has amassed over 69,000 fans advocating for the return of Taco Bell’s Beefy Crunch Burrito, which was discontinued that same year. Initially, he tells Jezebel via Facebook, the page was named “3 Million Fans to Bring Back the Beefy Crunch” (“I had high expectations for growth”) but the steady drip of burrito superfans was enough to convince the chain to briefly bring back the item several times over the past few years, including a promotion in 2016. But despite several collaborations between Axton, the Facebook page, and Taco Bell corporate, Axton says the fandom wants the item on the menu for good.
“I have no doubt that fans would love the BCB if it was permanent,” Axton writes to Jezebel. “I know I would get one in every order. But I can appreciate the impact scarcity can do to hype and demand. Taco Bell is well known for LTOs (Limited Time Offerings) but once every 3+ years is a little [too] scarce at this point.”
While many campaigns to bring back discontinued snacks or food items frame the struggle as a game of consumers against brands, there’s an incentive for companies to take products away and bring them back for a limited time only. Grassroots campaigns hype up specific products, essentially offering free advertising to billion-dollar companies that would no doubt love to obscure other aspects of their brand; recently hundreds of Frito-Lay employees went on strike in Kansas, protesting egregiously inhumane working conditions. And even if campaigns originate from a place of pure enthusiasm, the scarcity model on behalf of companies creates a rush to purchase whenever they are on the menu. Taco Bell executives have expressed their adoration for the Beefy Crunch Movement, even as they dangle the possibility of the burrito becoming a full-time meal item over the fandom’s heads.
“I always get excited when I hear they’re coming back again, and I make it a point to place quite a few orders whenever they’re available, to show BK that there are still fans and it isn’t a waste of money to bring them back,” Kayla Sosebee, who helps run a Facebook page dedicated to Burger King’s Cheesy Tots, tells Jezebel. The chain now brings back the cheese-filled tater tots about once a year, according to Sosebee.
Part of why fast food menu items or niche potato chips might specifically incite such fandom and organizing could be that these are foods impossible to recreate at home. I could never recreate the alien flavors of a cheeseburger-flavored Dorito, and in the absence of tasting one or anything remotely similar for 10 years, I suspect its flavor profile has only grown more intense in my memory. Losing your favorite, rare Cadbury chocolate bar means you probably won’t find a suitable duplicate, unless you’re an expert chocolate maker with industrial equipment and a lot of patience.
But there’s more at work in the disparate discontinued fan communities than blind brand loyalty and unsatisfied taste buds. Many of the pages advocating for the return of snack foods are fueled in part by nostalgia, such as how Australia’s Toobs were a childhood staple for many of the snack’s supporters outraged by their cancellation. Food, whether it’s grandma’s signature brownie recipe or the taste of an elementary school cafeteria meal, uniquely incites nostalgia. “Food is central in the formation of memory because of its qualities,” Fabio Parasecoli, a professor of food studies at New York University, tells Jezebel. “It’s not just the context or who you eat it with, which is very important, but often the smells, the textures also are very strong.”
The strength of the memory of a snack food consumed in childhood can then imbue that food with the memory of childhood altogether, not unlike the flood of memories Marcel Proust experienced when munching on a madeleine. “There is a sense of freedom, there is a sense of pleasure, there is a sense of happiness that somehow, for many different reasons, [people] may feel they are losing,” Parasecoli says. “The fragments that they latched onto are these little pieces of the memory, sometimes invented, of a happy childhood or teenage years.” I did eat those Doritos in the last dredges of my high school experience, after all.
But a meal doesn’t have to be mom’s signature apple pie recipe to incite nostalgia and community, because snack foods and drive-thru staples can possess the same memories of comfort. “I think it’s important to remember that when you’re a child and someone that you love gives you food, whether they cook it from scratch or bought it at the store, that’s an act of care,” Ariana Gunderson, a food researcher and artist exploring food nostalgia, tells Jezebel. “That can make you feel safe, that makes you feel love, that makes you feel like you belong. And so I think it’s really natural that these processed foods would also be a positive memory.”
Whether fueled by the memories associated with these foods or faced with the impossible task of replicating their favorites, fan communities continue to bond and yearn for the return of their snack foods of choice. And while I might not get to eat another cheeseburger-flavored Dorito any time soon, at least I have a digital trail of proof that they were absolutely, extremely, Change.org-petition- inspiring, delicious.