Press Herald Online

Wednesday, February 5, 1997

Crown Pilot back from depths of downsizing

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By Tess Nacelewicz
Staff Writer
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
The Crown Pilot cracker is back.

Responding to pressure from loyal customers, the Nabisco Biscuit Co. announced Tuesday that it will resume making the traditional cracker that New Englanders eat with chowder and many other ways.

Crown Pilot crackers were discontinued in May along with 300 other products during the corporate restructuring of Nabisco's parent company, Nabisco Inc. The crackers, sold only in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, were a ''niche product'' for the company, selling in relatively small numbers.

''We thought we were discontinuing a cracker,'' said Mark Hosbein, a Nabisco spokesman. ''It was apparent we were interrupting history for many people.''

In announcing the cracker's return, the company said it was simply being responsive to customers who mourned the passing of a 204-year-old tradition.

But a marketing professor in Portland suggested Tuesday that Nabisco had a larger motive to bring the cracker back.

Nancy Artz, an associate professor in marketing at the University of Southern Maine, said she believes the company can use all the publicity generated about the demise of the cracker to bolster its name and perhaps attract new customers.

Bringing back Pilot crackers ''makes the company looks like a warm, friendly, positive company,'' she said.

Nabisco invited about 60 cracker lovers, including a handful of Chebeague Island residents, to Boston's Long Wharf for Tuesday's announcement. There, the company treated them to a chowder-and-cracker lunch and gave them free boxes of crackers.

Then a boat filled with 150 cases of freshly-baked pilot crackers took off on a trip that will end this morning at DiMillo's Floating Restaurant in Portland. About 80 Chebeague Island residents are invited there for another chowder lunch. A special shipment of the crackers will head to Doughty's Island Market on Chebeague.

Before it brought the Crown Pilot back, the company took some heat in a national media campaign launched by Donna Miller Damon of Chebeague Island.

Damon, a free-lance writer and local historian whose roots on the island go back to 1756, ended up taking her fight for the crackers to 5 million viewers on ''CBS Sunday Morning'' last month. Before that she'd written an editorial for the Boston Globe, been written up in The Christian Science Monitor and Yankee Magazine, and been interviewed by National Public Radio.

In her Globe piece, Damon said, ''Companies across corporate America are downsizing, but rarely does a corporate ax obliterate an important element of the culture of an entire region. Nabisco did just that when it stopped production of Crown Pilot crackers, which date back to the days of sailing ships and the settlement of New England.''

Flat, rectangular Pilot crackers are in the hardtack family, an unleavened bread that sailors took to sea. John Pearson, a Massachusetts baker, made the first batch in 1792. In 1898, Pearson's bakery became the National Biscuit Co. - known today as Nabisco.

In recent times, the cracker, whose suggested price is $2.89 a box, was a small but steady seller, accounting for about $500,000 of Nabisco Inc.'s $8.8 billion in annual sales.

But Artz said large companies ''that target large segments of the population as a corporate philosophy are not going after very small niche markets, even if the product was profitable.''

She said that in this case, the publicity about the cracker may have been tarnishing Nabisco's name.

''Nabisco has its own image with customers. Nabisco has to manage that as well as managing an individual product when they get that kind of national press,'' Artz said.

Nabisco got 3,500 calls and letters about Pilot crackers, from as far away as California and Florida.

Now that the company is bringing them back, Artz said she believes the publicity will work as free advertising.

She said consumers unfamiliar with the crackers are more likely to try them after hearing or reading about other consumers who loved and missed them.

Artz, who had never heard of Pilot crackers before, said, ''I know I'd be interested in tasting them, just to see what they're like.''

Damon said she has no objections to what she called Nabisco's ''media blitz.''

''Everybody wins,'' she said. ''The media wins. It keeps the media employed. I've made money. People are getting back their crackers. Nabisco is getting good publicity. It's economic development.''

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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