Current Weather
The Spy FM

Trader Joe’s Caught In Sticky Lawsuit Over Peanut Butter Pretzels

Filed by KOSU News in Business.
February 21, 2014

Among the many snacks you can find in the aisles of Trader Joe’s is an icon of sweet and salty goodness: the peanut butter pretzel. It’s a combination so tasty, famed food writer Ruth Reichl once raved, “You haven’t lived until you’ve tried the two together.”

But the beloved treats aren’t just treasures for the palate — they’re also a pretty lucrative business worth millions of dollars. And now, Trader Joe’s is being sued for allegedly cornering the market on the snack.

The plaintiff is Maxim Marketing, a Southern California company that claims to have invented the peanut butter pretzel in the early 1980s. And for more than 25 years, Maxim claims, it supplied the grocery chain with the snack, which is sold under the private Trader Joe’s label. But now, Maxim says the retailer has switched suppliers to packaged food giant ConAgra Foods, unfairly cutting it out of the business it pioneered. So Maxim is now suing both companies, explains journalist Alfred Lee, who wrote about the lawsuit for the Los Angeles Business Journal.

“They’re suing for alleged breach of contract and also alleging the existence of a peanut butter pretzel monopoly,” Lee tells Morning Edition host David Greene. “I realize that sounds kind of funny, but this isn’t some bite-sized niche, if you will. It’s a market worth tens of millions of dollars.”

Maxim claims it sold Trader’s $9 million worth of peanut butter pretzels each year, and the grocer, in turn, sold the snacks at a gross markup of roughly 35 percent.

“Maxim is a middle man that doesn’t own its own factories,” Lee explains, “and ConAgra has bought up most of the peanut butter pretzel manufacturing capability in the United States. And Maxim is saying that this deal prevents them from essentially doing business.”

Trader Joe’s, which is privately held, is famously tight-lipped. It does not disclose its suppliers, and it has not commented publicly on the lawsuit nor responded to it in court.

Of course, Trader Joe’s has the right to use any supplier it wants. And one way the company has traditionally cut costs is by bypassing the middle man and going straight to the manufacturer when it comes to creating its own private-label foods. So, really, it’s up to the court to decide whether any contract was indeed breached, and whether the deal between Trader’s and ConAgra really does crumble competition in the pretzel marketplace.

One of the lawsuit’s most surprising revelations? Turns out, the peanut butter pretzel is a marvel of food manufacturing. The technology to make a hard pretzel shell stuffed with peanut butter didn’t even exist until the 1980s, Lee says. It’s a process called co-extrusion – basically, an outer tube pumps out pretzel dough, while an inner tube pumps out peanut butter filling onto a conveyor belt. The whole thing is then sliced up and baked in a giant 100-foot oven.

“It turns out that getting the mix right and the proportions right was pretty tricky,” Lee says. “If there is too much water in the pretzel or the shell is too thin, the things will explode. And imagine having to clean a 100-foot oven full of peanut butter.” [Copyright 2014 NPR]

Leave a Reply

5PM to 7PM A Prairie Home Companion

A Prairie Home Companion

Live every Saturday night, A Prairie Home Companion features comedy sketches, music and Garrison Keillor's signature monologue, "The News from Lake Wobegon."

Listen Live Now!

7PM to 8PM Folk Salad

Folk Salad

Folk Salad Hosts Richard Higgs and Scott Aycock play an eclectic mix of Folk, Singer/songwriter, Americana, Bluegrass, Blues, Red Dirt, and anything else we happen to like that week.

View the program guide!

8PM to 9PM For the Sake of the Song

For the Sake of the Song

Greg Johnson, owner of The Blue Door in Oklahoma City gathers the best Red Dirt musicians in the region for his show.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center