Chicago on the forefront of Cheez-It cracker ingenuity

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By Michelle Locke

Chocolate-covered Cheez-Its, wedding cake Cheez-Its, even a Cheez-It cocktail… They’re all out there. Ditto for Cheez-It jewelry and even Cheez-It tattoos (would that be Cheez-tats?).

There’s a legion of cracker hackers out there and they’re clearly thinking outside the box. If it can be done with a Cheez-It, it probably has been. But why?

As Dick Podiak, senior director of marketing of Cheez-It Crackers, puts it, “We know that people who love Cheez-It crackers tend to be rather fanatical.”

And again, but why?

“I think the reason why I like them so much — why most people like them so much — is they satisfy the things people crave, ” says Eric Huang, who blogs about snacks on his website junkfoodguy.com.

That would be things like salt, cheese and crunchy carbs.

“It’s hard for me not to eat an entire box of Cheez-Its. They hit those pleasure centers so directly,” confesses Huang, an attorney in Washington, D.C., by day.

The snacking trifecta of sweet plus salty plus crunch was an equation Mathew Rice followed when coming up with a wedding cake for Stephanie Izard, winner of season four of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.”

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Rice, pastry chef at Izard’s Girl & the Goat restaurant in Chicago, knew Izard liked the crackers — there’s usually a box of them open in the kitchen for snacking. Inspired by recipes substituting ground graham crackers for flour, he added some ground Cheez-Its in place of part of the flour. Then he layered in more Cheez-Its in the filling along with chocolate ganache.

It was enough of a hit that recently he created some Cheez-It cupcakes, topped with chocolate-covered Cheez-Its, for the restaurant’s Little Goat Diner across the street. “People are a little shocked at first, but we give out samples of the Cheez-Its and once they try it they realize it’s not that weird and they want to have more,” says Rice.

Turns out, Chicago may be a hub of Cheez-It creativity.

A dare by another bartender is credited with inspiring Matty Colston, beverage director for Parachute restaurant, known for its Korean-American cuisine, to come up with a Cheez-It inspired cocktail. Colston tried some of the restaurant’s house-made kimchi (traditional Korean pickled cabbage) on a Cheez-It and found the combination delicious. Then he pureed the two to make a paste for a cocktail that ultimately included gin, kimchi broth and pilsner and was, cleverly, called the Kimcheez-It.

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Snappy and memorable, the Cheez-It name goes back to the early days of the last century; it was first registered to Green & Green Co. in Dayton, Ohio, in 1921. The company has changed hands several times since then and today Cheez-It Crackers are part of Kellogg’s.

Cheez-It is the nation’s best-selling cracker, enjoying 15 years of growth and “much of that growth has coincided with our focus on the real cheese that we use in our crackers,” Podiak said via email. “We spend a lot of time thinking about cheese and talking about cheese.”

Bonus trivia fact: 75 billion Cheez-It crackers are sold each year (counting all flavors), which would make a line to the moon and back. Twice.

Making a giant line of Cheez-Its would be odd, but, then again, Cheez-Its do seem to inspire people to go to great lengths.

“We’ve heard of several of our fans who have Cheez-It tattoos,” says Podiak. “It’s hard to imagine a more extreme sign of dedication.” —AP

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