In late July, Unilever broke the internet by announcing the discontinuation of one of America’s most iconic treats, the Choco Taco. Frank and Ian were devastated and spent the next 48 hours scouring convenience stores to pile up stock.
Then our energy quickly turned to the miracle story of one man pitching his boss on a new product that would ultimately generate more than 1,000,000,000 units sold. That man is Alan Drazen and he joined us to share his founder’s journey from concept, prototype, first sales, viral marketing, landing Taco Bell, and growing the business over four decades.
Alan Drazen is a dreamer who created something lasting value from scratch. His story will inspire you to reach higher than you thought you were capable of.
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Alan Drazen – The Inventor Of The Choco Taco
We’ve got a big guest. As loyal readers of our show know, Frank and I enjoy eating among many of our favorite hobbies, but it would probably be our number one. We have the inventor of the Choco Taco, which is an all-time favorite snack of mine. Alan Drazen is here. Alan, what’s going on?
Everything is great. How is everything going?
We’re good. We have Alan on here because big news broke on the internet at the end of July 2022. It’s the beloved Choco Taco of 40 years of fame in the country. Klondike came out and said that they were discontinuing the product. It broke the internet. It was the number one trending topic on Twitter. If you look at Google, it broke. It went to 100 out of 100 on Google Trends. I reached out to Frank and said, “This is big news. I can’t believe it’s happening. Do you like Choco Tacos as I do?” In typical Frank fashion, he had a perfect story about Choco Taco.
I buy distressed real estate assets, things if someone died or whatever, and things that have been forgotten about. I was in a pharmacy. They called me up and said, “Do you want to buy this whole pharmacy?” I’m like, “I’ll come to take a look.” I walked in. The guy was like, “We’re closing. Is there anything you want on the shelves? Help yourself.” At the front left, as there are in many instances, there was a cooler full of frozen treats. I pulled out about 10 or 12 frozen items that have been well past their best-by date and brought them home over the weekend. I ate nine Choco Tacos in a 24-hour period.
You’re a good man.
How did the metallic wrap work? Did it keep it nice and fresh? Were they still good?
This was an early iteration of the metallic wrap. We don’t have a ton of time. Let’s get rocking.
Alan, you started your career as a Good Humor truck driver. How long did you do that for? How long were you driving an ice cream truck?
I drove the truck for a couple of summers in school and then I was offered a management position with Good Humor, which is Unilever now. I moved on and worked for them as a manager for a couple of years. I was offered a better position with Jack & Jill Ice Cream also in Philadelphia. I ended up hanging on there for 46 years and doing a lot of fun things, including having invented the Choco Taco and some other great stuff. It was phenomenal.
It’s something I never planned on, like that first day at Good Humor when I got behind the wheel of an ice cream truck. I never thought I would be 50 years in the ice cream business, but it turned out to be a great ride for me. I got to do a lot of fun and interesting things. The taco was the pinnacle of all that. Nobody ever expected it to be anything. It turned out to be probably one of the 4 or 5 most iconic ice cream novelties in history.
Ian and I were born in the middle of the ’70s. In the middle of the ’80s, when we were in elementary school and middle school, there was something mythic about the ice cream truck. I remember I was given $0.50. On Friday, you could go to the ice cream truck. One of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my life was this. On Friday, I had my $0.50.
I was allowed to buy whatever I wanted from the ice cream truck. It was when New Coke was released. I was like, “I’m going to spend my $0.50 on a New Coke instead of getting an ice cream.” I took three steps of it. I’m like, “This was the dumbest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I should be eating an ice cream cone.” Ian and I both have young kids. What makes the ice cream truck so special?
There are a couple of things. First off, it only generally comes around for a short period during the summer months. In the spring, it’s the bearer of good weather. That’s always exciting when you’re coming out of winter and you have some nice weather. The ice cream truck reminds you of the changes in the climate. That’s a piece of it. You’re eating something delicious, cold, and sweet. There’s positive reinforcement in your brain from that.
It’s a combination of a few different things. Hopefully, the other thing that makes the ice cream truck for a long time very unique is that we would have a selection. You talked about going into a drug store. A drug store freezer might have a dozen different ice cream novelties. The ice cream truck would have 40, 50, or 60 choices. The selection of the ice cream truck far exceeded what you could buy in a retail store.
Fast-forward to the modern day. A mom takes a child into the supermarket. There are doors and doors of ice cream and pretty much everything you find, but the ice cream truck still brings a special something to the neighborhoods. It’s not what it was before. That business, like everything else, has changed. Not to get off on a big tangent with it, but with children and adolescents being on devices frequently and sadly not being outside playing as much, the ice cream truck has taken a hit because kids aren’t in the street as much anymore.
Nobody ever thought anything like that would happen, “The ice cream trucks will be around forever. The business would be around forever,” but nobody could foresee what would happen with technology and devices and how intense the passion of children and adolescents would be for those devices that would take them away from being outside, getting exercise, which was important, and then having that experience with the ice cream truck.
Millions of people have ideas for new products or services for their company, but very few bring them to their manager and pitch it and even fewer are listened to as someone with advice. At the time, was Jack & Jill soliciting ideas for new products from employees in the company? Was this something you brought to them?
They were not. It was the end of the ice cream season. It was probably in September. Things were slowing down a little bit. I was doing a little analytical thinking. We never had our unique ice cream at the time. Mexican food was probably the fastest growing segment of the food industry. The taco is the most recognizable shape. It seemed like if you could figure out how to make it, it would be something that would have legs. My boss at the time, Jay Schwartz, had a very good positive attitude about things. I pitched him on it. He said, “It sounds good. Go ahead and run with it.”
We had a manufacturer to work with at a time called Gold Bond Ice Cream, which was acquired by Good Humor after the fact. I went out to them. The reason it was able to work and everything together is that the owner of Gold Bond Ice Cream, besides having the ice cream plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin, also had a manufacturing plant that made sugar cones in the same town. He was able to modify an international drum stick machine that made sugar cones. He used it for his ice cream business and sold it to other companies. He was able to modify that machine to make taco shells, package them up, and ship them across town to the ice cream plant, where he engineered equipment to tell them.
For someone reading this, go right to your manager and pitch an idea. Go spend the money prototyping. Was it that fast first shot? You said, “I’ve got an idea.” Did you have some crude drawings you had drawn up? Did you say, “Let’s make an ice cream taco,” and he’s like, “Get your ass to Wisconsin?” That’s brilliant. How long did it take for you to get him to do this?
It was pretty much like the latter. I pitched him on it. I was probably on a plane to Green Bay the following week. We tipped them off why I was coming. They had a couple of their guys from the manufacturing facility go to the cone plant, take some sugar cones off before they were twisted into a cone while they were still hot, shaped them into taco shells, and brought them over to show me.
We were off to the races. We didn’t have a huge investment. Most of the investment was on the side. We are messing with this on a trademark and a patent. Most of it was on the manufacturer that made the equipment at the ice cream plant and the cone plants to make the sugar cone shells into a taco. Very carefully in foam packaging, they ship them across town because what gives a sugar cone its rigidity is that spiral shape. That gives it some strengths so you can stack them and ship them.
For taco shells, it’s not so much. Until you put something in, it’s fragile. They were able to do a lot of work and ship the shells. They still had a lot of breakage in the beginning, but through time, we got a refined process. They were able to ship the shelves across town and engineered some equipment so they could put them in a line and fill them with ice cream. It was amazing.
How long did that prototyping process go? How many different prototypes did you go through? They kept breaking or couldn’t stay crispy.Anybody can go out and make an ice cream taco, but nobody can make a Choco Taco. Click To Tweet
It was more of the equipment and the technology to make it. I know that in terms of the equipment, the machine that Unilever stopped using was, in my recollection, the fifth iteration of the machine. Frankly, it was amazing. The packaging was robotic. It was incredible.
Jack & Jill spent some good money on tooling and equipment before you even tested it.
Gold Bond Ice Cream did. This was in a day and time when people did things a little differently than they do now. If somebody had a good idea and they would run with it, they weren’t putting a pencil to paper and doing all the numbers and how much it’s going to cause. They said, “It’s a great idea. Let’s get the in-house engineers working on building out some equipment for this.” It’s honestly a miracle that everything happened. It fell in place the way it did. It turned out to be a big deal.
It feels like a series of miracles. Ian is working for a car alarm company. They’re building a product. It’s a tech startup in the 21st century. There are so many false starts and all these different things. What it sounds like is you had an idea. You’re on a plane. It’s like, “We’ve got to figure out packaging and the shell.” Were there many iterations of what went into the ice cream itself or the product? Did you nail that on the first run?
At the time, I was a big fan of vanilla fudge ice cream. I felt like when you’re eating something like the taco and you’re biting into it with vanilla fudge, you’re going to get the ice cream, the chocolate fudge on the outside of the shell, the peanuts, and the shell with every bite. That was my first concept. That was what we ended up. That ended up being the one that had the most legs over time. During the entire run of the taco, we made a strawberry. We made a chocolate and peanut butter exclusive for Walmart, which they don’t make anymore. We did it. We had a toffee, which was phenomenal. We had a mint.
The reason that none of those other flavors stuck was a couple of things. At one point, they had two machines but towards the end only had one huge machine to make the product. To shut down the machine when it was running at capacity pretty much 24/7 takes a big cleanup. It takes the machine out of line for hours. It’s very inefficient. It was a little easier when they had two machines, but with one machine, it was difficult to switch over to another flavor.
The other thing is getting space in supermarkets, convenience stores, dollar stores, and drug stores is challenging. To get a second slot, we were never able to get great penetration for the second flavor. Toffee was probably the best. It had a good following and got a lot of your customer love when we discontinued it. I’m ashamed to say this, but for efficiency purposes, we were never able to make a second flavor consistently.
You have a product. How do you start proving that there’s a market for it? Where were your first sales coming from? You’re also the sales and marketing guy. You’re not just R&D.
My background was ice cream trucks. We’re involved in an ice cream association, The International Association of Ice Cream Distributors & Vendors. I’ve been the President for four years of that association but not currently. I have friends all over the country that I’ve met through that trade association. They’re in the mobile vending business. I went to all my friends and said, “We’re coming out with his ice cream taco. You’re going to have to carry it.”
When you have friends and they’re good friends, it made sense, especially in California, which was an incredible market for us. All my friends started selling it on ice cream trucks around the country. It took off like crazy. It was a natural evolution to go from that into convenience stores and what we would call single-unit sales opportunities in Korean stores, drug stores, dollar stores, gas stations, and all those types of venues.
From there, it got big. The next evolution from that would be to go into supermarkets, which is a big step. Over time, the Gold Bond company was purchased by Unilever or Good Humor. Good Humor at that time had 30,000 freezers around the country in gas stations, drug stores, and places like that. When Unilever bought Gold Bond, the Choco Taco went into those 30,000 freezers. That 30,000 is about 120,000 freezers. Right away, that’s huge.
From there, you expand into other channels. Supermarkets are a very big channel once we got into that. Probably our biggest market overall was the West Coast. California was huge as Arizona and Texas, not because they’re warmer. The taco rang a special note with them because they were also closer to Mexico. Maybe the taco hit home a little bit more. Those were our stronger markets in the beginning.
Here’s one of the things I’m curious about. Relationships matter. I pulled up my phone. I can track everything on my phone in Salesforce. I’ve got a 50-person company. You can tell if something’s working or not nowadays with the metrics. It was probably a gut feeling. I’m curious about when did you know the moment was right to take it from the ice cream trucks to the taco stores? The famous story we both found on the internet is that you took it to Taco Bell. That is an incredible sales story. Ian and I were both like, “We’ve got to talk to this guy. This is incredible.” I want to know when you knew, who you pitched, and what that whole process was like.
That is an amazing story. At the time, Taco Bell was owned by Pepsi Co. They still are. The only thing you will find in their drinks is Pepsi products. I reached out to Taco Bell. They’re a huge company. It’s hard to penetrate. To this day, it sold very few branded products in its stores. Everything is Taco Bell brands or Pepsi. They gave me the cold shoulder.
I did a little more research and found that about half of their stores were independent franchisees. Unfortunately, I have a network of distributors around the country that could figure out a way to get into that. Taco Bell and its franchisees evolved into rebels. They don’t want to be company people. Taco Bell had an annual convention for all their company and independent franchisees, but the franchisees decided they wanted to splinter off and have their trade show. Fortunately, it was fortuitous.
I found out about that and was able to contact franchisees and say, “I would like to take a booth out of your trade show.” They were happy to have me. They said, “We don’t know if we can sell it but bring it in.” We brought it in and took a booth at their show. The franchisees loved it. The company that was against it probably loved it more because they’re rebels.
What we have started doing is going into what I would call the back door. I had a lot of friends around the country. We made a point of sale material for the independent franchisees, shipped it out to them, and supplied them with freezers for their stores. My friends around the country started supplying them with products. It started taking off. It got to be a big deal. I got a call one day from a big shot at Pepsi.
He said, “I know you’ve been going in through the back door. The products are killing it. We want you to stop going through the back door. We’re going to take it to the front door. We’re going to go into all the Taco Bell stores that have enough space. Some of them were smaller stores in malls and stuff, but in any store that’s big enough, we’re going to put a freezer. We’re taking it to all the stores.” That was a game-changer. It became 20% of our volume. It was a huge deal. It was all because a lot of those pieces fell into place. I found out that they had a franchisee network. I was able to penetrate that. That caught fire with them. It was forced into the back door through Taco Bell.
When you started selling at Taco Bell for that phone call from the big wig at Pepsi, how long was the period between you starting to sell with the first non-franchise to you getting a call from Pepsi? Was it weeks, months, or years?
It was between six months and a year.
The trajectory is incredible.
It took a little time from when you sell the first store, start building that distribution network and get equipment for them and point of sale materials. Fortunately, by the nature of franchisees, it was a recipe for success for everything that I put together.
There’s such a lesson in business-to-business sales in general. A lot of new salespeople think, “I’m going to try to go to the executive suite as fast as I can. The higher the level person I can talk to, the bigger the order I can get.” It almost never works that way because typical senior executives are risk-averse. They’re not going to do anything unless their team tells them they should.
You went right to the end users, which are the franchise folks. You say back door, but it’s almost like you went right to the front door of the people that needed to make more money and grow their profits. They were all bragging so much about the money they were making that this executive had no choice but to call you back. It’s fascinating. I love it.It's incredible what you can do when you believe in something. It can drive you like never before and make you uber-focused on your mission. Click To Tweet
A multitude of these little subplots added up to the product being such a success.
It’s hustle. You can make one call to the CFO and I hope you get in. That’s easy, or you can talk to hundreds of franchisees and go out and get your product out there. Did you get involved on the intellectual property front? There wasn’t anything like this out there and all these trucks. Did you have to go protect this product, so people didn’t start copying it right away? I’m sure hundreds of copies tried.
What we did is we hired a trademark and patent attorney from the big biggest firm in Philadelphia. They did what they did. We were fortunate. We were successful in locking up a trademark on the name and a patent on the shape. The patent is considered a design patent. It lasts for fourteen years from the issue with between 2 and 3 years issues. We’ve got seventeen years on the design patent. After that, anybody can go out and make an ice cream taco but nobody can make a Choco Taco.
I’m going to go back to something Frank asked. Was there a day of sales, a call, or a moment where you thought, “This is a hit?” You started with your friends, that started putting it in their trucks. It was starting to catch fire. As a startup owner, you’re always second-guessing yourself, “What am I doing? Is anyone going to like this?” Was there a day when you were like, “This is going to be big?”
I’ll tell you what that day was like. I would get a monthly sales report from Gold Bond originally when Unilever took it over. There was a company that I did not know at the time, but since I’ve become very good friends. It was called Wonder Ice Cream in Santa Clara, California. They were a Unilever customer. I’m looking at my sales report. At our company, Jack & Jill, we were always selling the most of anybody.
At that point, I looked at it. That year, we had bought $300,000 of the product. We buy it like everybody else. I looked at this Wonder Ice Cream. They had bought $600,000. I’m like, “What the hell is that?” If you have an a-ha moment, that is it. We had everybody pushing it. It was our product. I’ve got somebody in California I don’t even know that’s buying twice as much as us. That’s when you get the signal that this is a winner.
I want to pivot into something slightly different. Much of this feels like a startup journey, as Ian and I have talked about. We both understand this incredibly well. We’re also big readers of the Wall Street Journal. That’s where we saw the story break. I was like, “This is happening.” In this environment, the pandemic happens. Everybody was entrenched. Nobody wanted to quit their jobs. Since then, there has been the Big Resignation.
If you look at things like statistics, there are twice as many jobs available as there are people to fill them. Everybody has an Etsy account. They’re selling scented candles. They think, “This is my way of not having to work for the man. I can sell this stuff.” We both worked at big corporations on the left. Did you ever think, “What if I would do this on my own? What if I didn’t have the support? Should I try it?” Is there anything along those lines?
I’ve been asked that question a million times. There are tons of opportunities like that for people to go out on their own. In my case, I was treated fairly by the company. I shared in the revenue stream. I needed all those connections and all the resources that I had from working there. The question usually asked to me is, “Why didn’t you come up with another one and do that on your own?” It’s a similar story. I could probably do it because they’re saying, “You’re not going to make it.” I could do another Choco Taco, but anybody could make an ice cream taco. I do have the resources. I can’t go into too much detail, but I can tell you that there might be a little something in the works. There’s more to come.
If you have testers, we would love to be testers. We’ve got lots of fat friends.
We will buy volume bulk too. We’re happy with that.
In the near future, there may be a press conference in Philadelphia. There will be a party. I will certainly make sure and let you know about it. If one or both of you can come down, I would love that. You will have a ball.
We will 100% do that. It’s a fascinating story. Your company supported you. You had an idea. They didn’t look down on you. They gave you a chance. Why would you have gone out on your own? You put every one of your big company’s resources to bear. You used the patent attorneys, their contract manufacturers, and their network distribution. There’s so much you put.
If you said, “I quit. I’m going to start the Choco Taco,” I don’t think there is a Choco Taco because you wouldn’t have had all of that network to lean on, which you needed to catch fire quickly. What has it been like to see the outpouring of support after the news came out with Unilever and so many people supporting it?
It has been beyond anybody’s wildest expectations. It’s very rewarding for me. I do hope the Choco Taco does come back. I do have serious doubts about whether it will, but I hope that it does. It has only been the past few years that the internet and social media have provided a platform for a public response like this, but there has never been any type of public outcrying and showing of love for a product in the ice cream channel. I’ve never seen anything like this.
It was the number one or one of the top things on Twitter that day. It was in the top ten in Yahoo and Google Search. It was incredible. Honestly, I’ll randomly walk up to people to see their reactions. I’ll say, “Did you hear anything about that Choco Taco being discontinued?” I have not met one person that didn’t say, “I heard about that. That’s crazy.” It’s unbelievable.
Out of the whole 40 years of the Choco Taco, what’s your coolest celebrity story? Being the inventor of the Choco Taco got you to meet someone or a moment where you’re like, “This is pretty cool.”
There has been a fair amount, but we have a sports radio station in Philly, 94WIP. Probably the thing I’ve had the most fun with is them having me on for their whole show a bunch of times, sitting in, wearing a pair of headphones, and being part of the number one sports radio show in Philadelphia and probably one of the top ones in the country. That was pretty amazing. There are others. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.
Our biggest celebrity moment so far in this show has been having you on, Alan Drazen. Your story is fascinating. I’m so inspired by the whole story. It’s incredible.
I want to ask you a question. I’ve been in business for years. I tell myself a story of how I’ve always been an entrepreneur. When I think about it, I was winning sales contests when I was seven years old. That’s in me. Can you look back at your history? Was this in you? Was this outside of the norm for you? Was this a chance? What was it?
Honestly, at the beginning of this journey, I was an introverted guy. Somewhere along the line, this lit something up in me and turned me into the opposite. When you believe in something and take it inside, it’s incredible what it does. It made me driven. I wasn’t driven before. It made me uber-focused on the mission. I was a relatively young guy then, but it changed who I was and still continues to do that. I’m happy to come back on after that press conference. I’ll try and give you the first shot at it. We can talk about what’s going to happen going forward.
We would love that. I trace all this back to that one manager who believed in you. That story you told is pretty cool. You remember his name. He gave you a shot. It brought something out in you that you didn’t even know you had.
It’s amazing stuff.
If you find the right job, you never work a day in your life. With the smile on your face, it does seem like you have. We thank you for your time.
Have a good time in Panama, Alan. Thanks for coming out. We would love to have you back on. That would be fascinating.
I’ll be back. The message will be awesome. We will have a great time.
Thank you, Alan.
It’s great to meet you. Thanks.
It’s the same here. Thanks.
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