As best as Bob Drane can remember, it was about two years ago that he first heard from Michael Moss.

Moss is a New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2010. He told Drane he wanted to talk about innovation in the food industry. In the end, when Moss visited Drane at his home in Madison, they talked about lunch.

Drane, 70, spent two decades working for Oscar Mayer, beginning in 1979. Ownership of the venerable Madison meat company changed over those years, as did Drane’s job description. He was primarily a marketing guy, and a good one. But at one point the company added new business strategy and development to his vice president title.

That point — the mid-1980s — coincided with a time of reckoning at Oscar Mayer. Lunch meat sales were down. Cholesterol and the fat content of red meat were slowly entering public consciousness.

Drane’s charge was to “contemporize and broaden our product lines,” he said Tuesday, when we met for a chat.

What happened next — the solution developed by Drane and his team at Oscar Mayer — is a story detailed at length in Michael Moss’ new book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which ranked second on the March 24 New York Times list of best-selling hardcover non-fiction.

The book’s success has led other journalists and outlets to reach out to Drane for his story. In the past few weeks, he has turned down Katie Couric, the BBC and Huffington Post. He did so, he said, because it is not a tale that lends itself to a quick explanation or sound bite.

Moss gave it the time and attention it needed, and despite the book’s somewhat incendiary title, Drane is fine with the result. He feels Moss was even-handed and calls the book “absolutely riveting” and “a fantastic history of that era.”

Drane and his wife, Susie — they’ll celebrate 50 years of marriage in July — still live in Madison. They came from Chicago in 1979, when Bob — who earlier attended UW-Madison — got a job offer from Pat Richter, then running personnel at Oscar Mayer.

It was around 1985 when his bosses asked Drane to figure out their lunch meat problem. He put together a team of a dozen or so colleagues from across the company. They in turn assembled focus groups, mainly women, who revealed they were slowly going crazy making breakfasts, assembling brown bag lunches and getting themselves ready for work.

Drane focused on the lunches. “They said they were a pain to pack and boring to eat,” he recalled. “That became the mantra for our team.”

Their solution — arrived at over the next few years — is now known around the world. Drane and his team invented Lunchables.

The pre-packaged trays of cheese, crackers and Oscar Mayer meats were inspired by TV dinners. From the first focus groups for an early prototype, Drane figured they had a winner.

“Everybody stood up and said, ‘Neat,’” he recalled. “I’d never seen that happen.”

The launch of Lunchables in 1989 was a huge hit — “they flew off the shelves,” Drane said — but Oscar Mayer had trouble early keeping up with demand and with the cost of production. They actually lost money for a time. By 1992, the company had it figured out, leading to spin-off products like pizza Lunchables, which tested terribly with adults and great with kids: “We get to make cold raw pizza!”

Lunchables were, of course, nutritionally suspect. Back then, nobody really cared. The rap the trays received was environmental and involved packaging. Drane said they tried to put fruits and vegetables into the trays, but the required 65-day shelf life prohibited it. A leaner-meat tray didn’t sell.  

Even today, with obesity in the spotlight — witness Moss’ new book — the question of culpability is complicated. Do you blame the food industry or consumers? How about TV, computers and a lack of exercise?

Obesity began to increase around 1980, yet chips and soda had been around for decades prior. Nutritional labels and better food options have arrived — yet the obesity rate keeps rising.

Bob Drane is at peace. Lunchables might have been better nutritionally, but on balance — helping those frenzied folks in the focus groups — he’s proud of what his group accomplished. He couldn’t have dreamed that one day a New York Times reporter would show up at his door to talk about it.


Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

 

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