For as long as there have been modern grocery stores, there have been boxes of Ry-Krisp on their shelves. Every one of the commercially produced crackers inside was mixed, baked and packed at the world’s one and only Ry-Krisp plant in southeast Minneapolis.
But the Minnesota-born brand is no more. Production at the boxy white factory wound down in March. Soon the final packages of Ry-Krisp will disappear forever from the cracker aisles, and with them, a bit of local history will crumble.
In one short century, Ry-Krisp rose from humble origins to become a product distributed around the globe. The crunchy rye-flavored snack became an emblem for overlapping culinary trends, shifting from peasant fare to health food to diet aid until changing tastes led to the cracker’s quiet demise.
“What am I going to do without my cardboard crackers?” said Nels Thompson, 22, of Edina. The recent graduate of St. Olaf College grew up seeing Ry-Krisp on the table or in the pantry.
“I groaned out loud when I heard the factory was closing. Ry-Krisp was always around, but I had to mature into liking it. I started eating them during camping trips, and now I like a nice stack with cheese and cucumbers.”
But there simply weren’t enough like-minded fans to keep the product in the profit column.
“The rye cracker category has declined in recent years, and sales of Ry-Krisp have fallen,” said Daniel Hare, a spokesman for ConAgra. The Nebraska food conglomerate acquired Ry-Krisp in 2013; the brand was just one piece of a massive deal to purchase the food holdings of Ralcorp, a descendant of Ralston Purina. “The brand is no longer a strategic fit for our portfolio.”
Ry-Krisp’s demise does not surprise George John, marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
“The problem with older brands is they become irrelevant,” John said. “Heritage brands can find a niche, but positioning them is expensive and requires thought. A new buyer is not invested in the product, so it’s easy to let it go. When companies change hands, heritage goes out the window.”
Minneapolis had become internationally known for its milling innovations by the turn of the last century. It was in this era that Ry-Krisp was invented. According to the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Minnesota Encyclopedia” (“The Long Shelf Life of Ry-Krisp”), Swedish immigrant Arvid Peterson created the crackers, milling rye kernels to create the signature “krisp” texture.
Peterson, his brother and widowed mother first sold the crackers door-to-door, then offered it at their bakery in south Minneapolis and registered the trademark for Ry-Krisp in 1905.
“This was around the time that a lot of flour millers were creating new consumer products,” said Dave Stevens, historian and program manager at the Mill City Museum in downtown Minneapolis. “It was when people first started baking less and buying more of what was ready-made.”
The first Ry-Krisp was round with a hole in the center, keeping with the Scandinavian tradition of drying crispbreads on a pole. Ads for disc-shaped Ry-Krisp showed up in immigrant newspapers printed in native Nordic languages.
Nordic food writer, teacher and historian Patrice Johnson said traditional crispbreads — known as knäckebröd by the Swedes, knekkebrød by the Norwegians and knækbrød by the Danes — were popular in the old country because they were cheap, filling and kept well during long winters.
“Crispbreads were part of the daily diet for thousands of years, eaten out of necessity,” she said. “Immigrants ate it every day — it was a taste that reminded them of home. For the second and third generations, it’s a taste that reminds us of our grandparents, when they would pull some out to eat with pickled herring.”
Ry-Krisp’s creator sold his recipe, baking technique and trademark to a Minneapolis businessman in 1919. In 1922, the new owner built the factory where the crackers were made until production came to a stop this month.
St. Louis-based Ralston Purina purchased Ry-Krisp in 1926, and the cracker’s marketing focus shifted. By the 1920s, there was new evidence about the health advantages of whole grains, and Ry-Krisp’s high-fiber ingredients were stressed in its none-too-subtle print ads.
“Constipation,” the ad copy blared. “For relief eat Ry-Krisp,” it suggested, noting that the crackers were “recommended by physicians for disorders of the digestive tract.”
In the late 1930s, Ry-Krisp made an even more dramatic marketing twist. It stopped targeting Scandinavians and the bowel-blocked and became a tool for what was then called “reducing.” Ry-Krisp was among the first consumer products to be promoted as diet fare, using an approach that would certainly be regarded with horror by contemporary consumers.
In “Food Is Love: Advertising and Gender in Modern America,” author Katherine Parkin called Ry-Krisp’s ads “one of the cruelest campaigns of the century.”
One series of print ads was aimed at adolescents. Ad copy printed in magazines for teen girls in the 1940s said flatly, “No one loves a fat girl.” Another stated, “Boys rarely have a propensity / toward girls with such immensity.” A later series featured an unhappy-looking larger woman in the presence of thinner ones who mock her size and suggest Ry-Krisp as her solution.
Parkin, an associate professor of history at Monmouth University in New Jersey, noted that the ads used line drawings to depict women as impossibly thin in contrast with fuller-figured women.
“Shaming a woman for being heavyset was a trademark of the company,” she said. “Having women in the ads remarking, ‘Someone ought to tell her about Ry-Krisp’ enabled readers to file away the suggestion that any heavyset person should be ashamed of their weight and that it was appropriate to tell them to seek help.”
Parkin said Beatrice Adams, the ad writer who originated the campaign, claimed that her mocking tagline gained cultural traction. “She shared the story that an onlooker shouted at a woman in a 1940 Christmas parade, ‘Someone ought to tell her about Ry-Krisp,’ ” Parkin said.
When Liz Mattern began working at Ry-Krisp in 1974, the assembly line operated around the clock to crank out the crackers.
“We were running three shifts a day. In the ’80s, we were on mandatory seven-day weeks for a while,” said Mattern, 65, of Shoreview, who ended her tenure with the company in 2008.
“They were good union jobs. When I started in the packing room, I think I made $3 an hour, way more than minimum wage.”
It once took almost 100 workers to make the thousands of boxes of Ry-Krisp that left the plant. Rail cars full of rye pulled right up to the factory door to unload the grain that was mixed on-site, then baked in industrial ovens.
A decade or so ago, a slow slide began; workers started worrying that the product would be phased out.
“We always said the problem was that our customers were dying,” Mattern said. “In the ’90s things started to go downhill. They cut our hours; people left and weren’t replaced. There were hardly any ads anymore.”
Just 18 workers were left, and in the final months they had only enough work to keep them busy two weeks a month.
There wasn’t an outcry when ConAgra announced in January that Ry-Krisp was toast.
A “Save Ry-Krisp” Facebook page collected a paltry 126 likes. There was no nostalgic send-off or even a formal acknowledgment about its demise in the city of its origin.
“Visitors to the Mill City Museum have a powerful response to consumer products we grew up with, the boxes and commercials we remember from childhood,” Stevens said. “The brands we grew up with have a hold on our imaginations.
“Now one of them is gone. We will miss it.”
Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.