It is almost as familiar a part of New York lore as a taxi or King Kong or the building that he climbed — a can of Chock full o’Nuts coffee.
But then it became a New York export. And as the quintessentially recognizable can crossed the Mississippi River in a push to go national, concerns arose about one word on the label that might not play well in Omaha or Oklahoma City — nuts.
So Chock full o’Nuts has put what amounts to a giant disclaimer on the can: “No nuts.”
To those whose day cannot start without a cup, saying that “Chock full o’Nuts” has no nuts sounds as contradictory as movie titles like “Eyes Wide Shut” and “True Lies.” Do people really think that Chock full o’Nuts cans are chock-full of nuts?
Apparently so. Convincing consumers that there are no nuts in Chock full o’Nuts is, well, a tough marketing nut to crack.
“Every time we’ve done consumer research on why some people do not purchase the product, the No. 1 thing that comes back to us is there’s something in the coffee,” said Dennis Crawford, the senior marketing manager for Chock full o’Nuts. “Most of the people in New York — we’ve been there forever and they get it, but if you’re in Omaha and suddenly we’re on the shelf and you see the brand for the first time, there’s confusion.”
“No nuts” and “100 percent premium coffee” appeared on Chock full o’Nuts cans several months ago as part of a subtle redesign of the label. The basic color scheme remained the same — taxicab yellow and basic black — but the New York skyline was redrawn, showing the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building illuminated, as at dawn, when the sun is coming up and people are padding into their kitchens, desperate for a jolt.
The “moment of benefit,” Mr. Crawford called it.
The redesigned can also has an echo of Chock full o’Nuts’ famous song. ”Heavenly coffee,” the can says — part of the lyric featured in Chock full o’Nuts commercials starting in the mid-1950s.
And while it may send a message to consumers with nut allergies, Mr. Crawford said that issue never really came up in focus groups.
“It was always something like, ‘Is there an added ingredient in the coffee?’” he said. “They were looking for pure coffee, which is what it is and always has been.”
Analysts who follow the coffee industry said the “no nuts” notice catered to current consumer preferences.
“Consumers are going for natural, authentic and transparent beverages,” said James Watson, the senior beverage analyst for Rabobank. “If you think about it from the consumer side, there’s very little we know about a lot of brands other than what’s facing us on the shelf, so to communicate what’s in there, this kind of explicit messaging could be very important.”
Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst with the market research firm NPD Group, said this was a good time to explain the brand more clearly because coffee consumption at home has been rising.
In 2008, he said, coffee was consumed at 25 percent of breakfast tables in the United States. The comparable figure is now 28 percent. “When you figure that there are 300 million people and we have breakfast 365 days a year,” he said, “even if sometimes we skip breakfast, that’s hundreds of millions more occasions when coffee is being consumed in the morning, so it’s a good time to jump on this wave.”
The “no nuts” panel on Chock full o’Nuts cans also summarizes the history of Chock full o’Nuts. “1920s — we sold nuts. 1930s — we sold nuts and coffee. Now — we don’t sell nuts. We just sell coffee. But we like our name.”
That name was chosen by the company’s original owner, William Black, when he rented a tiny space under a staircase in the basement of a building at Broadway and 43rd Street.
The challenge was what he could sell. His lease said he could not sell anything sold by the drugstore upstairs.
Nuts, he said. There was a cut-rate theater ticket operation opposite his stand. He was counting on its parade of customers to buy his nuts. They did.
The coffee came along in 1930. With the Depression, nut sales dwindled.
“He had to reassess his business, as it was collapsing,” Mr. Crawford said, “and he had an asset that was underutilized. He had a roasting machine, an oven, and he thought, ‘What is it that I can do, how can I use this roaster to do something to save the business? I can go down to the docks and buy green coffee as it comes in and start selling date-nut sandwiches made from the nuts and coffee to drink with it.’”
He converted the nut shops to restaurants. He introduced coffee in cans in the early 1950s. After his death 30 years later, the restaurants were sold and closed.
Mr. Crawford said Chock full o’Nuts had printed “no nuts — 100 percent coffee” messages on the yellow plastic lids several years ago, but in smaller letters.
The Chock full o’Nuts can has changed over time, just as the Checker cab gave way to Fords, Toyotas and Nissans. The company itself has changed hands a couple of times since Mr. Black died. Chock full o’Nuts, the brand with the New York skyline on its label, is now owned by an Italian coffee conglomerate that also markets such brands as Hills Bros. and Chase & Sanborn.
“You notice there was no reference to New York” identifying the skyline on the can, Mr. Crawford said, “but New Yorkers will clearly recognize it. There are a lot of people who will recognize it. But a lot of people outside of New York will think, it’s just a big city.’’
That is the thing about trying to export New York, he said: Not everyone likes New York.
“We do,” Mr. Crawford said. “We love New York.” He said the main complaint in focus groups with people not from New York was about New York sports teams beating their teams. That might make them think twice about what coffee they buy. “But if you’re from another city and a New York team beat up your team, you still come to New York to go to Broadway,” he said.
Mr. Crawford, the chief marketer for a brand so closely identified with New York, knows the route. He works from an office 360 miles away, in Portsmouth, Va. The last time he was in New York was in August.