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How Kraft Uses Patents to Dominate the Mac and Cheese Wars

A tour through the patent files reveals a wide range of odd shapes, which collectively are a far cry from the elbow-shaped pasta of your youth

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Dracula shaped pasta. Image courtesy of Google Patent Search

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The arms race is vicious and cut-throat. Competitors urgently strive to strike big-ticket deals with media companies. At the same time, their lawyers are running out and filing patents to protect multi-million dollar designs. And that is just the first step. Drafting the pieces seems simple but in actuality borders on the impossible. All lines must intersect, and each one has a minimum viable thickness to which it must adhere. The hard pieces must be able to retain their shapes even when placed in boiling water for as long as ten minutes, all while transforming into a soft, malleable form.

And then, these pieces of macaroni need to hold — and taste good with — liquefied orange goop charitably called “cheese.”  Welcome to the mac and cheese wars.

Teddy bear pasta

Every day, Kraft Foods sells one million boxes of its trademark mac and cheese in their iconic blue box. Maintaining that customer base isn’t to be taken for granted, however, as after a while, children who grew up on mac and cheese age, and, in turn, stop eating it. So Kraft has to attract new mac and cheese fans — and to do so, it relies on an ever-expanding army of creatively-shaped pieces of pasta.

Enter people like Guillermo Haro. As elucidated by this Wall Street Journal profile, Haro and his team of “pasta architects” are core to the brand’s ongoing success. And it’s not child’s play. Haro and others are charged with developing new pasta shapes which will capture the fancy of young eaters, yes, but drawing up silly shapes hardly describes the process fairly. In over two decades of pasta-shaping, Haro has come up with 2,000 designs, of which a mere 280 have made it to consumers. At fewer than 100 designs a year with an 85% rejection rate, that’s a lot of pasta experimentation — and a lot of failure.

Brontosaurus shaped pasta

The difficulties are a mix of intellectual property pitfalls and then, design ones. On one hand, there’s a team of business development professionals who look to partner with brands the children already know and love — the Journal cites “Spongebob Squarepants” and “Phineas and Ferb” – and enter into agreements to make pasta shaped like these characters. On the other hand, sometimes Haro and team come up with their own fun shapes, such as the U.S.-shaped pasta drawn above. If they succeed, the next step is to get the design patented, which happens more than one would expect. A search of Google’s patent index shows over 2,000 or so patents involving shaped pasta. Haro and his team are responsible for 29 of them.

Astronaut shaped pasta. Image courtesy of Google Patents

In either case, Haro’s mission is to make sure that the pasta does all the things mac and cheese pasta should do. It has to retain its shape after being boiled — what kid wants to eat a disintegrated Spongebob or Phineas’ friend, Blob? Further, the pasta has to hold onto just the right amount of whatever the cheese-like substance that orange powder is, and, of course, taste good.

If they could only do this for vegetables.

Saxophone pasta

Bonus fact: The song “Yankee Doodle” speaks of a man who “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.” Why would a young gentleman from the American Revolution want to pretend he had pasta in his hat? He wouldn’t. “Macaroni,” in that context and in mid-18th century England, referred to a man with an extremely unique sense of fashion, as seen here. Macaronis were typically high class fellows and the lyric from “Yankee Doodle” is sarcastic, poking fun at the cultural ignorance of those in the New World. (Americans would, nonetheless, reclaim the song as their own, singing it with honor.) Where’d the fashion term “macaroni” come from? Back to the noodle we go. The macaroni pasta was a favorite of young, upper-class British men who traveled to Italy, and the term came (temporarily) to mean “trendy” or “fashionable.”

 

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