Honor Sachs, a professor of early American history in Colorado, was disturbed to find herself on a packed flight in May. “The one upside of flying: I’ve missed Biscoff cookies,” she tweeted from her seat.
“I’m like a Pavlov dog when I see those carts making their way down the aisle,” says Ms. Sachs.
Air travel is soaring after a pandemic-grounded year and Americans already hate flying again. For many, slightly spicy Biscoffs offer a culinary consolation, with the little cookies inspiring obsession and argument.
Emotions are so strong around the cookies that they have sparked controversy on two continents. In the U.S., United Airlines’ removal of Biscoffs from flights last year prompted outcry before the carrier said it would continue serving them.
Unknown to many American Biscoff lovers, they lead a parallel life in parts of Europe around Belgium, where they are called speculoos. “Biscoff” is a brand name created for the U.S. by Belgium’s family-run Lotus Bakeries when
Delta Air Lines
started serving them in the 1980s. Today Delta says it hands out more than 80 million of them annually—with its own logo baked in the dough.
“Speculoos was not a really attractive international name,” says Lotus Chief Executive Jan Boone. His father and Lotus’s U.S. distributor coined Biscoff—a portmanteau of biscuit and coffee—as easier on American ears than speculoos, or its Dutch version, speculaas. Both names are in the public domain, while Biscoff could be trademarked.
Now, European feathers are ruffled over Lotus’s recent rebranding of the cultural icon as Biscoff in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.
“To us it’s not a brand name,” says Samuel James, a Belgian sous-chef. Renaming the cookies “is quite out of place,” he says.
Mathieu Flaig, a digital strategy consultant who grew up in northern France, says speculoos remind him of time spent with his grandparents, who always had them. From a marketing perspective he understands the logic of having one global brand name. But the change, he says, “goes against our nostalgia and gives the impression a part of our history will disappear.”
Mr. Boone, the cookie executive, says the move was necessitated by today’s borderless world and social media. He was braced for controversy because Lotus’s announcement of its plans last fall made news locally. The hashtag #jesuisspeculoos—I am speculoos—trended.
“There was a lot of fuss about it in the media,” said Mr. Boone, sitting amid packages of cookies and snacks in his office in Lembeke, Belgium.
The Belgian brouhaha mirrors U.S. travelers’ edginess. When
recently replaced its normal two-packs of the cookies on some flights with two slightly smaller, individually wrapped Biscoffs, aviation bloggers pounced on the switch. An American spokeswoman said it was just “a temporary supply chain solution” during the pandemic.
Early last year, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, United said it would replace Biscoffs with Oreo Thins.
“You Can Take My Leg Room, But You Can Never Have My Biscoffs,” read the headline on the foodie website Eater.
Flier reaction startled United. “Our customers made it very clear how much they love the Biscoff cookie,” a spokeswoman says. Dropping the cookie was always planned as temporary, she says, but “the feedback we received solidified for us how passionate our customers are about our snack offerings.”
Houston resident Caroline Matlock says Biscoffs’ availability on United cemented her loyalty. Previously she had lamented she might get them only on Delta, which has fewer flights through Houston.
When she saw Biscoffs in her snack bag on a United flight this year, she says, “I was like, this is the best moment of my life.”
When Ms. Matlock noticed her seatmates were asleep on the recent flight, she unabashedly took their snack bags containing Biscoffs. “I slowly, sneakily put them in my bag and didn’t say anything,” she confesses.
United also faced turbulence in 2018 when it briefly stopped carrying its other top snack, a soft, caramel-filled sandwich cookie called stroopwafels, which come from Belgium’s neighbor, the Netherlands. The name means “syrup waffle.”
Mr. Boone—who doesn’t make stroopwafels but likes them—understands American reactions because he spent a year of high school near Chicago. These days, when he gets chatting on U.S. flights and mentions he’s the guy behind the cookies, he’s treated like a minor celebrity.
“I’ve had people who want to have selfies with me,” he says. “What I like about Americans is they are so enthusiastic.”
All the attention is unaccustomed exposure for a snack as pervasive around Belgium as chocolate-chip cookies in America. Speculoos, originally a Christmas-season treat, now routinely accompany coffee in Belgian cafes. Dutch speculaas sometimes come shaped as windmills.
“Europe is way ahead of us,” says Minneapolis healthcare worker Joey Lusvardi, whose childhood anxiety over flying was calmed by Biscoff cookies. “I need to move to Europe, apparently.”
Biscoffs are sold in some U.S. grocery stores and the company is increasing their reach. Ms. Matlock, of Houston, says she’s refrained from buying Biscoffs in a store because they “represent being on an airplane.”
Comedian Roy Wood Jr. is happy to be back out on the road performing, but he’s not thrilled to be back on airplanes, which he considers “a necessary evil.” He says one thing helps entice him back onboard: “I would be lying if I said I was not looking forward to a Biscoff cookie.”
Mr. Wood, who wrote an essay about flying and Biscoffs for The Wall Street Journal last year, says his young son calls Biscoffs “takeoff cookies.” After a trip, the comedian tried to surprise him with a pack from the plane, but got shut down.
“These are for the airplane,” he says his son told him, handing the pack back unopened. “You shouldn’t have them.”
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