Thursday, December 20, 2012



We are divided by a common language. A biscuit—in my world—is a hard cookie whereas a biscuit in the U.S. world is more like a scone. Think hard cookie in this case. Very hard; several inches across; perhaps half an inch thick; and tasteless.

After I graduated from university—and had flirted somewhat disastrously with opening a restaurant and Ireland’s first disco—the madness of youth—I  decided that formal training in something useful might be appropriate. Mind you, I still wanted to write; but writing paid so badly, it was a pipedream. Little did I know then that writing was an obsession—and that practicality would be rendered irrelevant. This was my period of trying to do the right thing, the decent thing, the morally correct thing—as in holding down a sensible corporate job. The gods laughed. They knew full well that I was doomed to execute the inevitable thing—to become a writer. They were playing with me.

It took me about a month to find a job, and it would have been impossible except that I stayed with my much loved grandmother. But she housed me and kept me fed—and suddenly, after filling in many forms and knocking on doors (you have no pride when you are desperate) I was offered a job with Meredith & Drew—a newly acquired subsidiary of United Biscuits, a food multinational.

I was hired to be a Product Development Manager but, before long, I was promoted to the ranks of Brand Manager—and dealt with Marks & Spencer—a legendary U.K. retailer whose ethics were extraordinary. Good grief! They were obsessed with quality; actually cared for their staff; paid well; and were obsessional about their customers. And they were profitable. I thought they were wonderful—and still do.

One of my jobs was to find new products for M&S. We had an excellent research department, but I also scoured existing products. Was there anything that we currently sold that we could re-package under the M&S label?

The one item that truly baffled me was an amazingly tough baked item that, apparently, had originally been a ship’s biscuit—or sea biscuit. It had been designed to last almost indefinitely, but it had been the practice in the navy, in days gone by, to tap the thing a couple of times on the table in order to eject the weevils—unless you really needed the protein.

But why did it sell in the late twentieth century? It practically needed a chisel to break; its taste was bland in the extreme; it wasn’t flavored with anything; and all you could say in its favor was that it was a good chew.

All we knew was that it sold best through pubs—so we surmised that it was munched to soak up an excess of liquor.

Research was commissioned. Of course it should have been done earlier but the item hovered below best-selling lines and really didn’t justify the expenditure. But several of us pushed, We really wanted to know why a nearly inedible product sold so well.

It transpired that our guesses were wrong. Subject to rare exceptions, the ship’s biscuit wasn’t eaten by humans at at all. Primarily, it was bought to keep the dog quiet while the dog owner enjoyed a few pints.

It’s amazing what companies don’t know about their own products.

Think of this as a crumbly dog story.




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