Dieline Road Trip USA: Ohio
by Rudy Sanchez on 03/30/2023 | 8 Minute Read
The United States of America is one of the largest countries in the world, both in population and land area. There are over 330 million people in the US, spread across nearly 3.9 million square miles. Folks from many cultural traditions and backgrounds have settled in the equally varied terrain of America, whether it's extreme Arctic cold and Death Valley heat or Mediterranean-like coasts or swampy enclaves.
That same diversity also applies to its culinary traditions, resulting in the creation of countless local specialties and beloved products. Some go on to become international juggernauts, like Coca-Cola. But many more brands don’t grow much beyond their regional reach, sometimes for decades. Others attain local hero status, fending off the national and international big guys.
This post is the first installment in a series where we go on a virtual road trip and discover the hometown heroes of brands. We’re going state by state through America and highlighting some of those regional treasures enjoyed locally that few people outside of the area have ever seen, tried, or heard of. Some are packaged versions of local dishes or recipes; others are beloved versions of staples available nationally. And while some might be an Amazon click away, others are confined to the shelves of convenience stores and shopping marts.
Which is also part of the fun of visiting a state other than your own. A simple excursion to a grocery store or rest stop can result in a treasure trove of regional-specific packaging eye candy. You'll find designs that have long since surpassed looking dated and have settled into the retro-coziness realm, a tchotchke or relic from a bygone era. Or, they're workhorses of the highest order, whether it's the perfect companion to a bottle of Heinz on the counter at a local greasy spoon or the mom-and-pop soda brand in the beverage cooler.
S0! Rather than start at a corner of the country and work across, our road trip starts more inland with Ohio.
The Buckeye State is home to The Ohio State University and nearly 11.8 million folks. Many notable Americans, such as Neil Armstrong, Toni Morrison, Guided By Voices prolific songwriter (and sometimes collage artist) Bob Pollard, and designer Dan Friedman, hail from Ohio. Besides astronauts, poets, and graphic designers, it's also the birthplace of many food and beverage brands, several of which have been wowing Ohioans for decades.
Below are some of the more noteworthy examples.
Norka is a soda brand founded in 1924 in Akron (which backward spells “Norka,” of course). The brand’s popularity accelerated during Prohibition, but eventually, Norka had to shut its doors in the 1960s.
However, the Norka brand returned in 2015 with modernized recipes featuring cane sugar, 100% natural flavors, and no caffeine or gluten. Little else has changed to the Norka brand, with the revived craft soda maker using the same funky, pointy wordmark and classic bottle label. The new Norka is also still based in Akron, of course.
As nascent food and beverage brands are learning in real time, starting a business in a competitive market and challenging economic conditions can be harrowing.
That’s a lesson Albert “Mike” Malley learned in the thick of the depression when he started Malley’s Chocolates in 1935. In partnership with his wife Jo, Malley’s continues today with 19 ice cream parlors and chocolate shops, selling sweets throughout the area and online. Branding piles on the vintage charm, and the color palette is an eye-popping throwback. Bright pink and green stripes come accompanied by a dark cocoa-inspired brown. Of note in the CLE bar, Malley's tribute to Cleveland, and the wrappers come adorned with the city skyline in the background.
Buckeyes are a tree native to Ohio with nuts that, when dried, are dark in color with a brown center. The buckeye inspires the Ohioan nickname and the sweet peanut butter and chocolate confection that resemble the tree’s nut.
Marsha’s Buckeyes is a brand started in 1984 by a stay-at-home mom looking for a side hustle to provide additional family income. The chocolates were a hit, and Marsha eventually grew her business big enough to stock the sweets with Cracker Barrel nationally.
At the center of Marsha’s branding is the delectable buckeye candy. An illustration of a buckeye is at the center of the label and logo, while peanut butter and chocolate inform the brand’s palette, with red and white serving support as background colors.
Hot dogs are quintessential stadium food. While the standard-issue yellow mustard may satisfy some, Polish immigrant Joe Bertman decided he could do better by Cleveland sports fans. In 1925, Bertman created his original ballpark mustard, and you've been able to find it at Cleveland Guardians games ever since.
Bertman’s bottles lean into the baseball aesthetic through typography and graphics, including being the only mustard with the Cleveland Guardians logo on the label, unlike its main rival, Stadium mustard, which is a whole other can of mustard worms. David Dwoskin is a Clevelander that was so fond of Bertman’s mustard he approached the company seeking national retail distribution rights. Eventually, Dwoskin and Bertman parted ways, and Dwoskin created a similar mustard, calling it “Stadium Mustard.” Since the 70s, both brands have slugged it out in a Cleveland mustard war.
Clevelanders aren’t the only Ohioans fond of mustard on their hot dogs while in the stands. The Frank Tea & Spice Company of Cincinnati, the creator of Frank’s RedHot sauce, produced spicy brown mustard exclusively for Crosley Field.
The Dusseldorf-style brown mustard included a bit of Frank’s special hot sauce to give it the heat Crosley Field was looking for. Frank didn’t offer the mustard to the public but made a dijon-style spicy mustard called Mister Mustard for those looking for a similar kick at home.
Despite changing hands several times, Mister Mustard’s suave, mustachioed chef endures on the label to this very day. The typography is also from a bygone era that has maintained its timelessness through the decades.
Today, Mister Mustard is produced once again in Ohio by mustard manufacturer Woeber Mustard Company. Then, in 2013, Great American Park decided to serve a spicy mustard similar to the one Frank provided to Crosley Field. They awarded the contract to Woeber, bringing Mister Mustard back to Cincinnati Reds games.
Halloween wouldn’t be the same without those tiny, familiar orbs on sticks, the Dum Dum lollipop. Initially produced by the Akron Candy Company of Bellvue in 1924, Dum Dums is now owned by the Spangler Candy Company, which continues offering the beloved sweet treat today.
Dum Dums even has a mascot, the Dum Dum Drum Man. Since 1966, Dum Dum has used the Drum Man as a promotional device, and according to Spangler, he always has lollipops on him to share.
When Spangler acquired Dums Dums in 1953, it started a prize program where customers could exchange saved wrappers for merchandise. Unfortunately, Spangler has paused the promotion for some time now, so there is no sense in keeping those wrappers, though you should dispose of them responsibly.
Founded in 1919 by Angelo Grippo as the Grippo's Cone Company, the Cincinnati snack firm started by making rolled sugar cones, later adding pretzels, chips, jerky, and other snacks to the lineup.
A local favorite, Grippo’s, like many of the already mentioned brands, sticks to old-school branding that is recognizable to scores of loyal decades-long fans. Fun illustrations include smiling potatoes with an old-timey wire-thin and upcurled mustache, and the wordmark is strong, probably hand-drawn, and reinforces the brand’s heritage. Plus, nostalgia makes us happy, and so do snacks, so Grippo’s combines the two with a winning, low-maintenance brand identity.
Rudolph's Pork Rinds
In 1955, John Rudolph saw an opportunity to market pork rinds in Ohio and started selling snacks made from smoked bacon rinds. Since then, Rudolph’s Foods has sold pork rinds, cracklings, and other snack foods and has grown beyond its Ohioan roots.
The brand is visually quirky, using big, colorful graphics inspired by neon signs. It’s fun and classic, like the flavors under Rudolph’s line, though the parent company does offer small batch and contemporary snacks under its Southern Batch subbrand.
The newest and only better-for-you on this list of local Ohio brands, Whoa Dough is a line of gluten-free cookie dough bars which are also vegan. Four of Whoa Dough’s bars are also top 8 allergen-free, making it easier for parents to avoid certain ingredients in their kids’ snacks.
Whoa Dough’s branding is bright, colorful, and fun. The logo has the exuberance of a kid at recess. The packaging design is kept tidy but playful with excellent use of color that belie the brand’s better-for-you recipes.
No trip through the Buckeye State would be complete without some Cincinnati-style chili. Unlike the Mexican-inspired chili con carne, Cincinnati-style chili more resembles a meat-based Greek pasta sauce and is rarely served in a bowl. Instead, it’s served over hot dogs or spaghetti, topped with grated cheese, and additionally with onions and/or beans, with a special “way” ordering system.
Skyline Chili is one of Cincinnati’s more prominent chili brands, and it has expanded beyond parlors and into grocers, packaged in cans, microwavable pouches, or frozen. The brand’s name comes from the view of the Cincinnati skyline from its first location, and it features prominently in the brand’s logo, which serves as a backdrop to the product name.
Like the Cleveland mustard wars, Skyline has its rival for local favorite in Gold Star Chili, also sold in grocers. Since Dieline is primarily about design, and we’re only stopping once on this trip for chili, the tie-breaker goes to Skyline.