Monday, January 6, 2014

From the Misc. Foods Aisle: Generic Brands

Products: Just about Everything
Company: Just about all of them
Years: 1970s-90's

Growing up in the early 80's, our family didn't have a ton of money. We got by and made ends meet where we could by finding ways to maximize every cent we had. This meant several things: We would rent VHS tapes of older movies instead of going to the theatre to see new ones; We would shop for school clothes at Kmart and other "not as cool" clothing stores, and we would often take a stroll down the Generic Foods aisle on every trip to the grocery store to see where we could save a few bucks. Looking back, I remember being embarrassed at those times. While my best friend's parents had their cupboards stocked with Oreos and Ruffles Potato chips, my parents had ours stuffed with "Chocolate Sandwich Cookies" and "Potato Chips" in a package that suggested "Guess what? You're poor!"

Generic Brands are not really gone (technically). We see them all the time on store shelves. You know, those knock off boxes of Mac and Cheese that aren't made by Kraft, and those boxes of Fruity Ring's Cereal that aren't made by General Mills. Generic brands are everywhere still, but not the Generic Brands I remember as a kid. Now you find them on every shelf...colorful packages with cartoons on them and bright graphics, the only really difference is that instead of a major brand name they are made by a smaller, unknown company, often depending on the retailer.  They sit on the shelves right next to their Major Brand competitor, giving you side by side comparison on cost and appearance of the products.
But back in the late 70's and early 80s, the Generic Brands were condemned to their very own aisle, sort of the "Aisle of Misfit Foods", if you will.  In one aisle, you could get your generic cereals, chips, canned goods, snacks, paper name it. There were even generic cigarettes and alcohol (my dad was a big fan of the "Beer").

The typical package design that I remember was black and white, simple (plain) box or can, with the product name used as the descriptor. "Ice Cream", or "Cola", or "Potato Chips". That's what made them so aren't paying for the fancy package, just the product inside. And like many of todays "Store Brand" products, the items inside often (but not always) were pretty close in taste to the Major Brand items they are mimicking.

Every once in a while you still stumble upon true black and white "Generic" items in stores, but not very often anymore. So these items aren't completely gone from the stores. But the days of that leper colony of an aisle known as the Generic Aisle are long gone. The other day I saw boxes of true "Generic" potato chips at Piggly Wiggly near my house, and I teared up a little bit remembering grade school picnics, where you were always certain to see someone taking the chips from the iconic generic boxes and pouring them into a bowl.

I'm an adult now (for the most part), and like lots of other things from my childhood, I can look back now and appreciate it all. I miss those trips to the store with mom, even the dreaded Generic Aisle.
It's funny how little things like a black and white box can make you both long for the days of your childhood and still appreciate what you have today.

Generic items are not gone, but as the once dominant "Generic Brand" they were, I think it's safe to say that they are extinct. Sometimes they sneak in with the more popular "Store Brands"....should  you can be so lucky to see them in the wild. If you see any, snap a picture and send them my way! I'd love to see them! I'm curious what's still out there.


  1. Brings back memories, ate lots of generic stuff growing up. Haven't seen any in a long time though.

  2. Forgot mention in the bonkers movie Food Fight (google it) All the name brands get in a war with the generic brands(played up a a Nazi socialist group no less! There motto is "One Brand, One store!") that want to take over the store, seeing Mrs Butterworth hurl exploding pancakes and Mr.Clean and Charlie the Tuna and nearly every other food and product icon/mascot in the brawl for it all is just too wild!

  3. While that aisle always felt a little creepy to me, I did love that box of bags of chips. The saltiest chips in the world. I miss the novelty of that aisle. Right in the middle of the colorful and vibrant store was this blank and lifeless space. I'd swear even the muzak sounded a little sadder, a little more hollow. I'd love to find a store that still has one, just so I can share the eerie experience with my son. (I'm not mean, he'd get a kick out of it.)

  4. I only have vague memories of such super-plain generic brands.

    But I do still buy much generic and store brands. heck, the best corn flakes I ever ate was a generic brand.

  5. In Canada, we still have a simple generic brand in one of our grocery store chains. They call it No Name and it is that - the No Name logo and a yellow or white box/can/container/bag with lettering of what the product is. Very rarely a picture.

  6. My family also used generic products quite a bit, although, being thrifty as a child myself, I always rather liked the idea. Although, i HAD forgotten about them being lumped together in a few aisles. Like store brands, they're pretty much the same as the "big brands" but the generics added no advertising costs & little packaging costs. I still use store brands alot.

    1. My family still buys Store brand all the time. There are only a few items that are so not the real thing that we don't buy them (Generic Mac and Cheese for example....I still can't find one that is close to Kraft Mac N Cheese.....)

  7. I remember when generic brands looked JUST like this. Now they are all fancy with fancy labels like Kroger "Private Selection" but in the day, it was just a plain white wrapper with writing on it.

  8. The saddest thing was when someone was on food stamps and their family had that generic powdered milk instead of real milk. Basically you mixed it with water in a pitcher and (tried to) drink it. I remember having a sleep over at a kids house and we had powdered milk product on our cereal in the morning. It was horrible, barely palatable, though I'm sure his family was used to it. Needless to say I never had another sleepover there.

  9. Remember that Plain Label era well when my kids were babies and my grocery budget was miniscule in Omaha, Nebraska. Thanks for this reverie.