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Bugles have disappeared from Canadian stores, sending fans in search of a salty substitute

Loch Willy, right, and his daughter Kiara taste test a Japanese snack that's very similar to Bugles in their Saskatoon home. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

Danielle Nerman · CBC Radio · Posted: Dec 17, 2022 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: 3 hours ago

The disappearance of Bugles, an ingredient used in making many holiday recipes, has some Canadians searching for alternatives to the delectably crunchy corn snack.

Bugles are still sold in the U.S., but have been discontinued in Canada for several months — just one of the latest products American food manufacturers are no longer selling here.

General Mills, the U.S. company that manufactures Bugles, did not respond to CBC's calls or emails but has replied to hundreds of customers on Twitter, saying it hopes Canadians "can find a tasty substitute elsewhere."

That substitute could exist in the snack aisle of your local Asian supermarket, according to Canadian fans of Bugles on Reddit. It's called Tongari Corn — a salty, crispy, horn-shaped corn snack that's been made by House Foods in Japan since the 1970s.

Over the last few weeks, the Umami Shop in Lethbridge, Alta., has had customers come in daily asking for "Japanese Bugles" to use in their homemade nuts and bolts recipes, says owner Patricia Luu.

"We only have one bag left," she said.

With her supply running low, Luu has ordered more of the Japanese corn snacks from her supplier in Vancouver. She says she got his "last six cases."

Loch Willy went looking for Tongari Corn at four Asian grocery stores in Saskatoon, but they were sold out.

CBC Radio's Cost of Living found a bag in Calgary and shipped it to him so he could taste test the purported Bugles substitute alongside the original snacks. Willy had three bags of Bugles in his possession thanks to his snowbird parents who carried them back in their luggage for him from Arizona.

Willy uses Bugles to make nuts and bolts every Christmas and says his family recipe cannot be made without them.

"They have that distinct cone shape, they're the finger hat. Honestly, if we were growing up and they weren't in there, we would have noticed and been like, 'Why? Where's the Bugles?'"

When Willy and his daughter, Kiara, tore open the two different corn snacks, they were surprised at how similar the two products looked.

"I was skeptical, but wow!" Willy said. "I think most people wouldn't know the difference."

After several tastings, the Willys concluded that Tongari Corn was slightly "spicier" than Bugles but had the same texture. Overall, a "pretty good substitute" for any nuts and bolts recipes.

"Japanese Bugles look like they're going to save Christmas," said Willy.

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Bugles not only U.S. snack to leave Canada 

 

In the last five years, Canada has also lost other American products like Skippy peanut butter, Ragu pasta sauce and Grape-Nuts cereal.

Bagel Bites, a Kraft Heinz product, disappeared last month, along with Cosmic Brownies, Oatmeal Cream Pies and Swiss Rolls — the entire line of Little Debbie boxed treats, manufactured by McKee Foods Corporation. In an email statement, a spokesperson for the company told CBC the decision to "cease selling" the Little Debbie treats was not made by the brand itself but by its Canadian distributor.

When it comes to distribution, Canada is a "notoriously costly" place to do business, says UBC Sauder School of Business marketing professor Yann Cornil. As a big country with a low population density, Cornil said it's expensive for companies to ship products from coast-to-coast.

"And there are requirements for packaging to be translated into French and English. That increases the cost for U.S. brands, so sometimes the decision is to just discontinue those products."

 

Competition in the snack aisle

Another reason Bugles may have left the Canadian market is because the snack was facing too much competition from store-owned brands like President's Choice, Kirkland Signature and Great Value.

According to its 2022 annual report, most General Mills products compete "with generic and private label products that are generally sold at lower prices" and notes that economic uncertainty may push some consumers to purchase more store-owned brands. 

"In those circumstances, we could experience a reduction in sales of higher-margin products or a shift in our product mix to lower-margin offerings," the report said.

Every major grocery store in Canada has at least one, if not several, of its own private brands. A Sobeys spokesperson said the company adds hundreds of new products every year under its Compliments brand. Western Canadian grocer Calgary Co-op launched its store brands — Founders & Farmers and Cal & Gary's — three years ago and already has more than 1,000 products on shelves.

"In the past, private labels were just cheap versions or imitations of a popular brand at a lower price and probably also at a lower quality," Cornil said. "But that's no longer the case. Now the private label can compete with the national brands even at the high end, even when it comes to satisfying niche segments of consumers."

The snack aisle, in particular, is where consumers will find a wide variety of store-owned products — from low-salt and sea salt potato chips to gluten-free crackers and vegan cookies — and they get prime shelf space.

Cornil says that's deliberate and just one strategy Canadian grocery stores use to encourage shoppers to choose their labels over name brands like Ruffles, Lays and Bugles. 

Private brands are also typically cheaper because grocery chains have economies of scale — they make massive orders for all their stores, which allows them to negotiate lower prices with the manufacturers that produce their products.

And with inflation still running high, Canadians are reaching more often for store brands. 

"Pretty much everyone buys private label groceries at some point," said Brian Ettkin with Numerator Canada. The market research firm's latest numbers show that compared to 2021, private label grocery sales in Canada are up four per cent this year.

Trend toward 'healthier' snacks

It could also be that Canadians just aren't that jazzed anymore about America's No. 1 Finger Hat. Bugles have been around since the 1960s and Cornil says tastes have changed since then.

"With snack foods, it's an interesting market because there has been shifting demand for healthier, natural, less processed foods. And you see a lot of these are sometimes 50- to 70-year-old brands that clearly do not satisfy the new demands of consumers. So the companies, the manufacturers either have a choice to completely reformulate their products. Or to discontinue them in specific markets."

This isn't the first time Bugles have been discontinued north of the border. It happened in 2010, and the snack was back in Canada a year later. 

That does give Bugles fans like Willy hope, but in the meantime he's finding other ways to get his salty corn snack fix. Whether that's buying up bags of Tongari Corn or driving his parents' car home to Saskatchewan from Arizona.

"I've already told them, 'If you guys don't want to drive home, I'll fly down and bring your vehicle back. But I'm going to be filling it up with Bugles for all."

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