When it comes to product packaging, consumer brands tend to be as explicit as possible in order to avoid confusion. If a shopper isn’t quite sure what they’re buying, they’ll probably leave it on the shelf. You won’t find prime rib labeled as tofu, milk as an alcoholic beverage, or a bag of sugar as salt.
There is one anomaly in grocery stores, and that’s Chock full o’Nuts coffee. The familiar can of ground beans is pure coffee, its contents completely divorced from its name. There are no nuts whatsoever. There’s even a disclaimer on the label: "No nuts. Just Coffee." But even the manufacturer admitted to The New York Times that some people avoid buying the product because they’re not quite sure what’s in it. So what gives?
In its earliest incarnation, Chock full o’Nuts actually made sense. The company originated in New York in the 1920s, where founder William Black was told he couldn’t sell anything out of his leased space in the basement of a building that was also sold by the drugstore located above him. To abide by the terms and to appeal to the theater crowd nearby, Black sold nuts. His venture quickly expanded to 18 nut shops that also sold sandwiches and coffee.
When the Depression hit in the 1930s and nut sales dwindled, Black increasingly utilized his roasters for coffee instead. Canned coffee came in 1953, and Black decided to keep the name of his shops for this new consumer product. The company even offers a brief history of its brand on the label, mentioning its nutty origins before again reassuring people there are no nuts.
Whatever sales might be lost to the confusion apparently doesn’t bother the Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group, the Treviso, Italy-based parent company of Chock full o’Nuts. The brand has a strong awareness in the northeast, and consumers are apparently quick to catch on when the coffee rolls out to other parts of the country. That initial curiosity over the name may actually further brand awareness: Chock full o’Nuts is the country’s fourth-largest seller of off-the-shelf coffee, behind Folgers, Maxwell House, and Nescafé.
Ironically, while their coffee is popular, Chock full o’Nuts wasn’t able to convince consumers they offered a solid snack product. The company tried going back to nuts in the 1960s, selling dry-roasted peanuts, cashews, and almonds. Few shoppers were interested. It turns out the last thing anyone wanted from Chock full o’Nuts is actual nuts.