The Delicious History of Pocky Sticks
Japan is a food hub with a wide array of delicacies, including sushi, ramen, and onigiri. Yet, its snack game shouldn't be overlooked, as the country is also home to mouthwatering candies, cakes, and cookies that you can't often find anywhere else. But there is one Japanese snack that has become a global phenomenon, and that's Pocky.
The beginnings of Pocky
First introduced in 1966 by the Japanese food manufacturer Ezaki Glico Co., Pocky snacks are thin, chocolate-dipped cookies that are shaped like sticks. According to the brand, the name (pronounced like rocky, but with a p) was inspired by the Japanese word pokin, which is the "onomatopoeia for the snapping sound made while eating Pocky sticks." Although they were originally marketed to young women as a convenient snack to eat on the go, Pocky quickly became popular among all demographics throughout the country.
As a company, Glico's story starts earlier. It was founded in 1922, after Riichi Ezaki created his popular caramel candy, Glico Caramel. Originally sold in Osaka's Mitsukoshi Department Store, these candies were the first ones to come in the iconic red box now associated with Pocky. In 1925, Ezaki opened a factory in the Kita ward in Osaka and later expanded to Tokyo in 1936. However, both factories, along with the Dalian factory in China, were destroyed during World War II. Glico Co. wouldn’t reopen until 1951, but the brand's popularity didn’t diminish during the hiatus.
When Pocky was released in the mid-'60s, the only chocolate in the country at the time was imported from the U.S. and Europe. While Pocky sticks were popular, the original version had some issues, the biggest being that the entire stick was covered in chocolate, leaving fingers sticky after eating. To remedy this, the company started leaving a portion of the cookie undipped, which is something that has stuck to this day. According to Entrepreneur, this design was inspired by kushikatsu, a fried pork dish that's popular in Japan and traditionally served skewered.
Within four years of its introduction, Pocky became popular throughout Southeast Asia, as Ezaki established a company in Thailand. Furthermore, they soon introduced two new flavors. The first came out in 1971 and was a standard chocolate Pocky that was rolled around in pieces of almond after it was dipped. Then, in 1976, Glico introduced a version dipped in strawberry cream, rather than chocolate. By this time, Pocky sticks were so popular that even restaurants and cafés offered them as snacks and as drink stirrers.
Pocky goes global
Today, Pocky is a treat enjoyed around the world, but the expansion didn't happen overnight. The snack wouldn’t make its way into Europe until the 1980s when Generale Biscuit Glico France S.A. was established to facilitate its importation and sale throughout Europe and the UK. This paved the way for the snack to be sold in Canada in 1987. It wouldn’t make it into China until 1995 and the U.S. until 2003. Finally, it was made available in Indonesia in 2014.
There are now over 50 different flavors of Pocky; however, many of those varieties are limited to certain areas. Brazilian Orange Pocky was released for the Rio Olympics in 2016, and Royal Milk Tea Pocky can only be found in the UK. There are also specialty flavors that are only available in certain regions of Japan, including Kobe Wine, Hokkaidō Yūbari Melon, and Shinshu Kyoho Grape. In the U.S., there are five flavors currently sold: chocolate, strawberry, cookies and cream, matcha green tea, and chocolate banana.
The popularity of this snack has steadily risen in the U.S. over the past couple of decades. In 2004, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, reported on the “Pockoholic” lifestyle that was sweeping through the region at the time, and now you can find them at many major grocery stores throughout the country, including Target, Walmart, Costco, Amazon, and others. According to Glico, about 500 million boxes are sold annually and 19 billion boxes have been sold worldwide since 1966.
Pocky's lasting influence
This global reach hasn't taken away from its popularity in Japan. Many bars in the country offer Pocky with ice water or alcohol, much like watering holes in the U.S. always have a bowl of pretzels handy. Generic versions of the snack have also shown up in anime and manga, and a few imitators have even landed on shelves, such as South Korea's Pepero. It is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.
In 1999, Glico established Pocky Day on November 11 to coincide with the 11th year of the Heisei era (and the fact that the sticks look like the number one). On Nov. 11, 2013, Glico even started a successful campaign to get Pocky to be the most tweeted brand name within 24 hours. (It still holds the Guinness World Record, with 3.71 million mentions.) And in 2019, Pocky secured another world record as the largest chocolate biscuit brand on the planet after amassing $589 million in sales.
If you've yet to get your hands on Pocky, or just need to refill your stash, you can buy a 10 pack of the original chocolate version for $15 on Amazon.