Morrie Yohai, inventor of the Cheez Doodle snack food, died on July 27 at his home in King's Point, New York. He was 90.
For millions of consumers, the puffed-corn treats, coated in aerosolized cheese, are a childhood classic. From their lighter-than-air texture to their fanciful, exploded-noodle shape, they encourage a playful attitude and reward a simple palate. Yet, for Yohai, the crunchy, silly curls were also serious business.
Born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Yohai graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. His first job was working for aircraft manufacturer Grumman, but he enlisted in the Navy at the start of World War II. Eventually transferred to the Marine Corps, he flew combat aircraft in the South Pacific.
After the war, Yohai took the reins at King Kone, the Bronx-based snack food company that his father had created. Initially an ice cream cone producer, King Kone expanded into Melba toast and other snack foods; in the process, it changed its name to "Old London Foods."
At the time, Yohai and his employees were searching for innovative, new snack idea that they could sell to an eager populace. One day, while watching a machine that puffed corn meal and extruded it into long, snakelike shapes, they decided to try an experiment. Cutting the snakes into 3-inch lengths, they covered them in cheese dust and baked them. The final product, which Yohai dubbed "Cheez Doodles," was crunchy, yet melted on the tongue. The baking meant that it was healthier than fried snacks, and the lightness meant that customers could eat them endlessly. Old London had a hit.
Snack-lovers quickly embraced the new treat and Old London's sales soared, leading to a 1965 takeover bid from Borden. When the food conglomerate bought Old London, Yohai became a group vice president and chairman of the Old London Foods and Wise's potato chip divisions. Among other things, this meant that he got to choose the prizes that went into Cracker Jack boxes.
Borden eventually moved to Columbus, Ohio, but Yohai stayed behind in New York, living in what his wife Phillis laughingly called "the house that Cheez Doodles built." He became a marketing professor, then the associate dean of students at the New York Institute of Technology. He also launched the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, an annual event that is still in operation.
Yohai is survived by his wife, Phyllis, and a son, a daughter and a granddaughter. Perhaps most importantly, he leaves behind a legion of contented, orange-dusted smiles.
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