Morrie Yohai, the inventor of the Cheez Doodle, died of cancer last week at the age of 90.
The popular faux fromage snack was born after World War II, when Yohai returned from service as a Marine in the South Pacific and took over Old London Foods, his father's snack-food business in the Bronx. (It was then called King Kone, and produced ice cream cones, followed by popcorn, cheese crackers and Melba toast.)
At the company's Melba toast factory in 1950, Yohai and his partners – he was always careful to mention his partners – were watching a machine that popped out cornmeal in small strips. (The factory also made the Cheese Waffle, plus popcorn and caramel popcorn.)
"We were looking for another snack item," Yohai told Newsday in 2005. "We were fooling around and found out there was a machine that extruded cornmeal and it almost popped like popcorn." They hit on the idea of chopping the tubes into child-size pieces and coating them with cheese.
"We wanted to make it as healthy as possible, so it was baked, not fried," Yohai said.
The name Doodle popped into his head when he and his partners were sampling possible cheeses for the "cheez" part. "They looked more like a doodle," he said of the tubes, which in those days were thin. (Yohai accepted full credit for the product's name, if not its genesis.)
The cheese dust turned to gold for the company, as the doodles took off. The success attracted Borden, which bought Old London Co. in the mid-1960s. (Borden also bought the Wise Potato Chip Company, as it was then called, which became -- and remains -- Cheez Doodles' home.) Yohai, a Wharton business school graduate, became Borden's group vice president in charge of snacks, where his duties included choosing prizes to go into boxes of CrackerJacks.
A few years later, Borden moved to Ohio and Yohai – also the founder of New York's Sephardic Jewish Film Festival -- left the company. He taught marketing at the New York Institute of Technology and became associate dean of the school of management. "The one thing that would get the students' attention was Cheez Doodles," he said.