Squeezable, Animal-Shaped Container Was a Honey of an Idea
With a round tummy filled with honey, these plastic bears seem to smirk just thinking about their gooey golden stuffing.
Even Winnie the Pooh might envy them--which was just the image Ralph Gamber hoped for 40 years ago when he decided to make squeezable plastic bears with cone-shaped hats as honey spouts.
“We just figured a bear likes honey, why not a bear of honey?” said Gamber, 85, whose ingenuity inspired dozens of companies to market their wares in plastic, animal-shaped containers holding everything from shampoo to chocolate syrup.
“We thought it might be a fad,” Gamber said. “But the bear took off.”
Over the decades, their company, Dutch Gold Honey Inc., has survived several challenges, some stickier than others: a honey flood caused by leaking bear ears and worker complaints of carpal tunnel syndrome from tightening the cone-shaped caps.
“There were problems in the beginning,” Gamber said, smiling. “But it all worked out.”
Ralph and Luella Gamber first came up with the idea for a bear container during dinner with friends in 1957. It was a year after Pooh creator A.A. Milne died, and there was much publicity about the bear with a bigger heart than brain.
Luella Gamber had been making and packing honey at home while raising three children since her husband had bought three hives for $27 as a hobby in 1946. Ralph Gamber then sold the honey while working full-time as a salesman for Armor Meat Co.
The cute container rocketed the Gambers’ family-run business from a three-hive hobby into Dutch Gold Honey, boasting $40 million in sales last year, including 2.7 million honey bears.
The company also sells honey wholesale for such products as Nabisco’s Honey Maid graham crackers, Luden’s cough drops and General Mills’ Honeynut Cheerios.
Gamber’s bears inspired a slew of imitations, and honey bears sold by dozens of other companies command about 16% of current U.S. honey sales, according to the National Honey Board.
“Bears [as containers] would have evolved anyway, but it stimulated a lot of thought,” said Bill Gamber, who grew up helping package honey at home and now works full-time at his father’s honey factory in Lancaster. “It changed the mold, pushed the barriers. . . . Anything that makes us smile is a good thing.”
In the beginning, leaking seams plagued the bears. Once, honey seeping from bear ears flooded the residential street where the Gambers’ honey operation was based.
The Gambers never patented their honey bear and even worried that the Dutch Gold bear would look too much like Winnie the Pooh.
“We made it look as different as possible. We thought we’d be sued. . . . We didn’t know about franchise rights or whatever,” said Ralph Gamber, who still mixes the honey he makes but hasn’t been able to eat for 15 years, since developing diabetes.
The bear has changed with the times, thinning out to add nutrition information panels on both sides. The pointed-cone hat also was replaced by a flat cap that can be tightened by machines, to keep from hurting the wrists of workers who had been putting the tops on by hand.
Gamber’s gamble on shaped plastic--which was expensive and new in 1957--also encouraged other companies to try cute containers.
Around the same time as Gamber’s bear appeared, a plastic elephant dispensing chocolate syrup hit the shelves. Dozens of other zoo animals turned up in supermarkets, including Nestle Quik’s current chocolate syrup-dispensing rabbit.
But none rivals the 40-year success of the honey bear.
“I think people associate bears with honey, so that works where others haven’t,” said Gary Evans, president of Sioux Bee Honey, which twice introduced an American Indian maiden-shaped honey container.
Sioux Bee finally marketed its own honey bear about 10 years ago, after pulling the maiden from store shelves for the second time in the late 1970s. The bear has become the company’s second-best-selling item.
“They’re cute,” Evans said. “People like to buy little cute things.”