How Ferrero Rocher Became a Status Symbol for Immigrant Families
For me, and many other immigrants, life in America is deeply tied to boxes of Ferrero Rocher.
I came to the US from the Middle East in the late 1980s with my parents. We were Iranian-Armenian refugees trying to rebuild our lives again after the Iran-Iraq war, and like so many other immigrant families, we often clumsily embraced our new and unfamiliar American identity while attempting to preserve the one that had carried us through thousands of years of existence.
Along with the US dollar, and the Iranian toman, Ferrero Rocher was the third form of legal tender I knew to be sacred and true.
Encased in gold aluminum, the sweet treat was a glowing orb that concealed the pains, joys, and dreams of immigrants between layers of crushed hazelnut and chocolate filling. It was a secret handshake, a sign of respect and good taste. It was a symbol of “the good life,” a tangible thing that vividly encapsulated social and economic aspirations in a way no other food item could.
Most Americans now know Ferrero Rocher by way of Nutella, but long before the hazelnut cocoa spread became an ingredient seemingly found in every trendy dessert recipe, the gifting and receiving of a Ferrero Rocher chocolate box (48 pieces if you were lucky) was a secret, universal language shared by immigrants in the '80s and '90s. It was a truth acknowledged amongst the hospitality-ladened cultures of their families: You never showed up to someone’s house -- whether they were strangers or family -- without a gift. And if the gift turned out to Ferrero Rocher, it was a surefire way to know you had almost literally struck gold with your hosts.
It also had a permanent place on the tables inside immigrant homes, served to guests as a way to honor their presence.
For writer Tasbeeh Herwees and her Libyan-American family, Ferrero Rocher was a constant presence in her house thanks to her mother, but one that was considered a sort of forbidden fruit, a special treat reserved for visitors of every variety.
“For me, it was always the chocolate that she stashed away, it would be hidden somewhere in the house all the time,” she says. “She would get really angry if we got into the Ferrero Rocher stash.”
The gifting and receiving of a Ferrero Rocher was a secret, universal language shared by immigrants.
Growing up in Culver City, California, in an apartment complex entirely occupied by Libyan-American families -- each of whom had their very own stash of Ferrero Rocher in serving bowls -- the chocolate was something Herwees says she associated with Libyan culture, because the only places she encountered it were her house, at Libyan-American weddings, or in Libya itself.
“I had this one auntie who always pulled out a Ferrero Rocher when I was there; I always knew she had Ferrero Rocher on hand,” she says. “She became one of my favorite aunties for this. I think I associated it with decadence -- even now when I have it, it feels like a really special thing.”
The strong emotional response this particular chocolate induced in immigrant families was common. Their lives were caught up in war, violence, political turbulence, and socioeconomic inequality. As their worlds changed around them, Ferrero Rocher remained a constant, an accessible bridge to the past and present that has now become a nostalgic reminder of what life growing up in America was about for children of immigrants like me.
Though the treat arrives wrapped in gold foil, the company was born from humble beginnings (though the heirs of the Ferrero Rocher empire would eventually have net worths estimated to be in the $20 billion range). When patriarch Pietro Ferrero was running his pastry shop during World War II, ingredients like chocolate were in short supply, so he used hazelnuts to compensate. The mixture he invented was first called “SuperCrema” before it became “Nutella” in the early '60s by combining the portmanteau of “nut” and the Italian word for sweet -- “ella.”
Ferrero Rocher made its debut in Europe in 1982, and its coconut-almond counterpart, called Raffaello, followed suit eight years later. Pietro’s son Michele, credited with coming up with the chocolate, was a devout Catholic who made an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, a popular religious site in France. When Michele died in 2015 on Valentine’s Day at the age of 89, it was reported that his inspiration for Ferrero Rocher was the Roc de Massabielle, a spherical-shaped grotto at Lourdes where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to St. Bernadette, then a 14-year-old peasant girl who saw apparitions while she was out gathering firewood.
So it's not surprising that eating a Ferrero Rocher is almost like a religious experience. Chocolate and crushed hazelnuts give way to a delicate crispy shell, which holds a glob of creamy Nutella-like chocolate. At the center is a single, whole hazelnut, mimicking the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, shrouded inside the cave where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette.
But how did a religiously-inspired Italian candy become beloved by immigrant communities in America? Like many things, the answer is found in marketing. While other chocolate brands like Godiva marketed itself in luxury shopping centers, Ferrero Rocher was easily found stacked in the aisles of ethnic supermarkets whose owners imported them from abroad, and then eventually in American drug stores like CVS and Rite Aid. Shinier and pricier than Whitman’s or Russell Stover and with a foreign flare that oozed European refinement, it was instant, obtainable wealth.
“There’s Never Been a Fine Chocolate Like This Before!” Ferrero Rocher ads declared, and we ate it right up. It was the perfect marketing ploy directed towards the perfect target audience, and it worked.
In an effort to achieve international chocolate domination, Ferrero Rocher set up plants and production centers in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and further invaded the subconscious of Romanians, Yemenis, Indians, Armenians, Lebanese, Chinese, Nigerians, and more, who were attracted to its status as a luxurious, imported foreign product.
In Hong Kong, the chocolates are known as “gold sand” and they quickly became a marker of social class. Hong Kong businessmen took Ferrero Rocher to mainland China as gifts, especially during Chinese New Year.
“These Hong Kong gift traditions and customs were eagerly adopted, particularly by the 80 million Chinese living in Guangdong and this was the genesis of Ferrero Rocher’s link with China and its gift-giving traditions,” wrote Lawrence L. Allen in Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers.
China’s foreign trade restrictions kept Ferrero Rocher out, but when it did eventually become established in mainland China in 2007, fake Ferrero Rochers were already being produced. One popular copycat, according to Allen, was Fretate Relish. Another was Tressore Dore, which was ordered to cease production in 2008 and pay the Italian company over $43,000 in damages.
It was instant, obtainable wealth.
Alice Chung, whose family immigrated to the US from Hong Kong just before she was born in 1984, remembers this “coveted golden-wrapped chocolate” as an essential part of her childhood.
She remembers her parents buying Ferrero Rocher in bulk from Costco or Price Club and along with keeping it always on hand in the house -- sometimes even hiding it because it was so sought after, they would take back the chocolate in their suitcase to China, much to the delight of relatives.
“The packaging is simple, but it’s the fact that we have an affinity towards gold,” she says. “It’s a sign of prosperity and wealth, which are things we always wish upon other people.”
The love for Ferrero Rocher is so strong that the candy could even be used as a bribe.
A Ferrero Rocher aficionado living in Ukraine in the mid-'90s, who wished to remain anonymous, said he began doing translation work which led to organizing trips and transportation for visiting foreigners to cities like Kiev and Kharkov. When on occasion, these trip requests were made with very short notice and required special reservations that were not only more expensive, but only available to the upper echelons of society, he hatched a plan.
“I was willing to pay higher prices for the tickets, but I also came to the ticket office with either a bunch of flowers, or Rafaellos and Ferreros, which were the new rage in Ukraine, and they were impressed,” he says. “Most of the ticket office workers were females, many of them worked extra hours with very little pay, Ukraine’s economy being in shambles and all, and chocolates plus with extra cash was better than extra cash with no chocolates. It worked on more than one occasion.”
Whether or not we were giving or receiving the Ferrero Rochers, I found a way to always get one, sneaking it off a table lined with homemade cake, dates, nuts, and copious amounts of the thick mud-like coffee drunk across the Middle East. I consumed it slowly, In an excruciatingly drawn-out process that might have caused someone to wonder if I was a malnourished child. I worked my way through each layer of the golden egg until I got to the crunchy hazelnut center. I wanted the sensation to last forever, but it never did. When I grew impatient, I chomped on it in one fell swoop which was just as satisfying. I would then peel the tiny stickers individually placed on the outside wrapping that said “Ferrero Rocher” in gold letters and put them on my clothes, like a nametag.
Its appeal, however, wasn’t as universal as it seemed, and perhaps nothing encapsulated the disdain for Ferrero Rocher better than the roaring reaction to the infamous commercial known as the “Ambassador’s Party,” which aired in the UK in 1993.
It caused the class-conscious British public, who didn’t really feel European long before Brexit came around, to gasp in horror. With bad dubbing and the kind of dramatic background music better suited to a dramatic Italian telenovela, it featured a reception at an anonymous European ambassador’s residence, where a dutiful butler glides across the room carrying a tray stacked with Ferrero Rocher, captivating the diplomat’s international guests: “Monsieur, with zis Rocher you are really spoiling us!”
With one, iconic line, the chocolate and its brand positioning were lovingly ridiculed and referenced across Brit pop culture forever. Examining the ad’s “eternal tension between embassy myth and corner-shop reality” in the New Statesman 18 years ago, William Cook addressed how its message of aspirational wealth and taste for some people actually translated into tastelessness for others.
“British viewers love to laugh at foreigners, not with them,” he wrote.
Watched decades later, the so-bad-it’s-so-good, completely over the top ad is funnier now more than ever, but it was exactly this tension between myth and reality that appealed to immigrants - the attainability of a luxurious product and its memories tied to sharing it with extended family was priceless, and perhaps a difficult notion to grasp for a population whose built intergenerational wealth and culture hadn’t really been disrupted by forced movement in one way or another.
Ferrero Rocher capitalized on these ties, associating its product with things like the Hindu festival of lights known as Diwali. “Why did we make it so precious?” says a voiceover in an ad aired in India. “Because during Diwali, we know how precious it is to be with your cherished family.”
It was a genius move in the game of global capitalism and at the time, as we dealt with the massive readjustment in our lives that had eroded our sense of home, it was just what my family needed.
These days, Ferrero Group has not just completely penetrated the American market: It’s taking over. Earlier this year, the company bought Nestle for a cool $2.8 billion after previously buying Fannie May Confections for $115 million and US gummy maker, Ferrara Candy Company. It reported a global turnover of $12.96 billion last year, according to Confectionary News. In the US, Ferrero Rocher is the No. 4 premium chocolate brand within mass retail says Shalini Stansberry, director of marketing, Ferrero Premium Chocolates USA.
In the era of '90s nostalgia and the fervent US immigration debate, Ferrero Rocher is as large a part of my adulthood as it was when I was growing up. I still buy it, and I still take it to people’s houses just like my parents did before me. I’d like to think that it was America’s immigrant population that carried the candy to success in America, just like it once carried us.