Mark Kirkland is used to skeptics. He’s comfortable with critics. He’s unfazed by the reaction he typically gets the first time people hear about his invention: “Ewwwwwwww.”
Kirkland, 50, of Salt Lake City, Utah, has dedicated more than a decade of his life to a single concept: The sandwich in a can.
Or, actually, make that a few concepts: Sandwiches in a can. Pizza in a can. French toast in a can. Cinnamon rolls in a can.
Why a can? Because, when combined with techniques similar to those used to preserve Meals Ready-to-Eat for soldiers, an aluminum can keeps food fresh for a full year or even longer. Yes, that’s right: A fresh, year-old sandwich.
And cans have an added benefit, Kirkland noted: They fit perfectly inside all the soda vending machines that exist, well, everywhere. That means his “Candwich” products could be sold in both stores and vending machines.
“So think about it,” Kirkland explained. “You’re a mom running your kids between school, piano lessons, soccer. Stopping at a fast-food restaurant takes time. This is something that literally could roll around the car for a few months. ... I kind of compare it to bottled water when it first came out. At the time I thought, ‘Why would I pay a dollar for a bottle of water when I can just go to the water fountain?’ Now I drink bottled water every day. It’s convenient.”
But how does it taste?
Thus far, Kirkland’s assurances haven’t done much to stem the snickering and giggling. On his late-night Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert joked about preserving sandwiches with the same technology used to store motor oil. Colbert said of the “BBQ Chicken Candwich”: “I am confident only one of those B’s stands for botulism.”
Kirkland knows his products won’t be a hit with busy moms, kids or anybody else if they don’t taste good. To demonstrate the virtues of “shelf-stable bread” and sandwich fixings that have a long shelf life, he sent two peanut-butter-and-jelly Candwich samples to TODAY.com. This writer tried them, and you know what? They weren’t bad at all. In fact, they tasted just like standard peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches made with hot-dog buns — a perennial kid-lunch staple.
In the interest of full disclosure, Kirkland did not send the sample sandwiches in a fully canned state. (The cans are in the process of being mass-produced for his PB&J Candwich product launch in August.) When canned, his food products will undergo the rigors of “hurdle technology” — that is, hurdles to prevent the growth of any pathogens or unwanted organisms in the food. By controlling the amount of oxygen, acidity and water inside the packaging and the sandwich itself, pathogens can be stopped in their tracks, Kirkland said.
The sandwich samples Kirkland shared with TODAY.com included the ingredients that would have gone inside a can: A hot-dog bun wrapped in cellophane; a squeezable packet of peanut butter; a squeezable packet of jelly; and a small piece of taffy for dessert. You just build your own sandwich and nosh. The shelf-stable bread Kirkland uses for the hot-dog buns wound up sitting in a FedEx package for five days, but it still tasted, smelled and felt just fine.
But what about pre-built sandwiches and pizza pockets that have meat baked into them? How do those hold up after months and months inside a can?
Jeff Pierson, 46, a nature and wildlife photographer based in Salt Lake City, loves the BBQ Chicken Candwich so much that he’s devoured dozens of them. A few years back, he tried his first canned sandwich courtesy of one of his buddies, a longtime friend of Kirkland’s.
“When it was just peanut butter and jelly, I was pretty excited about it, but when I was handed my first meat sandwich I was a little hesitant,” Pierson recalled. “I thought, ‘How safe could this be?’ But I’ve eaten them after a full year, and they were still good — and I’m still here.”
Pierson said the sandwiches are convenient when he spends multiple days outside — nowhere near a store or refrigerator — taking photos of grizzly bears and other wildlife. When closer to home, he’s also devised a method for enjoying hot chicken sandwiches.
“I keep ’em in my car,” he said. “I put ’em in a heavy plastic sack and leave them on the dashboard, and I have a hot sandwich for lunch. ... I’ve never been sick and I’ve had a lot of them that have been kicking around in the car for a spring and a winter, a few seasons, and it’s always been OK.”
No need for refrigeration
Because of their staying power, inventor Kirkland also sees a place for Candwiches in emergency-preparedness kits and at times when natural disasters strike.
“I wish I would have had about 100 million of these when the earthquake hit Haiti,” Kirkland said. “Or any time there’s a hurricane or the power goes out. ... I think of it as more of a convenience item than an emergency item, but I do think it’s perfect for emergencies.”
In August, peanut-butter-and-jelly Candwiches will go on the market for the first time in limited areas of the United States. That will be followed by a nationwide product launch. Next will be the Pepperoni Pizza Pocket Candwich, which has the pepperoni, sauce and cheese baked into the bread.
Next up: The BBQ Chicken Candwich, the BBQ Beef Candwich, French toast that contains a maple filling, and cinnamon rolls that come with a spreadable chocolate sauce. Kirkland also has plans to unveil canned calzones and canned wrapped sandwiches in the future.
He foresees the products selling in soda vending machines for $2 to $3, and in grocery stores and convenience stores for varying prices.
‘A long, hard road’Kirkland is almost giddy that the Candwich — which is being marketed by his company, Mark One Foods — is finally about to be sold to the general public. His lengthy canned-sandwich journey began when he had an epiphany back in the 1990s.
“I was eating a cookie and drinking a soda, and it occurred to me if I put cookies into a soda can I could sell it through a soft-drink vending machine,” Kirkland said. “I had a cookie in one hand and a drink in the other, I thought, ‘Hey! Bring your hands together!’ That’s where it all started.”
He patented the concept of putting a non-beverage item inside a soda container in 1999. He found an investor named Travis L. Wright who wanted to back the Candwich and help bring it to the market — but as time passed, everything went awry.
It turns out that Wright allegedly used money raised from about 175 other investors to support Candwich development and other business ideas. But those other investors had given Wright $145 million to invest in commercial real estate. A lawsuit filed this month by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission maintains that Wright committed fraud by misleading his investors and using their money to fund a “lavish lifestyle.”
“He had me in limbo for years, and then he left me in the lurch,” Kirkland said. “When the real estate market crashed, his business crashed, and now he’s being charged with fraud. It’s nothing that we did wrong; it’s just that he turned out to be a bad investor.”
Kirkland said he’s struggled to get the Candwiches to the product-launch point without Wright’s full, promised backing. It took a while to pull that off in this economy.
“It’s been a long, hard road,” he said. “It’s been a tough five years. If I didn’t really believe in the product and I didn’t have a good wife, I’d probably be dead now.”