For four falls now, Nancy Morozin has blended crushed Sweetzels spiced wafers with vanilla ice cream to make the Sweetzel shake (spiked or unspiked) to sell as a seasonal treat at the Dining Car restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia. She tops it with whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and a whole cookie.
But Morozin personally prefers Sweetzels dunked in black coffee "until it gets chewy and nice." She calls spiced wafers "Philly's best-kept secret.”
“It's so big here,” she says, “but if you drive 60 miles, they're like, 'Spiced — what?'”
For the uninitiated, that’s spiced wafers, a hard, craggy cookie similar to a gingersnap, but with a more complex flavor profile that also includes molasses, cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. These are factory-made cookies, by the name of Sweetzels or Ivins, sold in boxes featuring drawings of bakers and a Halloweeny color scheme.
Locally, spiced wafers are the food harbinger of fall — in big supermarket displays, where they sit alongside apple cider and Halloween candy; but also in restaurants and shops like Toto’s Gelateria in Ambler, where they are ground up to make a popular Spiced Wafer flavor; and in homes, where they are fed to spoiled dogs and horses, fashioned into crusts for cheesecake, layered with cream in icebox rolls, dipped into apple butter, slathered with cream cheese, and dunked in almost every imaginable liquid, including beer.
Spiced wafers’ unyielding texture might explain the widespread practice of dunking.
Sweetzels president Robert D. “Bob” Borzillo admits, “The first thing people say about these is that they’re hard.”
To the point that people break their teeth?
It is more or less a joke-question, but not to Bob.
“Yes, it's definitely happened,” he says. “We turn that over to the insurance company.”
“If you pop them in the microwave for 8 to 12 seconds, it softens them right up,” his son, Robert A. “Rob” Borzillo, adds quickly, to help head off a spiced-wafer dental scare.
Most Sweetzels spiced wafers and its Acme house-brand competitor, Ivins, are sold between Labor Day and Black Friday (bereft spiced-wafer fans say the more limited availability once Santas start showing up in stores is the real reason for that day’s bleak nickname). And they can only be found in supermarkets in and around Philadelphia, South Jersey, and Delaware because, well, nobody else wants them.
Acme found this out the hard way in 2016. After acquiring some former Pathmark, Superfresh, and A&P stores in New York, Connecticut, and Maryland, their managers were schooled in the sales magic of the big fall Ivins cookie displays. But to their surprise, the cookies did not sell.
“The North Jersey line is pretty much where you hit the wall on Ivins,” says Acme spokesperson Dana Ward.
In the fall, Ivins still outsells every other cookie, including national favorites Oreo and Chips Ahoy, at Acmes chain-wide.
"Spiced wafers are the original pumpkin latte," Ward says.
Similarly, Sweetzels’ popularity explains why the company’s world headquarters is hidden behind an unmarked door above a Flourtown jewelry store.
“We don’t want to have to deal with people knocking on the door looking to buy cookies,” says Rob Borzillo, who runs the spiced-wafer cookie business from that small office with his dad and sister, Nina.
As for how these two competing brands stack up: Ivins spiced wafers are about an eighth larger and “more robust in flavor” than Sweetzels, says Ward, and only available at Acme. Sweetzels are sold everywhere but Acme, in the same-size box for virtually the same price (about $3).
Sweetzels’ Bob Borzillo, 70, says that “Ivins’ flavor is different,” but not that Sweetzels are better, which seems surprisingly magnanimous — until you learn that the Borzillos have been making Ivins cookies for Acme for well over 35 years. (Take that, all you die-hard Ivins or Sweetzels brand loyalists!)
As the son of an Acme shopper, Glenn Esher, 60, of Haddonfield, N.J., grew up eating Ivins’ spiced wafers “exclusively,” usually dunked in milk that itself would “become delicious in the same way that cereal milk takes on the taste of the cereal you put in it.” He also remembers the wafers as one of few acceptable non-candy Halloween treats. “Usually if you got something other than a candy bar — like an apple or a penny — we’d be like, ‘What is this?’ But when you got some spiced wafers in a stapled orange-and-white trick-or-treat bag, we were OK with it.”
Esher did some spiced-wafer evangelizing at his North Jersey college and later, during a New York state food-service gig, both with only limited success. “It’s not the kind of thing people love right off the bat,” he said, noting the strong spices and extra-firm texture. “But if you hand-sold it, especially to foodie types, they could be won over.”
The spiced wafer likely owes its texture and general austerity (at least compared to the modern gooey-chewy cookie) to its colonial Dutch, German molasses cookie origins.
Commercial bakeries first caught the scent of the spiced wafer business in the early 1900s in and around Philadelphia, and pretty much only here. A search for “spiced wafers” in the Boston Globe’s archives from 1872 to 2019 yields only eight hits; the same search from a similar time period in The Philadelphia Inquirer archives produces more than 800! Many are advertisements for spiced wafers by Ivins, a bakery that opened on Front Street before the Civil War and later moved to North Broad near Mount Vernon Street.
“Even the littlest tots are learning to lisp ‘Ivins’ when they want a cookie. And there’s no Ivins product more delightful than Ivins Spiced Wafer,” argues one 1912 ad featuring Ivins’ toque-topped baker.
But by 1934, Ivins had competition from Sweetzels, the companion brand to Perfect Foods of Lansdale’s flagship Tritzels pretzels, as well as Uneeda, ASCO, and Nabisco. A 1956 Inquirer ad announcing the opening of the latter company’s Roosevelt Boulevard plant touted Nabisco Spiced Wafers as “a local favorite that’s the life of your Halloween party.”
Acme bought the Ivins brand and recipe in the 1960s, which is also when Bob Borzillo’s father, Anthony, who ran a bread bakery in Norristown, purchased Sweetzels. By 1985, the Borzillos were making Sweetzels (and only Sweetzels) at a plant in Bridgeport, Pa. That bakery burned down in 2001 and Sweetzels production has moved around the country ever since.
Today, Sweetzels and Ivins are both made at the same plant in Alabama, both from their individual, original recipes. “We’ve used the same molasses and the same spices for 50 years,” Bob insists.
Changes in the box designs have been similarly few and slight (in the case of Sweetzels, the subtraction of a baker’s peel here — because people kept asking what it was — and the addition of some rosy cheeks there), mainly because, “When you change the box, people automatically think you changed the cookie,” Bob says. And then the phones start ringing.
Unique to Sweetzels’ box is a brand name so small and unobtrusive that some people don’t even notice it.
In fact, sales VP Rob, 30, says that when explaining the family business to someone new as a school kid, he wouldn’t mention Sweetzels but instead ask, “Do you know the cookies in the black-and-orange box?”
The typical reply: “Oh yeah, my grandfather always had those in his house when I was growing up.”
Asked if this has him worried — grandfathers being a demographic with limited shelf life and bad teeth — Rob starts talking about how popular the company's somewhat more indulgent Mini Ginger Creme cookies have become with college kids, especially since the cookie base was changed from spiced wafers to the more familiar gingersnap flavor.
Then, after a thoughtful pause, this heir-apparent to Philly’s spiced wafer empire continues, “Young people might not be buying spiced wafers now, but when they have families and start shopping and see them on the shelf, I bet they will.”