Pirate’s Booty: Long Island’s Looted Cheddar

Pirate’s Booty is billed as the healthy snack food. (Photo by Mike Mozart)

Robert Ehrlich of Sea Cliff was a commodities trader studying consumer habits when he had a multimillion-dollar idea while reading product labels in the snack-food aisle of his local supermarket.

Marveling at how cheese was not listed as an ingredient in cheese puffs, Ehrlich set sail in 1987 to plunder his piece of the bloated American snack-food market armed with Pirate’s Booty all-natural white-cheddar cheese rice and corn puffs — a healthier alternative to traditional junk food.

“Most of the ingredients [in cheese puffs] you couldn’t even pronounce,” Ehrlich told Columbia University News Service.

Pirate’s Booty struck gold. A decade later, the puffs were being sold in stores nationwide, earning $50 million in annual sales. The parent company Ehrlich founded, Robert’s American Gourmet Food, later dubbed Pirate Brands, also made Smart Puffs and Original Tings.

The success was not without scandal. The Good Housekeeping Institute found that Pirate’s Booty was mislabeled as low fat, when it in fact had 8.5 grams of fat, not 2.5 grams as advertised at the time. The company blamed a manufacturing snafu, corrected the labels and reformulated Pirate’s Booty so it now has 5 grams of fat.

Despite the drama, corporate profiteers found their way to Long Island to dig up the cheese-dusted treasure. Ehrlich’s partner, Mike Repole, negotiated a deal to sell the Pirate’s Booty snack group to New Jersey-based B&G Foods — the baked beans, Cream of Wheat and bagel crisp maker — for $195 million in 2013. The next day, the new owners laid off all 55 employees of the Sea Cliff Pirate’s Booty plant.

Ehrlich, who made $70 million in the deal, has since launched a new healthy snack: SexyPop, a nutritious popcorn. Last month, news broke that B&G is selling Pirate Brands to The Hershey Company for $420 million, more than double the price B&G paid five years ago. The deal is expected to close in the fourth quarter.

No word if a chocolate-flavored Pirate’s Booty will follow.