During the Six Day War, soldiers devoured it. Under the threat of Iraqi Scuds in 2003, the government ordered factory workers to produce it. Local travelers as far from home as India or Machu Picchu pack it. Anyone who knows Israel knows Bamba.
The year was 2003, and in Israel, the Homefront Command worked to prepare Israelis for Iraqi missiles. Gas masks were issued, and all over the country, people bought heavy plastic sheeting to seal up a room. Everyone shopped for emergency supplies - flashlights, bottled water, milk, sugar, flour, bread - and Bamba.
Bamba, the peanut-flavored snack food, wartime essential? Indeed - on March 27, 2003, the Knesset declared Bamba a vital staple food, meaning that workers at the Bamba factory in Holon would receive call-up orders to produce Bamba, just like soldiers. "We see the Bamba factory as vital, just like a bakery," said then-Labor Ministry official Nahum Eido.
War or no war, with or without Iraqi missiles, no Israeli kid would be without his Bamba.
Bamba's biggest commercial boost actually came about during the 1967 Six Day War. During the conflict, Army canteens stocked the snack, and soldiers loved it so much they took it home to share with their families. Two generations of Israelis later, the bright yellow peanut butter-tasting corn puffs rank as Israel's best selling snack food. Of all the peanuts imported into Israel, 77 percent end up in Bamba.
Wherever Jewish communities exist, anywhere in the world, Bamba will be found - and every single piece had its origins in just one place: the Bamba Factory, a modest, old-fashioned production facility in the Holon industrial area where workers are proud to remind you that much of the production of Bamba is still done by real people, not by machines.
As a tour site, it's tough to beat the Bamba Factory. "Over 25,000 visitors a year come through here," says factory manager Moshe Ptakevitch. "To school kids, I'm the Bamba Daddy," he jokes.
Ptakevitch, like most Bamba Factory workers, is a career employee with Osem, the parent company. He began managing the Bamba unit five years ago, but began his career at Osem's first factory, in Bnei Brak, a quarter century ago. For school kids from all over the country, the Bamba Factory is the place to go. "Our tours are usually booked six months in advance," he says. "Why is Bamba so popular? Lots of reasons: it's kosher, it's all natural, baked, not fried, with no trans fats, plus it's full of vitamins - a small package has 20% of what a seven year old kid needs in a day. But mostly it just tastes good."
The idea for an Israeli puffed-corn snack originated with a US product. "The factory was established in 1964," Ptakevitch says. "It first produced a cheddar cheese-flavored snack, like Frito-Lay's 'Cheetos.' But the cheesy flavor didn't appeal to the Israeli palate - I remember it, and to me, it didn't smell good. The product wasn't selling and they'd decided to close the factory, so people were trying to decide what to do with the buildings and all the equipment. Then someone came up with the idea of making a peanut flavored snack instead. They came up with a recipe, made some trial runs and tested the flavor with groups of Holon school kids. As far as we know, those Holon kids were the first consumer group in Israel to 'dictate' the manufacturing aspects of an Israeli product."
Today, everyone knows Bamba, and everyone recognizes the Bamba Baby - that cute, blue diaper-clad, little kid with one tooth, booties and a golden top curl. "The Bamba Baby didn't make an appearance until 1992," Ptakevitch notes, "but here, the Baby is as well recognized as the Disney characters."
Anat Shimron, Bamba's Snacks Brand Manager, spends a lot of time with the Bamba Baby. "The Baby is popular with everyone," she says. "He's ageless. Our research shows that children see him as someone like themselves, while adults love him because he reminds them of their childhood. He has a strong emotional appeal - which is excellent, of course, but it also makes it difficult, because we can't change anything. We do a lot of promotion with the Baby - he's the image of Bamba. So everything he does, everywhere he appears, he has to be the same. And always good, of course."
So Baby Bamba never cries? "He almost did, once," Shimron laughs. "We had a commercial where the Baby flew to Hollywood - but he got homesick, and almost, but not quite, cried."
Kids of all ages identify with the Baby. "All kinds of people, all ages, write to me, suggesting things the Baby should, or should not, do. At Purim, kids like to dress up as the Baby, so a few years ago, we had a Bamba Baby costume contest. That was fun. At the other end of the lifecycle, I had a letter from a nurse who was taking care of a 92 year old woman who was alone here in Israel, with no family. She'd been hospitalized, and had somehow seen a Bamba Baby doll we'd manufactured for a limited time, about 10 years before. The doll had never been sold, just used in promotions. 'Could you find one of those dolls for this elderly lady?' the nurse asked. I had one, so I sent it - and the nurse wrote back, sending pictures. The lady loved that doll, she said, adding that she cuddled it and talked to it. It made her life a little brighter. We do lots of promotions, especially at Purim and Hanukka, where we visit hospitals and kids homes, giving away Bamba and toys."
Some people even cook with Bamba, Shimron adds. "There are recipes out there for schnitzel using Bamba crumbs instead of matzo, and of fish rolled in crushed Bamba instead of flour. People are very creative."
Bamba's huge popularity makes marketing a challenge. "In Israel, kids start eating Bamba when they're just a year old," Shimron says. "They keep eating it all their lives, so it's hard to find new markets. We have to be very innovative - like developing our new interactive website: www.bamba.co.il. We call it 'Bamba Park,' and it has a lot of activities, games, all kinds of things kids enjoy doing."
Both summer and Pessah spark a rise in the demand for Bamba. "For most of the year, the factory runs two shifts a day, six days a week," manager Ptakevitch says. "Normally, we produce 10 million bags a month, in all different sizes. Summer increases the demand, and our Pessah production is enormous. Bamba is made of corn, not wheat, so it's popular among Sephardim. We go into high production before the holiday, running the factory 24 hours a day, six days a week. Bamba has a three-month shelf life, so we can't produce it very much in advance, but some grocery stores want their kosher-for Pessah supplies a month before the holiday. It's really busy around here then."
In addition to the 'original' peanut-butter flavor of Bamba, the factory also produces smaller runs of fruit flavored 'Comix,' the sweet popcorn 'Popco,' and Strawberry Bamba, which is round, not oblong. "Up until 2004, the red coloring of the Strawberry Bamba was artificial, but then we switched over to a coloring made from beetroot, so now that's all natural too," says Ptakevitch. "Original Bamba comes in many different packages - different sizes, different covers, with different designs, and in several languages. The package we designed for our grown-up soldiers doesn't have the Baby on it."
The factory is a friendly place. Kids' tours start with a film, telling them what they're about to see, then Baby Bamba himself comes out to welcome them. Inside, the factory is noisy, so kids need to hear the explanation before they enter. Visitors view the production process from an observation platform running the length of the building. Many of the busy workers below take time for a friendly wave.
Bamba begins as corn grits which are 'popped' under high pressure, turning them into long, unbroken lines of white, puffed, unflavored Bamba. The lines are cut into same-length nuggets, then moved to a drying chamber where they're air baked for about 20 seconds, just long enough to give them a crispy texture. Only toward the end is the peanut flavor added. The peanut butter, imported from Argentina, is added by an actual human who stands on a step above the rotating drums. At exactly the right moment, he pours a pre-measured pitcher-full of liquid peanut butter into each of the revolving containers. The drums turn, each nugget of Bamba is coated, and then the hot, very fresh Bamba is moved along a conveyor belt to cool before packaging.
Each individual packet is precisely filled by weight, then moved to one of 26 packaging lanes, although not all lanes work each shift. Most packers are long-time employees, who put each individual packet into the appropriate bag or box. Some small packages go into the familiar grocery store multi-packs, others go directly into cartons for individual sale. Bamba never comes in institutional sizes, Ptakevitch says. "Bamba is a personal treat. It's not served in restaurants, so there are no industrial sizes."
From there, full shipping cartons are loaded directly into trucks from loading ramps, then sent off around the world. Most Bamba stays in the Middle East, but some ends up in the most unlikely places. "People send me pictures of Bamba packages from all over," Shimron says. "I have pictures of Israelis eating Bamba in India, Nepal, Machu Picchu - all over South America. Wherever Israelis go, there's Bamba. For everyone, wherever they are, Bamba is a little taste of Israel."