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I was a lover of small things as a child. I had an assortment of play food that included a 4-inch rubber pizza and a plastic pizza cutter. I had a galleon for my Playmobil pirates complete with tiny removable cleats and barrels of rum. I had an army of metal soldiers, with itsy-bitsy helmets and plate armor. I developed a passion for miniatures in the way many people do: playing with small versions of real-world objects. I’m certainly not alone in such adoration—humans have an innate attraction to tiny things. But as we grow older, we often forget the miniature world as we stop playing with toys.
As an adult, I didn’t think much about mini things until a couple of years ago when I was gifted the book In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World. In it, author Simon Garfield examines a variety of small-scale phenomena, including flea circuses, shabtis (small figurines from Egyptian tombs), and model trains. My early experiences coalesced as I read this, and I came to identify as more than a person with an idle interest in small things; I recognized myself as a “miniatures person.”
By Simon Garfield. Atria Books.
I started exploring small things on the internet, and, much to my delight, I realized an entire ecosystem of miniatures exists on Instagram. You can follow artists who make perfectly functioning mechanical dioramas or tiny barbecue spreads, or artists who will re-create a real-world bar or the set from the TV show Friends. This past year, with plenty of time in quarantine, I finally became a consumer, buying on eBay a mini cupboard filled with cans of retro goodies like steak and onions, beans and franks, and fruit cocktail. I also ordered a set of soups: bowls filled with clear polymer in which little vegetables and strips of meats emerge from the surface.
I’m in good company: Google Trends shows searches for “mini food” on a steady increase over the past 15 years. Amanda Hess, writing for the New York Times, explained how tiny food brought her the joys of supermarket shopping she was missing in quarantine. For me, the appeal lies in the visceral emotional connection I feel—the pull of seeing best-loved culinary favorites adorably rendered in miniature.
So I could hardly contain my shopping impulses when recently, looking through various miniature food channels, I stumbled across Mini Brands, a new line of tiny products from Hong Kong–based toy company Zuru that includes exact replicas of supermarket staples. Zuru makes lilliputian versions of products iconic to millennials and Gen Z like boxes of Honey Bunches of Oats, cartons of Almond Breeze, and bottles of Kraft dressing. The miniatures come packaged in an opaque plastic sphere that splits open into five compartments, each of which contains a teensy food item. While I was thrilled to see these familiar food items, I also was enchanted by the sheer variety and seemingly limitless possibility. Opening every sphere is a surprise: When you purchase one, you never know what will be inside. It brings back the feeling of rummaging for the toy in your Happy Meal and experiencing the adrenaline rush of discovering a new figurine.
In fact, when they launched in early 2019, Mini Brands were intended for the kids toy market. Aneisha Vieira, Zuru’s global brand director, explained to me that the series unexpectedly ended up finding its audience among Gen Z. Almost immediately after launching, it became wildly popular with TikTok influencers. By April of that year, #tinythings had become the most popular hashtag on TikTok. Mini Brands videos took off—creative pranks like filling a miniature jar of Hellmann’s with real mayonnaise (the minis come empty) and placing mini versions of food alongside their larger counterparts in the supermarket. “Hauls” also became popular, where influencers would buy entire floor-standing display units featuring somewhere between 44 and 88 Mini Brands spheres.
In some ways, this popularity is unsurprising; Mini Brands are that rare product that is a perfect amalgam of multiple trends. They combine the power of collectibles with the unboxing fad, a phenomenon popularized on YouTube in which influencers open up packages, narrating while they do so. And miniatures had been trending since 2014’s viral video “Tiny Hamster Eating Tiny Burritos,” featuring the titular rodent sitting in a chair made from crayon boxes, eating a burrito from a poker chip plate. 2018 saw the Tiny Chef, a 6-inch, roly-poly green creature rendered in stop-motion animation, kneading little loaves of bread and making apple pie in a bottle cap. He now has 615,000 followers.
According to Vieira, the company decided to capitalize on the social media craze, doubling down on manufacturing. It formed its own in-house creative team, developing a series of videos featuring Hammy the hamster as an influencer fanatical about Mini Brands, who spends most of her time on camera “shopping” in mini grocery stores.
Zuru has surely been helped by the fact that miniatures are uniquely suited to online enjoyment. Seeing photographs of minis allows you to zoom in closer than your eye could get, and simultaneously avoids some of the possible incongruities you’d discern in person like the weight or scale of the object. They’re also a simple visual gag: Here’s this thing you know well, but now made incredibly small. You can understand the concept in a few seconds on your feed, marvel at it, and move on.
Mini Brands also have the added appeal of nostalgia. They’re perfect replicas of preexisting grocery items, right down to the text on the back of the packages. And with their mass production, Zuru has made Mini Brands more affordable than the tiny products artisans and artists have always sold on Etsy and eBay. Mini Brands typically cost less than $1.50 per mini, making it feasible to amass a large collection at a reasonable price.
And it’s through a large collection that these products really shine. My drive for collection grew partly from the thrill of not knowing what I was going to get, hoping that my next product would truly round out my condiment inventory. It’s not unlike bringing home a real haul of groceries—the contentment of unpacking everything and putting things in their proper place. Though I can’t eat my tiny package of bacon or box of Moon Pies, organizing and admiring them has its own delicious satisfaction.