Soft-cookie warriors are playing the game hard

When they're feeling frivolous, executives at the Keebler Company call it the Great Cookie War. But there is little doubt their chief executive officer, Thomas Garvin, takes the company's recent bite into the soft-cookie market very seriously.

''We are playing for some extremely high stakes,'' Garvin says. ''I'm not going to get into numbers, but I can tell you that the magnitude of marketing support plans for us and all our competitors are greater than this industry has ever seen in the past.''

Neither Nabisco, the nation's largest cookiemaker, nor Keebler, the second largest, was responsible for starting the soft-cookie conflict, which threatens to push aside all other types of cookies on the grocers' shelves. Rather, it was Dallas-based Frito-Lay that fired the first shot, buying a small baker in Beaverton, Ore., and marketing its Grandma's cookies.

In January 1983 Procter & Gamble, the Cincinnati giant, followed with soft cookies marketed under the venerable Duncan Hines label. Seven months later it was Nabisco's turn. The baking company introduced its Almost Home line of soft cookies.

Two months ago Keebler announced its Soft Batch cookies and put them on grocery shelves in Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Syracuse, N.Y.; Knoxville, Tenn.; the Grand Rapids area of western Michigan; and several sites in Florida. In April and early May, the cookies went into Los Angeles; San Diego; Louisville , Ky.; Memphis; Chicago; Milwaukee; and Indianapolis.

Keebler's aim is to make its cookies available to 40 percent of the population. No company has yet marketed soft cookies nationwide.

Mr. Garvin is as cautious as he is serious about the level of Soft Batch success: ''Our entry into the market has just begun, so we're viewing our market penetration each month. I will tell you this - our volume expectations are being exceeded at our production facilities, where we are running on an overtime basis and working three Saturdays out of every four.''

''But this is not going to be a short-lived competition. . . . I think we are in this thing over a period of at least two to three years, certainly, and it is likely over time to create structural changes within the industry.''

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