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A Brief History of the Wet-Nap, Barbecue Sauce’s Worst Nightmare

From the boudoir to KFC, how the moist towelette evolved over time

Nick Solares/Eater
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

"My father was a creative, inventive guy," says Robert Julius, the chairman and CEO of Nice-Pak. His father Arthur Julius might not be a household name, but he created a product so ubiquitous it has joined the ranks of Xerox, Kleenex, and Band-Aid as a trademarked brand name that people now use as a part of their vocabulary. It's a product that (along with its imitators) can be found in barbecue chains around the country, big brands like Hill Country Barbecue, Smithfield's Chicken 'N Bar-B-Q, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Dallas BBQ, and more. To the delight of messy food lovers everywhere, Arthur Julius created the Wet-Nap.

The Wet-Nap brand produces 150 billion wipes per year; KFC alone doles out 30 million of them annually.

While the Wet-Nap seems like an inevitable innovation to the restaurant table-scape, Julius' inspiration came from the boudoir, not from the kitchen. It was in his work in the cosmetics industry that Julius came across what his son Robert calls "the very first pre-moistened wipe." Arthur considered the item a "real opportunity" in the world of cosmetics — and for hygiene more generally. But ultimately, the wet wipe did more, changing the course of his business forever.

In 1957, Julius spent $5,000 to acquire and adapt a machine that had been designed as a soup portioner, putting it in a loft in Manhattan. A year later, he had trademarked the name Wet-Nap. Working with a mechanic, he spent the next three years perfecting his newfangled hand-cleaning aid so that by the time the 1960 National Restaurant Show in Chicago rolled around, he was ready to unveil his invention. When Robert joined the company in 1963, he and his father had a plan to jump-start sales of their Wet-Nap. "We talked about, why don't we go and call on Colonel Sanders."

Photo: Roadside Pictures/Flickr

Photo: Roadside Pictures/Flickr

The connection, to the Julius family, was obvious. Since 1956, Kentucky Fried Chicken had a famous tag-line: "It's finger lickin' good." KFC's current chief marketing officer Kevin Hochman explains that the origin of the phrase comes from the recipe itself: The coating of the original recipe fried chicken sticks a bit to the fingers, a result of pressure-frying (one of the Colonel's essential innovations in cooking fried chicken quickly). Arthur and Robert knew an opportunity when they saw it, and got themselves a meeting with the Colonel himself in Shelbyville, Kentucky. "He called my father 'young man,'" Robert recalls. "My father was in his early fifties, but the Colonel was in his mid-seventies." That same year, the Wet-Nap was introduced into KFC stores.

According to Hochman, it was a no-brainer for the fried chicken chain. "You've got this stuff on your fingers, you lick a lot of it off, but eventually you want your hands clean. What your tongue doesn't get, the Wet-Nap will." For KFC, Wet-Naps serve as a customer-oriented innovation in the same vein as the bucket: a way to make the KFC experience unique. "Part of what we provide — that we think is an advantage versus some of our fast-food competition — is a real meal," says Hochman, who calls the Wet-Nap — and the ability for a diner to fully clean their hands after eating — a part of "the real meal experience." Hochman says that in the U.S., KFC gives out over 30 million Wet-Naps a year. Over the past 25 years, they've given away nearly a billion. "And that would be enough to reach halfway to the moon."

Courtesy of Royal Paper

Robert Julius says that landing KFC "certainly helped" the product catch on in restaurants. It also caught on with competitors. In the mid-1970s, the Pennsylvania-based Royal Paper started selling their own moist towelettes as a distributor (not a manufacturer). Their strategy: branding it as a portable, packaged item called the "Royal Fingerbowl." It's a smart line — connecting the humble towelette to the tradition of having a small bowl of water, often with added lemon, provided for cleaning fingers at the table. "It was a way of capturing that history and that brand name, and present it as an alternative to the Wet-Nap," says Royal Paper's vice president of sales Scott Milberg. He estimates that when it comes to market share, Royal Paper is somewhere in the 35 to45 percent range for food-service distribution for moist towelettes in the U.S. The market is still undeniably Nice-Pak's.

Today, Julius credits the success of the product to its ingenuity. "Almost every liquid, if you don't drink it or burn it for fuel, you use it for cleaning. You generally need an applicator with it. By designing the right applicator, the right delivery system... you actually improve the performance of the product." Here was Arthur's biggest innovation: creating an extremely efficient way to get that liquid onto the hands at the table. "I just think the key is having the right materials for the applicator," Julius says. "It's soft, it carries the right amount of liquid." The liquid is special too, a proprietary blend that "cleans well, smells good, and [has] no harsh chemicals."

The Wet-Nap can be found in restaurants across the country, and has also spurred the Nice-Pak company, which now produces an array of wipes besides the classic Wet-Nap. "If you look at the total array of all the products we make for food service, we're the dominant player," says Julius, referring to an array of wipes besides the Wet-Nap that are meant for front of house and back of house use. But, he demurs, "there's not a single statistic that measures all of those things." Beyond the food service industry, Nice-Pak sells products for the health care facilities as well as to consumers.

"I can only tell you that as a company, from that single product, we're now in every market," says Julius. "We produce over 150 billion wipes every year. It's a lot of wipes."

Hillary Dixler is Eater's senior reports editor.
Editor: Erin DeJesus