And You Thought They Were All Just Made Up Marketing Tools
Day after day, as you shop the grocery aisles, leaf through magazines, click around the Internet, or drive around town, you're likely to encounter a lot of foods and food brands that are named after people: Betty Crocker, Sara Lee, and Aunt Jemima, for example. The question is how many of these iconic food characters are real and how many are just made up for advertising purposes. The list may surprise you.
Betty Crocker - Sorry, folks, Bets is a fake. Developed in 1921 by the Washburn-Crosby Company to help sell its food products and recipes, the name “Betty” was thought to be bright and cheery while “Crocker” was chosen as a tribute to Washburn-Crosby director William Crocker.
Sara Lee – She's for real. Around 1949, Chicago baker Charlie Lubin created a line of cheesecakes which he named “Sara Lee's” after his eight year old daughter, Sara Lee Lubin. Lubin later sold his recipes and the “Sara Lee” name to Consolidated Foods
Aunt Jemima – This one's a little tricky. In 1875, African-American comic and dancer Billy Kersands wrote a song about “Old Aunt Jemima.” Although there was never a “real” “Aunt Jemima,” actresses portrayed the character in minstrel shows throughout the latter part of the 19th century. Around 1889, St. Joseph, Missouri businessmen Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood appropriated the character to promote their new ready-made pancake mix. Numerous actresses made appearances as “Aunt Jemima” in various forms of advertising up through the 1960s, after which the old image of the plump “mammy” with a headscarf and a polka dot dress was retired and updated to look a bit less racially stereotyped and a little more like a modern homemaker.
Mrs. Butterworth – Need some syrup to go with those Aunt Jemima pancakes? Call in Mrs. Butterworth! But no matter how long and loud you call, she won't hear you. She's a made up character created by Pinnacle Foods in 1961.
Uncle Ben – Mars, Inc insists that well-known rice man “Uncle Ben” is based on a real person, an African-American rice grower known for the quality of his product. Of course, the bow-tied guy depicted on the box since 1946 isn't actually that rice grower: it is said that the image is that of a Chicago maître d' named Frank Brown. As for the “converted rice” process attributed to “Uncle Ben,” you can thank German-British scientist and chemist Erich Huzenlaub and British scientist and chemist Francis Heron Rogers for that. In fact, the process is called the “Huzenlaub Process,” but I suppose “Uncle Ben's Huzenlaubed Rice” wouldn't jump off store shelves as quickly.
Little Debbie – That cute little girl on the Swiss Cake Rolls, Nutty Bars, and Oatmeal Creme Pies can't be for real, right? Actually, she is, although there was a little artistic license taken with her image. Back in the 1960s, the founders of Collegedale, Tennessee-based McKee Foods, O.D. and Ruth McKee, decided to name a product after their 4-year-old granddaughter, Debbie. The artist who created the packaging, however, was instructed to make little Debbie look a little older, say 8 or 9.
Jimmy Dean – Yep, there was a real Jimmy Dean behind the sausage that bears his name. Born in Plainview, Texas in 1928, Jimmy Dean rose to fame first as a country music singer and television host. His biggest hit was the 1961 country/pop/rock 'n' roll crossover “Big Bad John.” He also found work as a film actor, appearing in the 1971 James Bond movie “Diamonds Are Forever.” But one day, he and his brother Dan were having breakfast in a Plainview diner when Jimmy made the statement, “You know, there has got to be room in this country for a good quality sausage!” And he decided to make one, founding the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in 1969.
Oscar Mayer – Oscar's also the real deal. German immigrant Oscar Ferdinand Mayer started out working in a Detroit meat market before moving to Chicago in 1876. He labored in a North Side meat market for a few years, but eventually started up his own butcher and sausage shop in 1883.
Duncan Hines – Ice cream was the first Duncan Hines product to hit the market in 1950, sold by the Lehigh Valley Cooperative Farmers dairy of Allentown, PA. Then Durkee's Bakery in Homer, New York started selling Duncan Hines bread in 1952. Next came the iconic cake mix from Nebraska Consolidated Mills out of Omaha, Nebraska in 1953. But who was Duncan Hines and why did people want to put his name on everything? Born in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1880, Duncan Hines was a traveling salesman representing a Chicago printer. As such, he ate a lot of meals on the road. And he kept a journal of places he liked. In order to help fellow travelers find a decent meal in the days before interstate highways and chain restaurants, Hines and his wife compiled a little book of good places to eat based on his travels and his journal. Then he expanded to lodging recommendations. By the mid-1950s, Hines was a food critic, writing a syndicated column that ran in newspapers across the country. The Duncan Hines “seal of approval” was only awarded to establishments – and products – that met his rigorous standards and were then permitted to display signs proclaiming “Recommended by Duncan Hines.”
Chef Boyardee – Yep, the chef on the spaghetti cans really existed and wasn't just a made up marketing character. His name was Ettore Boiardi, a real life Italian chef who emigrated from his native Piacenza in 1914. He went on to open his successful Giardino d'Italia (Garden of Italy) restaurant in Cleveland in 1926. Restaurant patrons were so taken with his tomato sauce that they asked for take-home samples, which the chef provided in clean milk bottles. He started selling his “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee” products nationwide in 1929, having changed his name to Hector Boyardee because Americans couldn't wrap their tongues around his Italian name. Boiardi produced canned rations for Allied troops during World War II, for which he was awarded a Gold Star order of excellence from the U S War Department.
Orville Redenbacher – No, the funny-looking guy with the horn-rimmed glasses and the bowtie wasn't just made up by an ad agency to sell popcorn. Orville Clarence Redenbacher, the former fertilizer salesman from Brazil, Indiana, was quite real. In fact, in “Orville Redenbacher's Popcorn Book,” he takes pains to state, “I want to make it clear that I am real.” He launched his “RedBow” hybrid popcorn – an amalgam of his name and his partner, Charlie Bowman's – in 1970 and by mid-decade had captured fully one-third of the American unpopped popcorn market.
Mama Celeste – There really is a “Mama” Celeste behind the smiling face on the frozen pizza boxes. Anthony and Celeste (née Luise) Lizio came to the United States from Italy in the 1920s, settling on Chicago's West Side, where they opened their first restaurant in 1932. Their pizza became so popular that in 1962, they shuttered their restaurant and went into business selling frozen pizzas to other restaurants. Quaker Oats got involved in 1969 and soon the frozen pizza with Mama's face on the box became one of the top selling brands of the 1970s. The Celeste brand today is owned by Pinnacle Foods.
Marie Callender – Marie Callender and her family lived in a trailer park in Huntington Beach, California in the 1930s. Marie baked pies to supplement the family income, pies which her son, Don, delivered on his bicycle. By 1948, Don had given up the bike and had founded a wholesale pie business supplying area restaurants. Later he started a restaurant of his own and named it after his mother. The restaurant became a chain and the chain spawned a line of packaged and frozen foods marketed under the Marie Callender brand.
Mrs. Smith – And since we're talking about frozen pies, how about Mrs. Smith's? Real person or marketing gimmick? Real as the day is long. Pottstown, Pennsylvania housewife Amanda Smith made some pretty good deep-dish, fruit-filled pies back in the early 1920s. So good, in fact, that her son, Robert P. Smith, started selling slices door-to-door and at the local YMCA lunch counter. Then came a delivery route (probably not on a bicycle) and a small store. All of this led to the 1925 formation of “Mrs. Smith's Delicious Home Made Pies, Inc.” The company began producing its now even more famous frozen pies in 1952.
Famous Amos – Did I say “famous?” How about “Famous Amos,” the cookie man? He's for real for sure. Wallace “Wally” Amos liked to bake cookies with his aunt in 1948 New York. When he went to work as a talent agent for the William Morris Agency, he would sometimes send his home-baked chocolate chip cookies to celebrities as an enticement for a personal meeting. And they were g-o-o-o-d cookies! So good that Marvin Gaye and Helen Reddy ponied up $25K for Wally to start his own cookie store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. And the “Famous Amos” brand took off from there.
Mrs. Fields – Mrs. Fields turns out some pretty good cookies, too. But is there really a “Mrs. Fields?” There really is. Debbi Fields and her husband Randy opened the first of many stores selling homemade cookies in Palo Alto, California in 1977.
Captain Morgan – Okay, the pirate guy on the rum bottle has got to be a marketing gimmick, right? Yes and no. There was a real Welsh pirate...er-r-r “privateer”.... named Henry Morgan who roamed the Spanish Main from his base in Port Royal, Jamaica from 1663 until about 1671. He didn't make rum, but he did make a lot of money raiding ships and settlements around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. He wound up a wealthy sugar planter and lieutenant governor of Jamaica. When Seagram's started manufacturing a new rum in 1944, his name seemed as good a choice as any to slap on the label.
Okay. How about looking at some iconic food brands that don't have faces on the labels but do have real faces behind them.
Hormel – A real guy named George A. Hormel was a slaughterhouse worker in Chicago. He transitioned to being a traveling salesman dealing in wool and hides, which led him to Austin, Minnesota. He found that he liked it there, so he borrowed five-hundred dollars and opened a meat business that evolved into George A. Hormel & Co in 1891 and now operates as Hormel Foods.
Wrigley's – More than just a name on a chewing gum package and a baseball park, William Wrigley, Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1861. With thirty-two dollars in his pocket, he moved to Chicago in 1891 and started selling soap. He offered customers a premium gift of baking powder with the purchase of his soap. He soon found the baking powder to be more popular, so he switched to selling baking powder and giving away chewing gum as a premium. And the gum got to be more popular than the powder, so......After introducing the world to “Juicy Fruit” and “Spearmint” in 1893 and “Doublemint” in 1914 and becoming a “confectionery magnate,” he wound up owning a major league baseball team (the Chicago Cubs), most of Catalina Island off the coast of California, a few hotels, some steamships, and five mansions across the country, the smallest of which was his 16,000 square foot “winter cottage” near Phoenix. Chew on that.
Birdseye – Yep. Real person. Clarence Frank Birdseye II is considered by most to be the father of frozen foods. Birdseye worked for the USDA and was in Labrador and Newfoundland off and on between 1912 and 1915, While there, he was taught by the native Inuit how to ice fish under very thick ice. In -40 ° weather, he discovered that the fish he caught froze almost instantly, and, when thawed, still tasted fresh, unlike the more conventionally frozen seafood he'd had in his New York home. This led him to pursue development of quick freezing methods that ultimately resulted in the founding of Birdseye Seafoods Inc. and later the Birds Eye Frozen Food Company in 1929.
Stouffer's – There's a real Stouffer in the history of Stouffer's. Abraham E. Stouffer, to be exact. He started with a Cleveland, Ohio area creamery and a dairy stand in 1914 and moved up to a restaurant around 1922. More restaurants followed, including the first locations outside Ohio. The Stouffer Corporation debuted in 1929 and expanded into frozen foods in 1946, ten years after its founder's death. The Stouffer's brand is now owned by Nestlé.
Keebler – When it comes to cookies, Keebler is really big. They are the second largest maker of cookies and crackers in the United States, and even though “Ernest J. 'Ernie' Keebler” may be the famous face of the brand, it was actually Godfrey Keebler who opened a bakery in Philadelphia in 1853, a bakery that eventually networked and merged with other bakeries to form the United Biscuit Company of America in 1927. Elves in hollow trees indeed!
Kellogg's – Snap, Crackle, and Pop, Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam and, of course, Cornelius (the rooster on the corn flakes box) are the most notable faces of Kellogg's today. But the brand goes back to the turn of the twentieth century when the Kellogg brothers, Will Keith (“W.K.”) and Dr. John Harvey (“J.H”) set up the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1898. The company was started to provide “health foods” – like corn flakes and granola – for current and former patients at Dr. J. H. Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium. The company became known as the Kellogg Food Company in 1908 and began to market its products under the “Kellogg's” brand. When Will wanted to sell cereal outside the sanitarium's clientele base, J.H. balked at the idea and the brothers had a falling out. W.K. established the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, producing and marketing – guess what? – Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes. As a result of the success of the cereal, the company name changed to the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1909 and later became the Kellogg Company in 1922, which it remains today
Smucker's – They say “with a name like Smucker's, you have to be good.” And the J.M Smucker Company has been producing very good jellies, jams, and other food products since Jerome Monroe Smucker started it in Orrville, Ohio back in 1897.
Campbell's – Okay, the “Campbell Soup Kids” are world-famous, but is there really a Campbell behind Campbell's? Oh, yeah. Joseph A. Campbell, a fruit merchant from Bridgeton, New Jersey, who started the “Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company” in 1876. The company reorganized twenty years later and became “Joseph Campbell & Company” in 1896. But it was a chemist working for a wage of $7.50 a week, one John T. Dorrance, who shaped the company's future around 1897 when he developed a commercially viable method for condensing soup. He became president of the company in 1914 and eventually bought out the Campbell family.
Kraft – Canadian James Lewis Kraft immigrated to the United States in 1903 and wound up selling cheese door-to-door in Chicago. He lost $3,000 and a horse his first year in business. But things improved and soon J.L. joined up with his four brothers in 1909 to form the J.L. Kraft and Bros. Company. It became the Kraft Cheese Company in 1924 and continued to grow and expand to global proportions.
Heinz – Henry J. Heinz started out selling horseradish in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania around 1869. He soon expanded his line to include ketchup, pickles, baked beans, and numerous other food products. His famous “57 Varieties” slogan was inspired by an advertisement for a shoe store boasting “21 styles.” Heinz picked the number “57” more or less at random because he liked the sound of it.
Lay's – When Charlotte, North Carolina-born Herman Warden Lay started selling potato chips out of his car in 1931, he probably had no idea where it would take him.
Bush's – Andrew Jackson Bush is the man behind the beans. He started the family enterprise back in 1904. And yes, Jay Bush, the guy who does the Bush's Baked Beans commercials with his dog, Duke, really is a member of the Bush family. He's A.J.'s great-grandson.
Ghirardelli – Domenico Ghirardelli was born in Rapallo, Italy in 1817. The son of an exotic food importer, he was introduced to chocolate at an early age and soon apprenticed as a candy maker. Ghirardelli emigrated to America in 1849 and opened a general store in Stockton, California, selling basic supplies but also confections to gold seeking miners. He later opened a second store in San Francisco, where the company that bears his name remains headquartered today. (Well, technically, it's across the bay in San Leandro, but......)
And since we're on the subject of sweets, let's examine:
Hershey – How many guys do you know who get their hometown renamed after them? Milton S. Hershey was one. After starting up a candy shop in Philadelphia in 1873, Hershey moved around a bit before landing back home in Derry Church, Pennsylvania in 1886. He founded the Lancaster Caramel Company there but after seeing a chocolate making demonstration at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he declared, “Caramels are just a fad, but chocolate is a permanent thing.” And, apparently, he was right.
Nestlé – Swiss confectioner Henri Nestlé was the founder of the company that bears his name and was also one of the main creators of condensed milk.
Heath – The toffee and milk chocolate Heath candy bar, now produced by Hershey, was first developed and marketed in 1914 by L.S. Heath.
Oh Henry – Nobody knows for sure where the name for the candy bar made of peanuts, caramel, and fudge coated in chocolate really came from. It was first introduced in 1909 by the Williamson Candy Company of Chicago
. The most popular theory holds that the bar was named by the guy who created it, one Tom Henry, owner of the Peerless Candy Company, who dubbed his confection the “Tom Henry Bar.” When Henry sold out to Williamson, they renamed the bar as “Oh Henry.”
Baby Ruth – The same ambiguity surrounds the Baby Ruth bar, made by Chicago's Curtiss Candy Company and originally marketed as “Kandy Kake.” The battle has raged for almost a hundred years over whether the bar was named for President Grover Cleveland's daughter, Ruth – the official stance held by the manufacturer – or for famous baseball slugger Babe Ruth. Both sides of the issue present evidence to support their claim and denigrate the other's. The Babe Ruth faction points out that Ruth Cleveland died at age 12 about seventeen years before the candy bar was created and that the former president himself, who hadn't been in office in over twenty-four years, died thirteen years before the bar was first produced. So why would a candy company choose to honor the name of a long dead president's long dead daughter? And why would a candy company located down the street from Wrigley Field not name a product after a baseball superstar – unless it was because they didn't want to have to pay him for the use of his name. We may never know.
Snickers – This one we do know: Franklin Clarence Mars owned Mars, Inc. – successor to the Mars Candy Factory and the Mar-O-Bar Company – in Minneapolis. He also had a favorite horse, a horse by the name of – you guessed it – Snickers.
Tootsie Roll – Here's another one with a fairly clear history. Austrian Jewish immigrant Leo Hirschfield started working out of a small candy shop in New York in 1896. He went bankrupt and committed suicide in 1922, but not before naming his most famous creation after his daughter, Clara, whose nickname was “Tootsie.”
Now let's turn to the names attached to some of your favorite fast food places. Like:
McDonald's – No, Ronald McDonald is not the owner of or the inspiration for the fast-food pioneering restaurant. A Chicago milkshake mixer salesman named Ray Kroc was actually the guy responsible for erecting “golden arches” around the world. But the place is called “McDonald's” instead of “Kroc's” because Ray was impressed by the modern, mechanized, “assembly line” approach to food preparation utilized by Richard and Maurice McDonald at their San Bernadino, California eatery. Ray partnered with – and some say shafted – the McDonald brothers in a franchising operation which started in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines and blossomed into the McBehemoth we know today.
A&W – Started up in 1919 as a walk-up root beer stand in Lodi, California, under the auspices of Roy W. Allen – the “A” half of the name – and Frank Wright, who supplied the “W.”
Arby's – Back in 1964, a couple of restaurant equipment salesmen in Boardman, Ohio got the idea that fast food could be based on something other than hamburgers. “Why not roast beef,” said brothers Forrest and Leroy Raffel. And they called their venture “Arby's” based on the initials “RB” for “Raffel Brothers.” Clever, huh?
Wendy's – Yes, there is a real “Wendy” behind famously square “old-fashioned” burger joint Wendy's. In 1969, founder Dave Thomas dubbed his first restaurant at 257 East Broad Street, in Columbus, Ohio “Wendy's” in honor of his eight-year-old daughter, Melinda Lou Thomas, whom everybody called “Wendy.”
KFC/Colonel Sanders – Today, its just called “KFC”. It used to be known as “Kentucky Fried Chicken” until the Commonwealth of Kentucky trademarked their name in 1990, forcing anybody who wanted to use the word “Kentucky” in their business to obtain state permission and be subject to licensing fees. But way back when, the company that introduced chicken into the fast food mix was also known by the name of it's founder, Harland David Sanders, a guy who ran a gas station and restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky. Sanders developed a unique method for preparing fried chicken using a pressure fryer and “eleven secret herbs and spices.” Commissioned as a “Kentucky Colonel” by Gov. Lawrence Wetherby in 1950, “Colonel Sanders” went on to franchise his process and to have his name and image immortalized the world over.
Jimmy John's – Yes, Virginia, there is a real Jimmy John. After graduating from high school in 1982 second from the last in his class, Jimmy John Liautaud's father offered him a choice: military service or business. Jimmy John chose business and, with a $25,000 loan from Dad, opened a hot dog business that later morphed into a sandwich shop, the foundation of a franchising operation headquartered in Champaign, Illinois that now exceeds three-thousand stores nationwide.
Papa John's – There's a real “Papa John,” too. After selling his 1971 Z28 Camaro to purchase $1,600 worth of used pizza equipment, Jeffersonville, Indiana native John Schnatter converted a broom closet in his father's tavern into a pizza shop in 1984, and “Papa John's Pizza” was born.
Sbarro – On the topic of pizza, there really is a Sbarro behind the Sbarro pizza chain found in malls across America. Italian immigrants Gennaro and Carmela Sbarro opened their first salumeria (an Italian grocery store) at 1701 65th Street and 17th Avenue in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York in 1956. The initial success of the business and its fresh Italian fare led to other locations in the metro New York City area. The first mall-based Sbarro opened in Brooklyn's Kings Plaza Shopping Center in 1970 and spread nationwide from there.
Burger King – C'mon, really? You didn't actually think there was a real “Burger King,” did you? Nah, the place was called “Insta-Burger King” – after the Insta-Broiler used to cook the burgers – when it was founded in 1953 in Jacksonville, Florida by Keith J. Kramer and his wife's uncle Matthew Burns.
Finally, a few words about a few foods that were named after few famous people.
Graham crackers – named for 19th century temperance preacher Sylvester Graham
Turkey/Chicken tetrazzini – generally believed to have been invented around 1908 at either San Francisco's Palace Hotel or New York City's Knickerbocker Hotel and named after Italian opera star Luisa Tetrazzini.
Fettuccine Alfredo – credit this one to an early 20th century Roman restaurateur named Alfredo di Lelio
Cobb salad – invented around 1937 at Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant and named for owner Robert Howard Cobb
Salisbury steak – the name has nothing to do with the cathedral city in Wiltshire, England. The dish was developed by an American diet physician, Dr. J. H. Salisbury around 1897.
Bananas Foster – created in New Orleans at Brennan's restaurant in 1951 by chef Paul Blangé, the dessert was named after owner Owen Brennan's friend, Richard Foster.
Caesar salad – no Roman emperors were involved in the naming of this salad. It was named for Italian immigrant restaurateur Caesar Cardini, who claimed to have first made it at his Tijuana, Mexico restaurant in 1924.
German chocolate cake – nothing “German” about it except the name of its creator, American baker Samuel German, who developed a type of dark baking chocolate for the Baker's Chocolate Company in 1852.
Earl Grey tea – thought to be named after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey and British Prime Minister in the 1830s, who supposedly received a diplomatic gift of black tea flavored with bergamot oil.
Granny Smith and McIntosh apples – Maria Ann “Granny” Smith developed the apple that bears her name in Australia in 1868, while Scottish-Canadian farmer John McIntosh is said to have discovered the original McIntosh sapling on his Dundela farm in Upper Canada in 1811.
Melba toast – created by original “celebrity chef” Auguste Escoffier around 1897 in tribute to Australian opera singer Helen Porter Mitchell, whose stage name was Dame Nellie Melba.
Nachos – a maître d'hôtel at a restaurant in the Mexican border town of of Piedras Negras is credited with creating this popular snack for the wives of U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan in nearby Eagle Pass, Texas in 1943. The ladies arrived at the restaurant after it had closed for the day, but Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya went to the kitchen and scavenged. He cut tortillas into triangles, fried them, added shredded cheddar cheese and sliced pickled jalapeño peppers and served them up. The women were wowed and when they asked what the dish was called, the clever waiter answered, “Nacho's especiales,” which eventually morphed into “special Nachos” and finally just “nachos.”
The Sandwich – everybody knows this one: 18th century aristocrat and gambler John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, was hungry but didn't want to interrupt his card game to eat. So he ordered his valet to bring him slices of meat tucked between two pieces of bread. That way he could eat one-handed without using a fork or getting his cards greasy. The form caught on as others began to order “the same as Sandwich!”