Chef Boyardee was a real man, but he spelled his last name a little different from what you see on the cans of his pasta in sauce. Ettore "Hector" Boiardi was born in Italy and immigrated to Cleveland in 1914. In 1924 he opened a restaurant there by the name of Il Giardino d'Italia, and it was a smash hit. Customers constantly asked him for his recipe, and four years later he decided to can his top-selling spaghetti and sell it that way as well. He opened a factory, changed the name to Boyardee to make it easier to pronounce, and the rest is history.
In 1977, Debbi Fields and her husband Randall decided to open a cookie shop in Palo Alto, Calif. Even though she had no business experience, the shop, and her cookies, was a runaway success, and in 1990 the company began selling franchises. The business has been having some financial difficulties lately, but Mrs. Fields remains a household name.
Don Callender’s mother, Marie, made some fantastic pies, and in 1948 Don turned it into a wholesale pie business using his mother’s old recipes. Don and Marie lived together in a Huntington Beach, Calif., trailer; Marie would bake the pies and Don would deliver them to restaurants on his bicycle. In 1964 he opened the first Marie Callender’s pie and coffee shop in Los Angeles, and its down-home pies, fully stocked bar, and salad bar made it and the additional locations that soon opened big hits and the subject of plenty of imitators. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2011, but the pies and other frozen foods are still a frequent sight in the frozen food aisle.
Dave Thomas, a former owner of four KFC outposts, opened the first Wendy’s in 1969 in Columbus, Ohio, and today it’s one of the country’s most popular fast-food chains. But where did its name from? Thomas, who was a familiar face in commercials for the brand from 1989 until his death in 2002, named the restaurant Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers after his daughter Melinda Lou, who was 8 years old at the time. She had difficulty pronouncing her name (it usually came out "Wenda"), and the nickname stuck. Even though she now goes by her married name of Melinda Lou Morse, she’s still Wendy Thomas in her capacity as the company’s spokesperson, a role she’s held since 2012.
Wally Amos grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., and graduated from New York’s Food Trades Vocational High School, all the while working to perfect his aunt’s chocolate chip cookie recipe. He did a stint in the U.S. Air Force and at the William Morris Agency, where he was the company’s first African-American agent and lured clients, including Diana Ross and Simon & Garfunkel, with his stellar chocolate chip cookies. In 1975 a friend convinced him to open a cookie shop, and he did just that with the help of an investment from friends Marvin Gaye and Helen Reddy. The shop was a hit, the cookies soon hit supermarket shelves, and Amos is today a near-household name and author of nine self-help books.
Ben and Jerry are in fact two real people, as the photo on every tub of their ice cream and frozen yogurt will tell you. Founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were childhood friends from New York, and in 1977 they decided to go into business together, first wanting to open a bagel shop but eventually settling on ice cream because it was easier. They took a $5 correspondence course, settled on Burlington, Vt., because it was the only college town they could find without an ice cream shop, and on May 5, 1978, with a $12,000 investment, Ben & Jerry’s was born. Ben and Jerry are still involved with the company, but today devote most of their time to philanthropic efforts.
Joseph A. Campbell, of Campbell’s Soup Company fame, lived from 1817 to 1900. In 1869 he teamed up with one Abraham Anderson to start a beefsteak tomato canning and preserving company. In 1876 they received a medal for their work at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, which still graces cans of their soup today. Campbell bought Anderson out in 1891, and along with chemist John T. Dorrance Campbell perfected the art of making condensed soup. In 1897 they released tomato, chicken, oxtail, vegetable, and consommé, the following year their familiar red-and-white design was unveiled, and a 1904 marketing strategy introducing the Campbell’s Kids helped put Campbell’s name on the map.
Shortly after immigrating from Germany in 1873, 14 year-old Oscar Mayer got a job as an apprentice at a Chicago meat market, quickly learned the ropes, and by 1900 Mayer, along with his brothers Gottfried and Max, was running one of the city’s most successful sausage-making operations. Folks lined up to purchase their authentic German sausages, and horse-drawn wagons delivered their products to the city’s furthest reaches. In 1904, Mayer had the brilliant idea to stamp the word "Edelweiss" on every package of their sausage, bacon, and lard, helping to differentiate it from the competition, and in 1906, shortly after the creation of the Food Safety Inspection Service, the company was one of the first to volunteer for inspection, guaranteeing the high quality of their product. In 1924 the company invented pre-sliced, packaged bacon; in 1929, Mayer decided to stamp his own name onto his products and wrap wieners with a yellow paper band (one of history’s most brilliant branding moves); in 1936 the Wienermobile rolled off the line; and by the time Mayer died in 1955 at the ripe old age of 96, he’d watched his company turn into a household name.
In 1916, German immigrant Nathan Handwerker, who was working at famed Coney Island restaurant Feltman’s at the time, was convinced by singing waiters Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante to open a hot dog stand of his own. He and his wife Ida pooled their life savings of $300 and opened a small stand on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues selling hot dogs (using Ida’s grandmother’s recipe) for $0.05, as opposed to Feltman’s $0.10. In order to convince the wary public that his franks were fit for human consumption, he hired men wearing surgeon’s smocks to hang out in front of the stand (one of the all-time great publicity stunts), and the original Nathan’s, which remains on that corner today, was a runaway success. Nathan’s son Murray began opening additional outposts in 1959, and today it’s one of the most successful fast-food chains around.
The story of Heinz is about as classic as it gets. Pittsburgh native Henry J. Heinz began his career as a foodstuff packer, and in 1876, along with two partners, he began selling ketchup and other relishes. Heinz bought them out in 1888, changed the company name to the H.J. Heinz Company, and in 1896 he had the idea to market the company as selling 57 varieties, even though that was far from the truth (Heinz claimed that he settled on the number at random because it sounded good). By the end of the century baked beans, sweet pickles, tomato ketchup, soup, and chutney, mustard, celery salad, India relish, and plenty of other packaged foods were being produced by the company, which pioneered processes for sanitary food preparation and led a lobbying effort in favor of the Pure Food and Drug Act. By the time Heinz died at the age of 74 in 1919, he presided over a company with more than 20 processing plants, seed farms, and container factories.
Sara Lee, best known for its line of packaged baked goods, started as a Chicago-based chain of bakeries called Kitchens of Sara Lee. Named after founder Charles Lubin’s then 8-year old daughter Sara Lee Lubin, the company was purchased by Consolidated Foods in 1956, which ended up changing its name to the Sara Lee Corporation in 1985. The company is actually defunct today after a series of mergers and name changes, but Lubin, who today is 72 and goes by the married name of Sara Lee Schupf, still lends her name to a line of bread.
Jerome Monroe Smucker first began pressing cider in 1897 in Orrville, Ohio, using apples from trees planted by Johnny Appleseed himself. Soon after that he began selling jars of apple butter with his name stamped on it off the back of a horse-drawn wagon with his son Willard, and in 1921 the J.M. Smucker Company was incorporated. Over the following decades the company began to grow and release more preserves, jams, and jellies, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find a kitchen without a jar of Smucker’s in it.
George A. Hormel opened his first pork processing plant in 1891 in Austin, Minn., and in 1901, thanks to gangbusters sales of his fresh pork products, he opened a retail shop in Minneapolis. In 1910 he began running advertisements to help boost sales, and in the 1920s he pioneered a truck-based distribution system and rolled out a groundbreaking invention, the canned ham. Hormel retired and handed the company over to his son Jay in 1927, and 10 years later the most groundbreaking food invention of them all, SPAM, rolled off the production line for the first time.
When we think of Keebler we tend to first think of elves, but there’s in fact a real man behind the brand. Godfrey Keebler opened a small Philadelphia bakery in 1853, and together with a group of other local bakeries he helped start an amalgam that helped increase their distribution. By 1944, the network that Keebler was the first member of, by then named the United Biscuit Company of America, included 16 bakeries with a market scope that stretched from Philadelphia all the way to Salt Lake City. In 1966 it was decided that all these diverse bakeries needed to be consolidated into a single corporate entity. The name they chose was of the man who started it all, Keebler. Today, all Keebler products are festooned with his name and a jolly elf whose name is Ernie, invented by the Leo Burnett Company in 1970.
Orville Redenbacher, the man, was born on a farm in Indiana in 1907, and when he was 12 he started growing popping corn, the sale of which allowed him to save enough money to attend college. He continued selling his corn and working on developing a hybrid that popped up lighter and fluffier, and in the mid-1940s Redenbacher started selling his corn for the mass market. By 1965 the hybrid had been perfected, resulting in the fluffy, minimal-hull popcorn we eat today. By the 1970s Orville had become a familiar face on television thanks to his appearing on commercials for the product, and even though he died in 1995, his smiling visage adorns every package of his popcorn today.
Jimmy Dean didn’t get into the sausage game until 1969, but he was a well-known name long before that. Though he’s perhaps best remembered for his line of sausages, Dean was also a legendary country music singer, with his biggest hit, "Big Bad John," topping the charts in 1961. He also hosted a television series called The Jimmy Dean Show, which gave puppeteer Jim Henson his first national media exposure, and he also had a role in the 1971 Bond film Diamonds are Forever. His second career, however, was as a sausage man. He started the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company with his brother Don, and as its spokesman he brought a down-home country feel to commercials for the product. He appeared in commercials for it until 2003, and he passed away at the age of 81 in 2010.
Although Duncan Hines is most closely associated with cake mix and frosting these days, the man behind the brand name was actually a traveling salesman who ate his way across America. At the age of 55, in 1935, he self-published a book called Adventures in Good Eating, a collection of his favorite restaurants across the country. It became a runaway hit, spurring Hines to write an additional book about lodgings, and over the years if your establishment boasted a "Recommended by Duncan Hines" sign, quality could be counted on. By 1953 Hines was a household name, and that year he allowed his name to be licensed for use on a host of food products, most notably cake mix. Even though he’s best known for cake mix today, his book was one of the most influential restaurant guides ever written (and if you look at the company’s logo, it’s his signature in an open book).