Editor's Plate: Remembering the Earliest Food and Beverage Entrepreneurs

Sept. 13, 2019
Today's stodgy behemoths were yesterday's scrappy up-and-comers.

While many think Henry Ford created the first automated factory, the Detroit automobile pioneer actually visited a food plant in Pittsburgh for inspiration for his landmark Highland Park, Mich., car assembly line.

A suddenly successful Henry J. Heinz in 1890 began building a showplace factory to make ketchup in a town known for steel and coal. This high-volume and efficient plant also was the first in the world to be fully electrified, which further increased its productivity. The other Henry, Ford, was inspired by Heinz's assembly line concept, the level of (primitive) automation and the conveyor belts. A few years later he would incorporate much of that into his Model T plant.

That little lesson comes via The History Channel. The network in August aired a delightful and inspiring three-part miniseries of sorts titled The Food That Built America. While it has disappeared from the wired airwaves, you can watch it on the History Channel website itself, and I think it can be accessed through Hulu, Philo and maybe other internet TV services.

But I gotta warn you: The online commercial breaks are even longer than those on TV.

In the History Channel’s own words:

“For generations of Americans, food titans like Henry Heinz, Milton Hershey, John and Will Kellogg, C.W. Post and the McDonald brothers have literally been household names, but you don’t know their stories. Before they were brand names, they were brilliant, sometimes ruthless, visionaries who revolutionized food and changed the landscape of America forever. This miniseries event will tell the fascinating stories of the people behind the food that built America – those who used brains, muscle, blood, sweat and tears to get to America’s heart through its stomach, and along the way built cities, invented new technologies and helped win wars.”

And in large part helped create the biggest and most powerful economy on the face of the Earth. They changed more than just the way America eats.

Episode 1 begins just after the Civil War, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution (that would be Industry 1.0) and shows the role the early food entrepreneurs played in that revolution. It starts with 31-year-old Henry Heinz’s bankruptcy and arrest. Through disgusting depictions of moldy meat, additions of fillers like sawdust and formaldehyde and outrageous health claims, the viewer gets a feel for how reckless the food landscape was before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 … which, by the way, Heinz heavily lobbied for, at a time when many in the nascent food industry were opposed.

Heinz ketchup, for example, was developed to hide the taste of rancid meat, the first episode says, and apparently was the first nationally distributed packaged food product.

And yes, the original Coca-Cola formula did use coca leaf extract, straight from South America.

Other “stars” of Episode 1 include the John Pemberton-Asa Candler duo that created Coca-Cola and the eponymous company, the battling Kellogg brothers and a sneaky patient in their Battle Creek, Mich., sanitarium by the name of C.W. Post.

Episode 2 starts at the dawn of the 20th century and digs into candy and confections with looks at Milton Hershey and the father-son Mars team, but also introduces Marjorie Merriweather Post and Clarence Birdseye. Episode 3, “Post-War America,” chronicles fast-food visionaries Harland Sanders, the McDonald brothers and Ray Kroc.

It’s funny, and ironic, to see these scrappy little entrepreneurs fighting to establish their businesses … whereas today their giant legacy companies are fighting to stay relevant in the face of 21st century entrepreneurs.

In 100 years, I wonder if there will be a TV series (or whatever we’ll be watching then) chronicling the humble beginnings of some global lab-based meat company, a plant-based milk behemoth or the star supplier of hydroponically grown cannabis. Our great-grandchildren will shriek, “Ewww, people used to eat animals?”

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