It was on this day March 6, 1930, in Springfield, Massachusetts, that Marjorie Post, the owner of General Foods introduced twenty-seven frozen food items, including steak, lamb, ham sausage, peas, spinach, cherries, raspberries, fish, and oysters under the name “Birds Eye Frosted Foods: A Little Short of Magic.” Post’s sales pitch was this: “Imagine having whatever food you want, out-of-season, and fresh!”
But even Marjorie Post experienced an obstacle to her marketing vision, in that the percentage of people that had freezers at home in 1930 was still very low. By 1932, the typical American consumer still didn’t believe that frozen food was safe. General Foods supplied stores with freezers, and the frozen food was on consignment for vendors; it was the only way to get frozen food “out there” to the still-skeptical consumer. Frozen food was slow to catch on, in part, due to the fact that fresh food was readily available and inexpensive. Another reason why frozen food was slow to catch on was that in the 1930s, the poor preferred inexpensive canned food, middle-class citizens preferred fresh food, and frozen food was viewed by both classes as a high-quality luxury for the rich. It was only in the 1940s when there were multiple companies selling frozen food as well as freezers in enough homes that the frozen food industry truly exploded on the American landscape.
In 1930, Birdseye invented a portable multi-plate freezer, which allowed him to freeze food on-site, instead of having to take time transporting it to the factory; the machine worked great, but it was a machine whose future had not yet arrived. General Foods was losing money in its new Frozen Foods Division, which led to the obvious question of how to turn a profit. One way to turn a profit is to minimize costs, and the $1,500 freezers in stores had to go; they were replaced with cheaper and more reliable units made by American Radiator (Amrad) which developed the slanted-window freezer for $300. Those freezers were cheaper to run and were far more consumer-friendly in the store, which soon led to the national distribution of Birds Eye Frozen Foods.
Birdseye traveled the nation during the Great Depression, bragging-up frozen food; he was viewed as an inspirational figure in a society hungry for success stories. Even though frozen food wasn’t making a huge splash in the marketplace, the media loved the product, and they especially loved Birdseye.
Birdseye remained curious; he wanted to know how long frozen food would last. He found out that meat became more tender a week after being quick-frozen than it was fresh. Birdseye also figured out that freezing peas one-at-a-time (as opposed to a block of peas) was by far the best method while plunging vegetables in boiling water before freezing also enhanced freshness. As the market for frozen food grew, a new complaint arose: not enough variety. Birdseye worked on providing more variety of vegetables, but lettuce and tomatoes never cooperated with his efforts.
General Foods & Birdseye lobbied Congress to pass an improved Food and Drug Act in 1938. General Foods wanted to convince people that frozen food was safe and wanted to have the FDA’s seal-of-approval. Another reason was that competition in the frozen food industry existed, and Birdseye in particular wanted the other producers to adhere to proper industry standards. In other words, Birdseye wanted regulation that led to product safety for frozen food, meaning that the quality remained high even when the price decreased.
World War II was what seemed to end the consumer resistance to frozen food. A shortage of tin and aluminum meant there was less canned food available during the war, and many Americans were forced to try frozen food for the first time. In 1951, Science Digest found that 41% of the housewives surveyed actually preferred frozen food, due to its quality and convenience. Also, the growth of supermarkets after WW II led to more-and-more stores selling frozen food; by 1950, 64% of supermarkets sold frozen food. In that same year, frozen food sales topped +$1 billion ($10B today), and was projected to reach $50 billion (+$500B today).
The last major development in the frozen food industry of which Birdseye was part was the new market for frozen meals (a.k.a. “TV Dinners”). I always remember getting in my grandma’s freeze and pulling out a “Hungry Man” frozen dinner as a kid when I wanted something in between her homemade meals. My go-to was always the “Salisbury Steak” or Chicken dinner:)
When I studied more about Birdseye and his business savvy, one thing really stuck out… He said he would often travel to new cities and just drift around trying to learn how others were doing things. But perhaps most important is the fact he didn’t just focus on one industry or simply what he was most interested in. He was open to learning from those in other industries such as candle-making, chewing gum, steel manufacturing, etc. He was constantly taking small ideas and simple hacks that he could see helping others and then applying those to his own businesses and ideas. This is where I think a lot of us in the ag space drop the ball. I constantly have to push myself to get outside my core competency. I have to push myself to go to conferences that are non-traditional or outside the norm. Ironically, this is where I have found and learned some of my best insights for life and business. (source: Wiki, History, The Hustle)