Supermarket surnames: Where iconic food brands get their names from

Let’s step back in time and take a look at some of the men and women whose foresight and fortitude have made them and their products household names.

 A woman shops at a supermarket in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A woman shops at a supermarket in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

One of the great luxuries of living in a first world country is the privilege of being able to go to the supermarket and purchase anything we desire to our heart’s content. But, of course, supermarkets didn’t always exist, nor did the vast array of products that line the shelves.

So let’s step back in time and take a look at some of the men and women whose foresight and fortitude have made them and their products household names.

The world’s first self-serve supermarket was launched in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee, by American grocer Clarence Saunders under the name of Piggly Wiggly. Prior to that, consumers used to hand their grocery lists to clerks at the store counter, and then wait for them to collect the items and bag them up. 

In 1894 in Battle Creek, Michigan, John Kellogg developed a wheat cereal to help counter indigestion for his patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where he was the superintendent. His younger brother Will, the business manager, stumbled upon a method to make toasted flakes of corn into a cereal. Subsequently, he started what became the Kellogg Company to produce cornflakes for the wider public. Today, besides the iconic Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, the company’s line of products includes Rice Crispies, Special K, Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, All Bran, Pop Tarts, and Eggo Waffles. 

Meanwhile, in Springfield, Illinois, a serious competitor in the cereal sphere was Charles William Post. Ever jockeying for shelf space and market share, the Postum Cereal Company he founded came up with rival products such as Post Grape-Nuts Flakes, Bran Flakes, Raisin Bran, Shredded Wheat, and Honey Bunches of Oats.

 A cart laden with groceries. (credit: EDGAR SU/ REUTERS)
A cart laden with groceries. (credit: EDGAR SU/ REUTERS)

When Post died in 1914, his 27-year-old daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post, inherited his company along with most of his vast fortune, one of the largest of the early 20th century.

She became the owner of Postum Cereal Company and was its director until 1958. She, along with her second husband, financier E. F. Hutton, began expanding the business and acquiring other American food companies. In 1929, Postum was renamed General Foods Corporation.

As history would have it, Marjorie came across the innovations of Clarence Birdseye in Gloucester. Massachusetts. Birdseye had developed a way to preserve food by freezing it. Foreseeing the future advantages of frozen food, Marjorie bought Birdseye’s company. Thanks to that innovation, in addition to Birdseye frozen vegetables and the like, we can enjoy all manner of frozen foods and sweet treats. 

But before we start the sweet talk, let’s take a look at some iconic savory items. 

Iconic supermarket foods

The H. J. Heinz Company, headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1869 by Henry J. Heinz. The son of German immigrants, Heinz began his career in the food industry by marketing horseradish – his mother’s recipe, which he made in the basement. Heinz started producing ketchup in 1876. To avoid the use of chemicals, he developed a recipe that used ripe, red tomatoes and dramatically increased the amount of vinegar to reduce the risk of spoilage. He began producing preservative-free ketchup and soon dominated the market. In 1905, five million bottles of ketchup were sold. Today. Heinz manufactures thousands of food products in plants on six continents, marketing them in more than 200 countries and territories. 

Another major innovator was James L. Kraft. In Chicago in 1903, he began selling cheese from a horse-drawn wagon. By 1914, his company began manufacturing cheese on its own, developing the individually wrapped cheddar cheese slices. Over the ensuing decades, the Kraft company acquired many other brands, such as Philadelphia cream cheese. Kraft products include such classics as Kraft Singles. Kraft Dinner. Velveeta, Miracle Whip, and Kraft Mayonnaise. 

On most supermarket shelves, situated right next to the jars of Kraft Mayonnaise are jars of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise. As a dressing, mayonnaise was first made in Spain in 1756. The name is derived from the port city of Mahon. In 1905, Richard Hellmann, an immigrant from Germany, was operating a delicatessen in New York. He used his wife Nina’s homemade mayonnaise in all the salads and sandwiches, and the customers loved it. Realizing that the deli’s success was due to his wife’s dressing, Hellmann prepared small batches of it, filled a couple of containers, and sold the mayo at 10 cents a dollop. Soon he was delivering his mayonnaise to other stores. He bought a truck, then a fleet of trucks. In 1912, he built a manufacturing plant and started selling the mayonnaise in jars. Today, according to reports, Americans consume about three pounds of various brands of mayonnaise per year, per person. 

Another immigrant, Rabbi Dov Behr Abramson, founded the Manischewitz company in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1888. An immigrant from Lithuania, he changed his name to Dov Behr Manischewitz. He designed a machine that could cut and bake matzah in a form that was easily packaged and shipped, which made producing it less expensive and thus more available to American Jews. By 1926, the company was deemed the largest firm of matzah bakers in the world. The Manischewitz brand of kosher products includes items such as sweet wine, Tam Tam crackers, soups, and gefilte fish.

And now for some of the sweet stuff.

Milton Snavely Hershey, an American chocolatier, pioneered the manufacture of caramel, using fresh milk. He launched the Lancaster Caramel Company, which achieved bulk exports, and then sold it to start a new company that supplied mass-produced milk chocolate, previously a luxury item. The first Hershey bars were sold in 1900 and proved so popular that Hershey was able to build his own company town of Hershey, Pennsylvania. The Hershey Company, now one of the world’s largest confectionary manufacturers, produces items such as Hershey’s Kisses, Milk Duds, Mr. Goodbar, and Skor,

For many people, the combination of chocolate and peanut butter is a marriage made in heaven. Enter H. B. Reese. A dairy farmer and former shipping foreman for the Hershey company, he left Hershey’s in 1923 and founded the H. B. Reese Candy Company. He created Peanut Butter Cups in 1928, Consisting of a peanut butter cup encased in chocolate, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are the No. 1 selling candy brand in the United States. 

A product that not only tastes heavenly but whose name sounds out of this world is the Mars bar. In 1920, Frank C. Mars founded Mar-O-Bar Co. in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and began to manufacture chocolate candy bars. The company later became Mars Incorporated. In 1923, Mars introduced the Milky Way, which became the brand’s best-selling candy bar. 

Over the years, many brands have been taken over by large conglomerates or have become conglomerates themselves, such as Hershey’s, and Kraft Heinz, but they have retained the family names of the original founders. 

With so many alluring products to choose from at the supermarket, we can thank Sylvan Goodman for his invention. The owner of the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma City, he introduced the shopping cart in 1937. At first it didn’t catch on with shoppers, as men found the carts effeminate, and women resented their likeness to baby strollers. To make the carts more appealing, Goldman hired models to push the trolleys around his stores. That worked well, and the carts became very popular. Goldman’s creativity and tenacity paid off, and his invention made him a multimillionaire. 

So the next time you and your shopping cart are strolling down the aisles of the supermarket, give a nod to the names behind the name brands and the companies that have made it their business to provide nutrition for you and your loved ones.  ■