February 7, 2007

Swanson

And the man behind the brand is...
Carl Swanson

Until World War II turkey was a treat reserved for holiday meals. The man who brought turkeys to American tables was a large rough-hewn Swedish immigrant who arrived in the United States with a tag around his neck: "Carl Swanson, Swedish. Send me to Omaha. I speak no English." The year was 1896. He was 17 years old.

Swanson joined his sisters in Omaha working on a farm as he learned a second language. He studied at the local YMCA where he paid $35 for a lifetime membership. In 1899 he invested $125 as part owner of a consignment store. Swanson started with one horse, one wagon and a little cash.

He soon moved into commodities trading. Swanson quickly became noted for his iron nerves in the risk-pervasive business, becoming one of the leading "butter and egg" men in the Midwest. In his spare time Swanson also enjoyed non-business wagers at roulette, horses and cards.

Dealing in fresh food opened the company to the vagaries of nature and producers. In the early poultry business the birds were transported live to the retailer. Many chicks died or were appropriated during the trip. Others were pecked to death by aggressive cellmates and still others succumbed to "roup", a fatal disease.

By the 1930s shippers began using the "New York Style" dressing of birds - killed, bled, plucked, eviscerated and refrigerated. But by 1943 only 10% of all chickens shipped were eviscerated. Dressing a bird was still considered the province of the man in the retail store. Many food processors were slow to adopt expensive plant changes to evisceration and delivery to supermarkets.

Carl Swanson was not one of them. He converted his business to quick freezing in 1934 and in 1936 moved into turkeys. Turkeys are difficult to raise and in the 1930s most growers felt fortunate to keep their turkey casualty rate at 15%. 1936 was a particularly bad year for turkey growers but Swanson guaranteed raisers a price of 18¢ a pound to convince them to continue production.

Swanson invested heavily in poults (chicks), production, processing and promotion. In 1937 he developed a bronze-colored, full-breasted bird with more meat. It looked better, sold better and became known as the "Mae West Turkey." He changed American's eating habits. From 1934 to 1942 Swanson's production increased 200 times. In 1943 Fortune Magazine tagged Swanson "the turkey king of the country."

Swanson applied his technology to eggs and developed powdered eggs. Demand soared in World War II, much to the distaste of enlisted men. One soldier wrote to Swanson, "I wish you would take some of your dried eggs, compare them to dirty water from the Missouri River and tell me which is which." Demand continued strong until the 1950s however.

Swanson changed the company name to C.A. Swanson & Sons in 1944. To heighten visibility and corporate image of the company he plunged into a new butter substitute, oleo, despite being in the heart of butter country. Sales were tepid at first until color was added to make the oleo look like butter. The product flew off grocer's shelves.

Carl Swanson remained president until he died in 1949. He had witnessed a revolution in the kitchen as women worked during World War II. There was a growing need for convenient prepared dinners for these working women. Swanson was soon to be a leader in the new frozen dinner market, introducing its "TV Dinner" for America's freezers in 1952.

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