A Proustian Moment for an Englishman in New York
From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1913
One of the many clouds of sadness which the pandemic has brought with it are those wretched feelings that come from missing the places you love and the people who live there. I was late in discovering the charms of New York, but that just made the relationship more special, and its loss (hopefully finite?) more profound. Like many visitors, I was utterly gob-smacked the first time I saw the Terminal at Grand Central, especially at rush hour when commuters dashed like ants across its broad Main Concourse. But underneath it and accessed through a semi-secret door to the lower level is one of my most favourite places in all Manhattan, the perfect spot to wind down and to celebrate. I mean of course The Grand Central Oyster Bar with its vast Guastavino vaulted ceiling, groovy table and chairs, waiters in shorty white jackets, the heaving restaurant stuffed full of plates of seafood and the huge chalk blackboard at the Raw Bar, advertising oysters with fascinating if scary names like Lady Chatterley and King Caesar.
The Oyster Bar like the Terminal itself opened for business in 1913. This was also the year a German American called Richard Hellmann introduced his Blue-Ribbon Mayonnaise. Richard had managed a delicatessen in Columbus Avenue since 1905 but putting his recipe for mayo into glass jars was such a successful innovation that he was soon building a factory to produce it in Astoria, Queens. In 1915, Richard gave up the shop altogether to focus on manufacturing and packing his mayonnaise. Following years of strong growth, the brand changed hands a number of times before Hellmann’s was sold by General Foods to Best Foods. Because they already had a mayonnaise, it was decided to pursue a twin brand strategy across the world, with Hellmann’s ruling in the East and Best Foods taking the West and Pacific. Otherwise, the marketing mix would be identical.
The origins of mayonnaise continue to be something of a riddle suspended in an emulsion, but what is certain is that the product was repeatedly successful in finding a distinctive role in the eating culture of the countries where it took root. The French created the Friday ritual of äoli, Germans use it for their potato salad, the Dutch and the Belgians use it as the definitive fritessaus. Whilst the Chileans use it to finish off their completos, the British were persuaded when Hellmann’s was launched there in the 1980s to think of it as a posher kind of salad cream. But it was in the United States where Hellmann’s found its apotheosis as the essential component in the ultimate grilled chicken sandwich.
In 2000, Hellmann’s was part of a $20 billion deal which saw the brand become part of Unilever. A year late, and anxious to properly integrate such a successful brand into the Unilever system, a special conference was held with key personnel from Best Foods and Unilever’s culinary top brass. The event was held in Manhattan in a characterful, bare whitewashed warehouse on the edge of the Meatpacking district. This was where I led a team of Value Engineers to help and inspire the attendees to plot a road map for the next stages of the Hellmann’s story – after all, the brand had come a long way from its origins on the Upper West Side. After a successful couple of days storming brains and laying tracks for new visions and roadmaps, there was a celebratory visit to the Grand Central Oyster bar, where I believe Hellmann’s definitely made it onto on the menu.
You Made me love you
(I didn’t want to do it) Al Jolson