Discovering the new world of frozen foods
The brand historian is as old as the fish finger: the convenience miracle of the modern age will always hold a special place in my heart, not least because creating new frozen foods helped make my fortune
That story began with Clarence Birdseye (1886-1956), an out and out Yankee and a curious amalgam of explorer and inventor, tinkerer and entrepreneur. It was in the frozen landscape of Labrador that Clarence, with his wife Eleanor, who fortunately thrived on roughing it, conducted many experiments into fast-freezing. These proved more successful than Francis Bacon’s ill-fated attempt with chicken 300 years before. Birds Eye, known to his friends as Bob, was fascinated by the relationship between time, temperature and the type of food he was putting through his prototype freezer tunnel. He was convinced that fast-frozen food would disrupt existing food preservation systems like canning and make him rich.
Soon armed with a goodly number of patents, his frozen fish start-up based in Gloucester, Mass. was acquired by General Foods and before long and with their investment, the Birds Eye brand was creating a whole new area in the supermarket. This new category consisted both of existing products, now conveniently frozen (for example, garden peas) and exciting new-to-the-world products like breaded fish sticks.
Other competitors were soon drawn to this fast-growing market. To accompany the rise of TV, and to hold our attention while viewing, Swanson launched a range of frozen TV Dinners which consisted of an entrée with appropriate sides laid out in the now familiar aluminium multi-compartment tray. Boil-in-the-bag was another innovative format that was pioneered in frozen foods. In 1970, Birds Eye announced the arrival of its Sliced Roast Beef in Gravy with an advert that informed us that the plastic bag ‘seals up the flavour’ and also saves on washing-up. Blue Peter’s John Noakes was an enthusiastic disciple who demonstrated this with the aid of a loaf of sliced white bread.
The oil crisis of 1973 and the economic recession which followed saw food price inflation reach 19% p.a. and made the home freezer the must-have-money-saving consumer durable of the day. Soon freezer centres such as Bejam started to appear on the High Street with their rows of chest freezers like white coffins and crammed with fruit and vegetables and meat including the proverbial ‘half a pig’. With many more women becoming economically active, the convenience of frozen foods became a major selling point. June Whitfield and her Pinocchio inspired nose told us that the Birds Eye Chicken Pie would ‘make a dishonest woman of you.’
The rise of fast food also played a big part in the growth of frozen food. The arrival of McDonalds in 1974 provided a powerful source of inspiration to the likes of McCain, Findus and Birds Eye who all launched distinctive big-selling new lines like Oven Ready Chips, French Bread Pizza and Potato Waffles. The great popularity of the hamburger generated considerable interest and research into new processing technologies with the aim of improving the eating quality of processed meat products. The Auf Wiedersehen, Pet lads featured in the advert singing in the back of their white van hoped it would be chips that would accompany their Birds Eye Steakhouse Grills.
Changing consumer lifestyles provided other opportunities for new products. Lean Cuisine was highly successful at bringing recipe sexiness and health and applying it to the humble ready meal.
But at the beginning of the Millennium, the long run of good years began to come to an end: this was due to strong competition from chilled foods now aggressively marketed by the supermarkets, and increased media and consumer concern about the nutritional quality of frozen convenience foods, which were – at least semiotically speaking – beginning to show their age. A mini ice age for frozen foods had arrived.
But the spirit of Bob Birdseye is strong, and after a few quiet years, frozen food has been successfully revitalised and is growing again, and the face of its iconic Captain Birdseye/Findus/Iglo – depending where in Europe you live – is smiling once more. We have rediscovered our love for fish fingers and garden peas, Chicken Chargrills, and exactly on trend perhaps, also for Green Cuisine, the latest (and meat free) range from Birds Eye.
I am sure that Clarence would be egging us on- just like his Huskies – to give it a go.
Paul Christopher Walton
The Brand Historian:
Forays into the annals and archives of the brands we grew up with.