Bringing Home the Bacon A German made America's first national meat. And that's no baloney.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – With backyard grilling season about to move into high gear, let's take a moment to acknowledge the Germans, who gave us the hamburger and the frankfurter (named after the cities of Hamburg and Frankfurt, respectively). But one German in particular, Oscar Mayer, combined his homeland's prowess with a butcher knife with classic American salesmanship to create a protean protein empire, transforming meat from the commodity it had always been into a branded item for the 20th century.
Born in Bavaria in 1859, Mayer moved at age 14 to America, where he apprenticed in several meat markets before opening his own butcher shop in Chicago in 1883. It was a success from the start: First-day sales were $59--an impressive figure given that pork sold for 8 to 12 cents a pound in those days. Mayer showed an early flair for promotion by sponsoring local polka bands, which spread his name in Chicago. Within five years he'd moved to a larger shop, where he soon gave his name an even higher profile by sponsoring the German exhibition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
By the turn of the century Mayer had 43 workers, including five wagon-delivery drivers--a step up from the delivery on foot that was offered by most butchers--and two stablemen to care for the wagon horses. His next big move came in 1904, when he began stamping his meat with his brand name, which at the time was unheard-of in the meat industry. This pioneering sense of brand identity, combined with a growing distribution network and an early embrace of the era's technological developments, such as vacuum packaging and automated processing, helped grow Oscar Mayer into a national operation.
Further innovations came in the 1920s, many of them centered on packaging. In 1924, Oscar Mayer received a patent for America's first presliced packaged bacon, and in 1929 the company began putting yellow wrappers on its frankfurter links, further differentiating its product and reinforcing its brand image (yellow remains the brand's signature color today). The coup de grace came in 1936, with the debut of the Wienermobile, a hot dog--shaped car that quickly became an advertising icon. Easily viewed as a kitschy novelty from today's jaded perspective, it was a genuine breakthrough at the time. As the New York Times recently noted in an article on ad vehicles, "In the innocent days before television, meeting a 27-foot-long hot dog on the highway was enough to make your day."
Of course, Oscar Mayer excelled in the television era too. In fact, the company and its ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, are responsible for two of history's most enduring commercial jingles. The first, "The Oscar Mayer Wiener Jingle," debuted in 1963 and eventually became so ubiquitous that the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performed it. It was followed in 1974 by "The Bologna Song." My apologies if the ditties are now stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
Mayer's son Oscar G. replaced him as president in 1928 (the elder Oscar held the chairmanship until his death in 1955). The company remained family-held until it went public in 1971, and was acquired in 1981 by General Foods. Now its $1 billion in annual global sales get eaten by Kraft, the world's largest food purveyor--a fitting testament to the neighborhood butcher that became the first modern meat company.