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Thursday, February 14, 2013

"The Good Provider" — a good read.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 14, 2013 at 10:57 AM

Good read: The Good Provider: H.J. Heinz and his 57 Varities, by Robert C. Alberts
  • Good read: "The Good Provider: H.J. Heinz and his 57 Varities," by Robert C. Alberts

In light of today's announcement that the Heinz company has been sold, I offer this book for your evening pleasure: "The Good Provider: H.J. Heinz and his 57 Varieties", a biography of the iconic Pittsburgh man, written by Robert C. Alberts.

It's a well-written, well-researched piece by Alberts, who was living in Pittsburgh at the time of his death in 1996.

And it's a good read for anyone interested not just in the man Heinz himself, but also for those dreaming of running their own companies some day and anyone interested in the local food industry. Alberts, with access to Heinz' diaries, tells a detailed tale of the work and will behind the successful entrepreneur — who started out poor and went bankrupt after his first try at starting a company.

Alberts also paints a vivid picture of Pittsburgh's early and developing food industry. Describing a typical grocery store in the late 1870s, he writes that the store:

"... was badly lighted and ventilated, for windows reduced the amount of shelf space. It had no door screen to keep out the flies; screens were not introduced until the 1880s. It smelled strongly of roasting coffee, kerosene, and dried codfish. The floor was crowded with flour in the new paper sacks and loose beans, rice, potatoes, and coffee in burlap bags. Underneath the shelves that were pathways for the rats and mice stood open barrels or bins of crackers (in which the cat loved to curl up for a nap), rolled oats, raisins, dried prunes, molasses (swimming with flies), sour pickles, sugar and pork. Butter was spooned out of a fifty-six-pound firkin into thin beechwood boxes shaped somewhat like a minature river barge. Soap was cut in oblong pieces out of a sixty-four-pound firkin. ..."

But one my favorite stories shared is how Heinz came to bottle his first product — horseradish.

"From early childhood Harry had helped his mother harvest and prepare the family horseradish — cultivated roots of one year's growth, individually scrubbed and scraped, the imperfections trimmed away, the product grated and bottled in vinegar. It was a job that bruised the knuckles and made the eyes smart, and housewives did it reluctantly.

A local trade had grown up in horseradish, sold always in green or brown bottles and often with substances contained therein that looked like, but were not, grated horseradish. Harry bottled his in clear glass and peddled it to housewives, then grocers and the managers of hotel kitchens, as of the whitest and best-quality root. Probably he would hold it up to the light; perhaps he would produce a spoon, open up a bottle, and suggest a sampling — see, no lumps, no leaves, no wood fiber, no turnip filler! ..."

The experience, Alberts writes, established two important ideas that would inform his future career:

"Idea Number One: Housewives are willing to pay someone else to take over a share of their more tedious kitchen work. Idea Number Two: A pure article of superior quality will find a ready market through its own intrinsic merit — if it is properly packaged and promoted."

These ideas were revolutionary. Alberts crafts this tale of Heinz and Pittsburgh and the building of the H.J. Heinz company perfectly.

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