Brands like Banquet, Swanson, Morton, Birds Eye and Stouffer’s were actually thought of as luxury items, not the Lazy-Parent-Also-Ran dinners of today.
These frozen food brands were the perfect icons for the Ice Storm decade, a time when upper-middle-class families with an Amana Radarange and a Zenith Chromacolor TV were on top. If the 50s were all about watching Howdy Doody with a TV Dinner, the 70s were about watching TV all the time, and eating frozen on special nights. Divorced parents could watch divorce sitcoms (Alice, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and then serve up frozen foods that made it look like when Dad was still around.
Breakfast to dinner, the brands were full line, and none better than Morton. Oh, Birds Eye sold some frozen peas and stuff, as old Clarence Birdseye was the pioneer in freezing. But Birds Eye was so Quick Freeze Harry Truman! There was also Banquet Foods Corporation of St. Louis, which was, oddly (or quite appropriately), owned by TV maker and NBC owner RCA.
Banquet was the pioneer of TV dinners, and rode the confluence of cheap aluminum and color television to frozen brand greatness. And let’s not forget Stouffer’s, with its fantastico jingles. Stouffer’s was truly deluxe, as it grew out of the famous Stouffer’s restaurant and into hotels. Who else would have made a frozen spinach soufflé or put a pizza on French bread? And Swanson? Steve McQueen bought a stack of ’em in the 1968 San Francisco crime thriller Bullitt.
But the real great brand was Morton Frozen Foods, not connected to that steakhouse brand Morton’s. Morton’s (though the packaging said Morton) was encyclopedic in its frozen grocery offerings, and each package, at least in the 70s, was stylish. (Pictured above is an old Look magazine ad from 1969, before a 70s super-graphic redesign.) There were Morton Pot Pies, Morton Creme Pies, Morton Cinnamon Rolls. But the real star was Morton Honey Buns. Morton Honey Buns came four to a package, and there was so much sugar on each that when you pulled the buns out, the sugar frosting was all over the package and the four came out like a brick.
But the brand is gone, nowhere to be found. And since the launch of the BrandlandUSA blog, we have discovered it is one of the top searched for dead brands on our site. People far and wide are searching for Morton, but cannot find it. While we knew Morton’s was a personal favorite, until we launched the blog, we didn’t know how many others loved the brand too. Apparently, they are mostly searching for the Morton Honey Buns, and not so much the Pot Pies, though those get requests too.
In 1940, Harold Morton of Louisville started selling a chicken and noodle dish, according to an excellent and seminal article in the Crozet Gazette in February 2007. Subsequently, his Morton Packing Co. of Louisville, Ky. launched Morton Chicken Pot Pie in 1949, which was made from an Old Kentucky Recipe. In 1953, Morton bought a frozen food storage facility in Crozet, Virginia for his enterprise; at its height the Morton freezery became Albemarle County’s largest employer.
The freezery factory itself had a long history, and was home to the famed apple beloved in London, the Albemarle Pippin. Streams of snappily dressed truck drivers in liveried trucks would deliver fresh Morton products to groceries across the country. In 1965, Morton was so successful that the company was bought by Continental Baking, a unit of the vast International Telephone and Telegraph conglomerate. In 1981, it was sold to tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. In 1982, it became a unit of RJR’s San Francisco-based Del Monte, along with Del Monte’s other brands Chung King and Patio. It was part of Con Agra by 1991. The brand existed until at least 2000, when the Crozet, Virginia freezery closed.
As part of the brand, there was also a Morton Donut Shop (registered by the U.S. Trademark Office as a unit of ITT Continental Baking in 1975). Luckily, many of the old commercials are at the Library of Congress in the Karr Collection. In addition, the packaging was done by one of the great brand identity firms of the 1970s.
Roadfood.com, that wonderful site about American foodways, has a great thread on where it has gone. Posted is a letter from ConAgra to a fan who asked about Morton. Whenever a conglomerate kills off a great old brand, of course, it is the consumer’s fault that they didn’t buy enough of the product. (By the way, check out artist Dan Goodsell whose website www.theimaginaryworld.com has great images of the product.)
How would Morton be relaunched?
- Bring back the Honey Buns for now, with only a small launch. A modest run of the products, sold at a few select media savvy supermarkets, will do the trick.
- A few T-shirts and promotional items. And word-of-mouth promotion. This will not only preserve the equity and business goodwill of the brand, it will give Con Agra reps calling on supermarkets a boutique item that actually has some punch.
- License the name to an upstart small company interested in frozen food brands. Take a share of the new start up.
- License the name to a grocery chain, for store-branded items.
So how about it Joan Chow, Chief Marketing Officer of mighty ConAgra Foods Inc.? Let us latchkey 70s kids have our Honey Buns back!