Redenbacher, Orville

Popcorn entrepreneur

Orville Clarence Redenbacher (1907-1995) was born in Brazil, Indiana. He grew up on a farm and studied agronomy and genetics at Purdue University, where he conducted research on popcorn hybrids. Upon graduation in 1928, he was hired as a high school Vocational Agricultural Teacher, a position he held until 1929. He was then employed as an assistant county farm agent in Terre Haute, Indiana. When the senior agent moved to Indianapolis, Redenbacher took over his position and conducted a five-minute daily radio program beginning in 1930. He was the first county agricultural agent in the country to broadcast live from his office and the first to interview farmers in the field with a mobile unit.
In January 1940, Tony Hulman, owner of Indianapolis 500 racetrack, hired Redenbacher to manage his 12,000-acre farm in Princeton,
Indiana, which produced seed for farmers. Redenbacher built a hybrid seed corn plant and began experimenting with popcorn hybrids. Under Redenbacher’s management, Princeton Farms’s operations grew by 50 percent.
While at Princeton Farms, Redenbacher met Charles Bowman, the manager of the Purdue Ag Alumni Seed Implement Association in Lafayette, Indiana. Redenbacher and Bowman went into partnership in 1951 and purchased the George F. Chester Seed Company at Boone Grove, Indiana. Popcorn was part of their hybrid field seed operation, and within a few years Redenbacher and Bowman became the world’s largest supplier of hybrid popcorn seed. They also developed new hybrids. They reportedly crossed 30,000 popcorn hybrids to find the right mix. In 1965, their popcorn experimentation created a variety that expanded to nearly twice the size of existing commercial brands. It was fluffier and left few unpopped kernels. They called the new variety Red Bow after the first three letters in Redenbacher’s and Bowman’s last names. For five years Redenbacher tried to sell his new hybrid to the major processors. However, it cost more to harvest and its yields were smaller than traditional popcorn. Because popcorn was then considered a commodity, processors were not interested.
Redenbacher hawked his popcorn out of the back seat of his car to stores in northern Indiana. In 1970, Redenbacher quit producing popcorn seed for other processors and concentrated on selling Red Bow. Redenbacher and Bowman consulted a Chicago public relations firm that convinced them to change the name from Red Bow to Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn. Because its price was higher than that of other popcorn, consumers needed to be convinced that Redenbacher’s popcorn was of a better quality than its competitors. The advertising tag “The World’s Most Expensive Popcorn” emerged. Redenbacher and Bowman achieved regional success through word-of-mouth promotion and virtually no advertising, but they needed assistance to expand nationally.
In 1973, they teamed up with Blue Plate Foods, a subsidiary of Hunt-Wesson Foods based in Fullerton, California, to market their gourmet popcorn. This connection enabled national advertising and a widespread distribution system.
When Hunt-Wesson sold Blue Plate Foods in 1974, Redenbacher’s gourmet popcorn was so successful that Hunt-Wesson kept the rights to it. In 1976, Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn business operations and property were sold to Hunt-Wesson, which launched a massive advertising campaign, starring Redenbacher himself, for their newly acquired product. He made hundreds of personal presentations a year and appeared in scores of television commercials. Redenbacher was one of Americas most unlikely television stars, with his folksy image (bow tie, dark-framed spectacles, and Midwestern accent). The image worked. Consumers easily recognized the label adorned with Redenbacher’s image. In 1984, he wrote Orville Redenbacher’s Popcorn topic, which was mainly a promotion piece for his popcorn.
In 1990, Hunt-Wesson (along with the Redenbacher brand) was acquired by ConAgra Foods. Redenbacher’s contract for television commercials was not renewed in 1994. While lounging in a whirlpool in his condominium in Coronado, California, Redenbacher suffered a heart attack and drowned in 1995.
After his death, Time magazine called Redenbacher “the Luther Burbank of popcorn.” His gourmet popping corn stands as his shining legacy. Because his was one of the first foods called gourmet, it can be said that the naming ofhis popcorn launched a new category of foods and created gourmet sections in grocery stores.

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