Founder of General Seafood Corp.
"I do not consider myself a remarkable person. I am just a guy with a very large bump of curiosity and a gambling instinct."-Clarence Birdseye
One of the hallmarks of a true entrepreneur is the ability to recognize a business opportunity that others overlook. It was this ability, along with a restless curiosity, a love of the outdoors and a propensity for taking risks, that enabled frozen-food pioneer Clarence Birdseye to turn a centuries-old tradition into a revolutionary process that would create a multibillion-dollar industry and make Birdseye a very wealthy man.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1886, Clarence Birdseye, like many successful entrepreneurs, embarked on the path of free enterprise at an early age. When he was just 10 years old, he heard about an English lord seeking wild game for his estate, so the young Birdseye shipped off a dozen muskrats he had trapped on Long Island. His first venture netted him $9, which he used to buy a shotgun.
Fueled by a burning interest in plants and animals, Birdseye entered Amherst College to study biology. He paid his tuition through several unique ventures, including selling baby frogs to the Bronx Zoo for snake food and trapping rare black rats in a local butcher shop for a genetics professor. But the funds generated by these and other sideline businesses were insufficient to meet increasing tuition costs, so Birdseye dropped out of Amherst after two years to try his hand in the fur-trading business.
Grubstaked by a New York fur house, Birdseye traveled by dogsled to Labrador, Newfoundland, where he was able to turn a small profit buying and selling pelts for cash. While in the Arctic, he was introduced to the Inuit Indians' practice of "quick freezing" the fish they caught. The fisherman simply laid the fish on the ice, and the combination of ice, wind and temperature froze the fish almost instantly. Even more amazing, Birdseye noted that when the fish were cooked and eaten, they were tender and flaky, and tasted almost as good as when freshly caught. Birdseye also noticed the same was true for the frozen caribou, geese and heads of cabbage that he stored outside his cabin during the long Canadian winter.
Birdseye knew that efforts to freeze meat and vegetables commercially in the United States had failed, largely because the foods did not keep their flavor or texture. But at that time, freezing methods took 18 hours or more. Birdseye concluded that the Inuit's quick-freeze method kept large ice crystals from forming in the food, preventing damage to the cellular structure and thereby preserving the food's "fresh" quality. He also concluded that the public back home would gladly pay for such palatable frozen foods, if he could deliver them.
Armed with this knowledge, Birdseye returned to New York in September 1922. He organized his own company, Birdseye Seafood Inc., and began developing quick-freeze machinery with an eye toward retail buyers. While his early efforts were a success from a technological point of view, they were a failure commercially. Shoppers were skeptical, and Birdseye was unable to convince grocers and housewives that his quick-frozen fish was different than the dry, tasteless food created by traditional, slow-freezing techniques. The company soon went broke.
Undaunted by this failure, Birdseye continued to work on perfecting his quick-freeze machinery. In 1924, he developed a process of packaging dressed fish or other food in cartons, then quick-freezing the contents between two flat, refrigerated surfaces under pressure. Realizing that he had discovered the basis for an entirely new type of freezing operation, Birdseye decided to form a new company to capitalize on his invention.
With the help of financial banking from several wealthy New York businessmen, Birdseye organized General Seafood Corp., and the frozen-food industry was born. Despite the revolutionary improvements Birdseye had made, he still could not overcome the public's distrust of frozen food. But even though it wasn't widely accepted, Birdseye's quick-frozen food would still make him a wealthy man. With sales lagging, General Seafood sold its assets, including Birdseye's patents, to Postum Co. in 1929 for what was then a staggering $22 million.
Postum reorganized itself as General Foods Corp. and appointed Clarence Birdseye president of its new Birds Eye Frosted Foods division. In 1930, the company launched a major campaign to win acceptance for its new lines of "frosted foods." The campaign was a success, and Birds Eye's selection of foods soon ranged from frozen peas, spinach and cherries to fish and several kinds of meat. After two false starts, Clarence Birdseye's dream of making quick-frozen food available to the general public had become a reality.
Restless as ever, Clarence Birdseye spent the next 25 years working on new inventions, including reflecting light bulbs, an electric fishing reel and a recoilless harpoon for whale hunters. Working in his kitchen with a fan, heat from an electric coffee maker, and a batch of bread cubes, he developed a process for dehydrating foods. He even wrote a book about wildflowers with his wife. At the time of his death in October 1956, he held nearly 300 patents. Shortly before his death, Birdseye offered this advice to college graduates seeking to get ahead in the world: "I would go around asking a lot of damn fool questions and taking chances."
Frozen Peas Were Just The Beginning
Clarence Birdseye did more than just create the frozen-food market. The quick-freezing process pioneered by Birdseye spawned new opportunities in both business and agriculture. It opened up a year-round market for fresh fruits and vegetables that greatly increased farm production in the United States. And in the case of frozen orange juice, it created a product where none existed before.
New industries were also created to support Birdseye's invention. In 1934, Birdseye contracted with American Radiator Corp. to manufacture the first inexpensive, low-temperature retail display cooling equipment for Birds Eye foods. Ten years later, Birds Eye leased the first insulated railroad cars designed for nationwide food distribution, giving birth to the refrigerated shipping industry.