On March 6, 1930 Clarence Birdseye began test marketing packaged frozen foods direct to consumers in grocery stores in the Springfield, Massachusetts. It was the beginning of a revolution in the way Americans, and eventually much of the world, eats and has access to vegetables, fruit and other food no matter what the season.
Birdseye was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1886. A clever young man drawn to the sciences, he studied biology at Amherst College and conducted field studies for the U.S. Biological Survey over summer breaks. Posted to Montana’s rugged Bitterroot Mountains in 1911 and 1912 and impressed his superiors with research on ticks carrying Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
He was next posted to Labrador where ice fishing with the Inuit he observed that fish pulled from the ocean froze almost instantly when exposed to the near -40˚ air temperature. He also discovered that the frozen fish could be thawed and eaten days or weeks later and tasted like and retained the texture of fresh fish.
Birdseye realized that if he could duplicate a fast freeze process it would vastly extend the marked for fish. Some fish was already being frozen, but because it was frozen slowly a higher temperature large ice crystals formed inside damaging the texture of the flesh. When thawed it was mushy and tasteless.
Birdseye dropped out of Amherst and continued to work summers for the Survey. Meanwhile he experimented with methods to reliably and cheaply accomplish flash freezing. By 1922 he established Birdseye Seafoods and marketed fish frozen a -45.˚ But the product was not perfected and the company went bankrupt two years later.
Undeterred, Birdseye continued to experiment. He invented an entirely new process in which the fish was cut and package tightly into wax cartons then fast frozen under pressure between two super-cooled belts. In 1925 he patented a machine to mass produce the frozen packages and moved his new General Seafoods Corporation to a plant in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the center of the New England fishing industry.
He continually took out patents on improvements to the process. By 1927 he was experimenting with freezing meat, poultry, and vegetables. In 1929 he sold his company and patents to the Postum Company (now known as General Foods) for an astonishing $22 million in a deal financed by bankers Goldman Sachs. Birdseye continued his participation in the company and launched the new Birds Eye Frozen Foods division.
The Springfield test marketing included 26 different items including 18 cuts of meat, peas, spinach, mixed vegetables, fruit, fish, and oysters. There was little interest in frozen meat, which could be obtained reasonably fresh in most markets year round. But vegetables, fruit and easily perishable fish were a hit, despite the fact that consumers did not yet own freezers. They typically had to eat the frozen food as soon as it thawed, but that still allowed consumer to dine on out of season food that, unlike canned goods, tasted and felt much like fresh.
A major marketing snag was the fact that most groceries did not have adequate freezer capacity. To solve the problem he contracted with the American Radiator Company to produce low temperature display freezers which he leased to grocers for $8 a month and an agreement not to use them for any competing products.
By the end of the 1930’s many middle class families were abandoning ice boxes for electric refrigerators. Bowing to demand, Frigidaire and other manufacturers added small freezer compartments capable of holding an ice cube tray and a few boxes of Birdseye’s product.
To insure safe, wide spread distribution, in 1944 he began shipping in specially insulated railway cars that he designed specifically for his frozen food. Birdseye was ready for the explosion of consumer demand at the end of World War II and saw his frozen food become a staple on the American table.
He continued to invent and register patents, not only for food production and service but also an infra-red heat lamp, specialty store window lighting, and construction products.
Clarence Birdseye was still tinkering and creating new businesses when he died in New York City in 1956.