Every Michigander knows that Faygo and Vernors go way back in the Mitten State, but all of these delectable and persistently popular products got their start here, too.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Ball Park Franks weren’t served at Detroit Tigers games, Gerber wasn’t the most famous brand of baby food, and Jiffy didn’t grace the shelves of nearly every grocery store in the country.
But of course, each of these products has an origin story—and each story begins right here in Michigan. Here’s the inside scoop.
Ball Park Franks
The origin story of the beloved Ball Park Frank goes all the way back to 1958. Unsurprisingly, the story begins at a baseball field. According to Michigan Radio, the owners of Detroit’s Tiger Stadium were less than pleased with the hot dogs being served on game days, so they turned to the Detroit-based Hygrade Food Corp. to try their hand at creating a better option.
Fortunately, a Hygrade employee named Gus Hauf had just perfected his secret recipe for a scrumptious frankfurter, and one of his coworkers—Mary Ann Kirk—had the ideal name to go with it: Ball Park Franks (a stroke of genius that solidified the connection between baseball and hot dogs yet only earned her $25 and a new chair).
Demand for the delicious dogs exploded, so much so that just a couple years later, Ball Park Franks could be found beyond the stadium and in grocery stores across the city—and soon the whole country.
Vlasic Pickles considers its conception a true American success story. “An immigrant family, a great idea, a big taste, and a funny stork won their way into the hearts—and stomachs—of generations of hungry consumers,” the company’s website reads.
It all began in 1912, when cheesemonger Frank Vlasic and his family immigrated to America in the hopes of building a better life. Once Frank turned the family business (a creamery in Detroit) over to his son, Joe, the business expanded beyond milk and cheese and into Polish pickles made with garlic and dill.
The Vlasic pickles we know and love today began as a cost-saving measure. Apparently, the financial strain of World War II led Joe to start keeping the pickles in glass jars. Over the next couple of decades, Joe and his son Bob grew the brand into America’s No. 1 pickle, and their spears were so good that pickle consumption across the country almost quadrupled.
By the time that lovable stork hit TV screens in 1974, Vlasic had already become an American staple—as had jarred pickles.
Koegel Meats is another brand that dates back to the early 1900s—this time in Flint.
After completing an apprenticeship in the meat business in his native Germany, Albert Koegel moved to the area in the hopes that the rising automobile industry would make it an ideal city to start a new business.
He turned out to be right. Koegel opened his meat plant’s doors in the 1930s, and the rest is history.
The company still uses its founder’s original recipes and processes while continuing to deliver directly to each Michigan store that sells its products, which now total 35. It’s a tried and true Mitten State staple that isn’t going anywhere soon.
Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix
Jiffy Mix is one of the most popular baking products in the country, but how did it begin? The history of the simple and enduring product starts with the Chelsea Milling Company, a local flour mill that Harmon S. Holmes ran as a family business in Chelsea in the early 20th century.
Fast forward to the Great Depression, and Holmes’ daughter-in-law, Mabel, began to brainstorm how the family could help their neighbors during the trying times. As the story goes, when her twin boys had two friends over, Mabel realized that the biscuits they’d brought from home were “flat and unappetizing.” Wanting to help the boy’s single father, she concocted a pre-made mix that would be cheap to buy and easy to use (you only had to add milk).
When the product was introduced in 1930, it was the first prepared baking mix to be sold to the public. According to the company’s website, “Today, ‘JIFFY’ is the market share leader in retail prepared muffin mixes, yet our goal remains the same; to feed America, especially during difficult economic times.” Now that’s a mission we can get behind!
Gerber Baby Food
The idea for baby food may have gotten its start in 1860s Europe, but America’s most recognizable brand, Gerber, got its start right here in Michigan. That story starts with Dorothy Gerber, a Michigan mom who began straining solid foods for her baby, Sally. Her husband noted how the arduous process would be made easier at his canning business in Fremont. After employees at the plant began requesting the baby food for their own children, Gerber was born.
In 1928, the company held a contest to find the face of their ad campaign, and an adorable baby named Ann Turner Cook won. The original Gerber baby—who was sketched by Dorothy Hope Smith—sadly died in 2022, but the company has chosen a new winner every year since. Nestlé acquired Gerber in 2007, and together, the companies have remained committed to infant nutrition.
Michigan Sugar Company, which owns Pioneer and Big Chief, arose due to the death of the lumbering industry at the end of the 19th century. After logging left the Saginaw Valley virtually unusable, local leaders searched for a way to use the land and replenish jobs.
A printer in the area saw how well sugarbeets grew in Germany, and he had farmers send seed samples to his partner, a chemistry professor at Michigan State University named Dr. Robert C. Kedzie. Dr. Kedzie imported 1,500 pounds of seeds and distributed them to hundreds of Michigan farms. Shortly after, the government began offering incentives.
According to the company, “No crop in human history had held the potential for creating such a high return from so few acres,” and the success led to the Pioneer Michigan Sugar Company—named for its role as a pioneer of the industry in America—opening its doors in a suburb of Bay City. News of the plant’s immense success spread, and sugarbeet factories began opening up across the country.
Today, Michigan Sugar Company is the only remaining sugar company in Michigan and is the third largest in the US. The company still sticks to its motto of “Locally Grown. Locally Owned.”
After emigrating from Poland to America, Agnes and Zygmund Kowalski opened a grocery store in Detroit with a dream to introduce their favorite foods to their new neighbors. After adding a smokehouse to the store to sell kielbasa and other Polish sausages, they quickly realized there was a huge market for the products. In 1920, the couple opened a factory in Hamtramck.
The company remains in the family and is now run by a fourth generation of Kowalskis. Although there are now 55 different products, the “Kowality” and secret family recipes remain, as does the use of hardwood chips to smoke the delicious and distinctive meats.
READ MORE: Michigan’s Best-Kept Secret: Indulge in 8 Black-Owned Michigan Restaurants for a Soulful Experience
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