The story behind Duncan Hines
Feb 21, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We’ve all been there – eager for a sweet, hot, out-of-the-oven treat. But then, just as suddenly as our sweet tooth kicks in, so does our exhaustion – a full-fledged baking event is too involved (especially if your craving hits late at night). Boxed cake and cookie mixes come to the rescue in these times of snacking crisis, but if you’re like me you hadn’t really considered the person behind the iconic brand names. So allow me to introduce you to the story behind Duncan Hines…
Born in the early 1900s, Duncan Hines was a traveling salesman who had a passion for great food at a great price. Keep in mind that his job took him across the vast American countryside at a time before Google or cell phones (or a reliable interstate system). He was just a man and a car, selling letter openers and paperclips to small town retailers. We’re quite spoiled now with Yelp! and Zagat reviews – you can drop into a new city and eat like the locals almost instantaneously. By 1900 Europe had the Michelin Guide to give the vintage tourist this advantage, but there wasn’t an American equivalent until Duncan took matters into his own hands. A man of method, he brought a small notebook with him to every location and the first inspection point: the kitchen. He took food safety very seriously and wouldn’t grab a bite until the hygiene levels were established (that inspection included a quick scan of the trash pile out back).
After two decades of a career spent on the road, Duncan had a rich database of regional favorites and local delights. He made special note of pricing, hours of operations, and perks (such as air conditioning or good parking). Upon giving the coveted list to close friends as a Christmas gift, word spread that Duncan’s guide was the ultimate travel resource. By the time he turned 55, family and friends convinced him to compile this into a publication. Adventures in Good Eating was self-published and sold at $1 a copy. This first edition included 475 restaurants and, gaining in popularity, the next edition cost $1.50 in contrast. (Fun fact: Duncan kept the price stable for the next 25 years.)
Until his official retirement in 1954, he kept working, traveling, and updating his book. It was a living reference guide – if a restaurant wouldn’t let him return to inspect the kitchen they were omitted from the next edition. By not accepting sponsorship from restaurateurs, his credibility went unchallenged. In just a couple decades Duncan became the food critic of middle America. The Saturday Evening Post took note of this self-made culinary guru. With the publicity, people began to carry his book in their glove box and restaurants advertised “recommended by Duncan Hines” as a point of pride. What started as a salesman’s mission to eat well, to find the opportunity to celebrate local culture, and to do this safely – went on to inspire countless travelers.
The success of the book also made our determined salesman an unexpected adviser to housewives everywhere. That golden reputation easily transferred into the realm of boxed and canned goods. Post-war American consumers wanted modern food solutions – easy options to accommodate the changing family pace in a space-age world. Vintage snackers – they’re just like us! With the formation of Hines-Park Foods, Inc., 250 items hit the grocery store shelves bearing Duncan’s seal of approval. In fact, the now infamous cake mixes have a connection to my own roots.
The mixes were initially produced by Nebraska Consolidated Mills in Omaha, Nebraska. (Go Huskers!) This mill sold the rights to these yummy concoctions in the late 1950s to Proctor and Gamble who catapulted the product into society’s psyche. Now owned by Pinnacle Foods, the legacy of Duncan Hines lives on. This appreciation for Duncan’s life’s work is beautifully stated on their website: “With a relentless commitment to quality, every product and recipe is developed in celebration of Duncan Hines’ inventive spirit and passion for baking.” So dear readers, keep on documenting your adventures – and think of the man behind the cake mixes as you do!