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Clarence Birdseye: unfrozen by failure

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While trading pelts in Newfoundland, a young Clarence Birdseye noticed the way Inuit Indians froze fish by laying them on the ice, where they froze almost instantly. He also noted that the cooked fish remained tender and flaky—almost as good as fresh.

Birdseye figured Americans would pay for edible frozen food. He was right, but it took a few failures first.

In 1922, Birdseye started a company to develop quick-freeze machinery for the retail trade. Even though the technology worked, shoppers and grocers remained skeptical about whether frozen food would taste any good. His company went broke.

Undaunted, Birdseye kept at it. In 1924, he rolled out a process for packaging food in cartons, then quick-freezing it between flat, refrigerated surfaces under pressure. He started another company but the public still didn’t buy. Luckily, the Postum Co. bought out his assets in 1929 for a tidy $22 million.

Finally, Birdseye joined a reorganized Postum, now called General Foods, to head its “frosted foods” division. At last, Birdseye realized his dream of distributing frozen food to the masses. Along the way, he also developed the first refrigerated boxcars and display cases, and a new staple: frozen orange juice. Just before he died in 1956, he told college graduates to “go around asking a lot of damn fool questions and taking chances.” Not to mention persisting.

— Adapted from Radicals & Visionaries, Thaddeus Wawro, Entrepreneur Press.

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