Today’s frozen food section is a vast and adventurous tundra.
In the course of a grocery run, one might encounter frozen gourmet turkey sausage, frozen Italian meatballs, frozen farm-raised shrimp, an array of frozen fruits and vegetables, or even — if luck strikes — frozen pepperoni pizza egg rolls, courtesy of America’s resident culinary psychopath, Guy Fieri.
Every major supermarket devotes at least an entire aisle to freezer space, and with good reason: The frozen food sector is a $220B+ global industry. In 2018, frozen foods saw a 2.6% sales growth (nearly twice that of fresh food), a trend industry analysts largely attribute to recent advancements in freezing technologies.
The 20th-century innovation that launched the global frozen-goods industry is considered to be one of the great advancements of modern civilization.
But the industry’s chief pioneer is hardly a household name.
He was a man who spent years freezing fish in -40°F weather, saw an opportunity to improve a sub-par process, and then built an entire infrastructure to bring his ideas to market.
The kid who sold frogs
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1886, Clarence Birdseye began life in the midst of America’s technological revolution.
Seismic shifts were underway that would dramatically alter the landscape of the country — railroads, steel production, the spread of the telephone and electricity. Birdseye was drawn to nature, but also the industrious spirit of the times.
As chronicled by biographer Mark Kurlansky, Birdseye spent his youth finding ways to profit off of the natural world around him.
Once, he noticed an abundance of muskrats in a nearby field, wrote letters to a local zoo director to assess demand, and ended up trapping and selling them for $1 a piece. He later replicated this model with frogs, netting $115 in profit (~$3k in 2019 dollars). At the age of 11, he launched his own taxidermy school and placed ads for prospective students in a magazine.
Birdseye later enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts. But when his family fell on hard times, he dropped out, joined the US Biological Survey, and ventured to the American Southwest, where he quickly found a side hustle selling coyote pelts to New Yorkers at a 60% profit margin.
Soon, he’d embark on a new adventure — one that would alter the course of his life and, eventually, the course of American cuisine.
Where the fish freeze mid-air
In the spring of 1912, Birdseye moved to Labrador, a remote, inhospitably cold region in Newfoundland (now Eastern Canada).
It was not considered to be a place of great economic promise. But Birdseye sniffed out a market for fox exports. In short order, he was dog sledding across the vast frozen tundra capturing wild silver foxes, first for breeding and later for furs. Two years after arriving, he’d reeled in $6k in profit ($154k today).
In between selling pelts, Birdseye developed a fascination with food preservation — particularly the methods of the Inuit ice fishermen.
He noticed that as soon as a fish was pulled out from under the ice, it would immediately freeze, “mid-flip,” in the -40°F air. The fish would then be packed in snow outdoors — and to Birdseye’s delight, it tasted perfectly fresh when thawed days, or even weeks, later.
Back in New York, freezing food was a less palatable affair.
At the time, the pervading preservation technique was to freeze food very slowly over a period of days at temperatures just below the freezing point. When this food thawed, it was grainy, leaky, and prone to rot. Only the lowest-grade food was frozen to begin with, and products were priced lower than canned goods.
Not surprisingly, these issues earned frozen food an extremely poor reputation in the US — so bad, writes Kurlansky, that it was even banned in New York State prisons.
But perched in the icy climes of Labrador, devouring pristinely fresh “quick-frozen” fish, Birdseye saw an opportunity to shake up the market.
A better way
In 1917, Birdseye returned to the US, where he eventually settled into a more domesticated role with the US Fisheries Association.
A chief focus among executives was to figure out a better way to get fish — a temperamental good that lost value in transport — to the marketplace in a more desirable condition. There was a need to integrate better freezing methods.
“If the quality can be improved,” the association’s president opined at a 1921 convention, “the ancient prejudice will wear away and in time we will eat fish as other nations do.”
Birdseye came to realize that the grainy texture of US frozen fish was a direct result of the way the meat was frozen: Slow freezing (the US standard) formed large crystals that eroded tissue cells, causing a grainy texture. By contrast, fish that was frozen instantly (as in Labrador) formed much smaller, less damaging crystals that maintained freshness.
But despite his studies and efforts, Birdseye still couldn’t replicate the deliciously fresh frozen fish he’d had up North.
So, in 1922, he left his job, rented out some space in an ice cream factory, and went all-in to find a solution.
A convincing salesman, Birdseye raised $20k ($300k today) and launched Birdseye Seafoods with the promise of revolutionizing the logistics of frozen food.
He ran a series of experiments attempting to replicate the arctic climate of Labrador, testing different salts, boxes, and conditions. In one instance, he even tried to freeze a fish with ice and an electric fan.
Though the company showed promise, it ran out of money in 1924, and Birdseye relocated to Gloucester, Massachusetts, a port city with a thriving fishing industry. Here, he raised more funds — this time, a whopping $375k ($5.6m today) — and launched General Seafood Corporation.
Not long afterward, he had a major breakthrough.
By placing food inside two-inch-thick, insulated cartons and pressing them between hollowed-out metal plates cooled to -25°F, he found that he could “fast-freeze” the contents and better preserve freshness. Soon, the metal plates were swapped for chilled belts, enabling rapid production of high-quality frozen food for the first time.
Dubbed multi-plate freezing, Birdseye’s invention was ahead of its time — and this caused a host of new challenges.
Though Birdseye had “solved” the frozen food problem, America lacked the infrastructure to distribute it: Trains didn’t yet have freezer cars to preserve food on long journeys across the country. Warehouses weren’t quite cold enough to store it. Retailers had no viable way to stock it.
By 1927, Birdseye had thousands of pounds of frozen food and nowhere to go. He realized he had to help solve these problems on his own.
When the storefront freezer was invented in 1928, Birdseye paid for the $1.5k machines to be installed at markets all over the East Coast. He pressured DuPont to make a waterproof cellophane with his products. And, he set out to realign the poor perception of frozen food with marketing that spoke of the “just-from-the-ocean flavor” of his fish products.
Within two years, General Seafood Corporation expanded to 27 products — fish, berries, frozen peas — and caught the attention of much larger entities.
In 1929, Marjorie Merriweather Post, the then-president of what is now Post Consumer Brands (the maker of cereals like Grape Nuts and Honey Bunches of Oats), partnered with Goldman Sachs and bought out Birdseye’s company for $23.5m ($350m today).
General Seafood Corporation was rebranded as General Foods, and Birdseye was kept on as its director of research with an annual salary of $50k ($750k today). At the onset of the Great Depression, he built himself a lavish 17-room mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
But the inventor wasn’t complacent with his wealth.
He maintained an active role in promoting his goods (kept as a separate “Birds Eye Frosted Foods” line), running in-store demonstrations and fighting to convince Americans that frozen food was worthy of their hard-earned dollars.
Post-WWII, the migration of women to the American workplace spiked a demand for convenient, easy-to-prepare foods. The rise of supermarkets in the 1930s and 40s led to better frozen food supply chains and wider in-store availability.
Public perception gradually changed, and a new era of frozen food customers emerged.
Between 1930 and 1945, US frozen food sales saw a 10x increase. By 1950, frozen food was a $1B-per-year industry — and Birds Eye Frosted Foods was a household name.
Curiosity killed the market gap
By the time Birdseye died of heart failure at age 69, he had 168 frozen food-related patents to his name.
A few years before his death, a reporter at The American Magazine asked him to identify the secret to his success.
“When I visit a strange city, I go through the local industrial plants to see how they make things,” he said. “I don’t care what the product is; I am just as much interested in the manufacture of chewing gum as of steel.”
There were many times in Birdseye’s life where he could’ve prospered simply by capitalizing on existing opportunities.
But he chose to take a different path — and today, his spirit lingers in every frozen food aisle in America.
Note: Much of the information in this article came from Mark Kurlansky’s excellent biography, Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man. If you’d like to learn more about Birdseye’s life, we highly recommend giving it a read.