By Mary Giorgio
“Do one thing, and do it better than anyone,” – Orville Redenbacher
In the 1970s, an elderly man with white hair and a bow tie appeared on televisions across America to promote an improved popcorn variety in a commercial that was both folksy and a tongue-in-cheek.
Orville Redenbacher is a household name across America and a titan in the snack food industry. More than 50 years after Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Popcorn first hit store shelves, it continues to be one of the leading brands of popcorn in America.
Orville Redenbacher was born on July 16, 1907 in Brazil, Indiana. His parents were corn farmers, and by the age of 12, Redenbacher was growing his own popcorn and selling it in bags to local stores. He loved farming, and so he enrolled in Purdue University’s renowned agriculture program, earning his degree in 1928.
After graduating from Purdue, Redenbacher worked as an agent for the Vigo County Farm Extension Office in Terre Haute and started a successful fertilizer company. However, Redenbacher’s first love remained popcorn.
He was determined to develop a kernel of corn that was perfect for popping. In the 1940s, he started experimenting with corn varities, hoping to produce lighter and fluffier popcorn. He eventually partnered with Charlie Bowman to bring the product to market.
In 1951, Redenbacher and Bowman opened a popcorn factory in Valparaiso, Indiana. Redenbacher purchased a home near the factory and came to think of Valparaiso as his adopted hometown.
By 1965, Redenbacher had succeeded in creating an exceptional kernel of popcorn able to expand as much as 40 times its starting size when popped. Redenbacher had a great product but lacked buyers, so he went store-to-store across Indiana promoting his product.
With the help of a Chicago marketing firm, Redenbacher’s popcorn got its break in the 1970s. The firm suggested that the popcorn be branded “Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Popping Corn,” and that the label include a personal image. Within 5 years, the brand shot up from obscurity to become the market leader in the popcorn industry. His popcorn, and his image, became iconic.
In 1976, Orville sold his the company to Hunt-Wesson Foods. Today, it is owned by Conagra Foods. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Redenbacher continued to be the public face of the brand, appearing in TV commercials and on packaging. Redenbacher became an unforgettable spokesman, with his trademark bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses.
Redenbacher died on September 19, 1995. His contribution to the development of a better popcorn kernel has been a boon to snack lovers everywhere. Today Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Popping Corn continues to be a brand with deep Hoosier roots. Although the Valparaiso plant closed in 2000, a popcorn factory in Rensselaer continues to produce the iconic popcorn.