The Pickle King: The Early Years of Henry J. Heinz

He started grinding spices for his mother in the basement of their Pittsburgh home when he was just six years old. Later, when Henry Heinz founded his company, it was little more than a one-man operation of peddling horseradish sauce door-to-door. But today, the HJ Heinz Company has over 110 locations across six different continents, and is one of the leading brands in the food industry.

Henry John Heinz was born on October 11, 1844 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and later raised in Sharpsburg. He was the first of eight children born to German immigrant parents. His father owned a brick yard, while his mother maintained a garden and sold produce to her neighbours. It was in that garden that the young Heinz spent his childhood, playing amongst the cabbages and beans.

Heinz would spend hours both in the garden and in the basement of his family’s house, watching his mother pickle and can her produce. By the time he was able, Heinz began helping his mother grate horseradish to use on her pickles, which quickly became popular throughout the town. With a basket of vegetables from the family garden under each arm, Heinz hit the streets as his mother’s salesman.

By the time he was just nine years old, Heinz was growing, grinding, bottling, and selling his own brand of horseradish sauce. At ten, Heinz was given three-quarters of an acre of land to tend his own garden. At twelve, he had graduated to three and a half acres of land, and was using a horse and cart to make his deliveries to grocery stores. By the time he reached 17 years old, Heinz was making $2,400 a year from his produce – a significant sum for the time.

Heinz’s parents wanted their son to become a preacher, but he had other plans. He decided to enroll at Duff’s Business College, all the while working as a bookkeeper for his father’s brick-manufacturing company. Using his savings from the horseradish sales, Heinz decided to purchase an interest in the brick company, thinking that would be his future. But, the opportunity that Heinz saw in prepared foods proved to be too great to ignore.

Heinz left his father’s company to focus exclusively on producing and packaging grated horseradish. Now 25 years old, Heinz decided to join together with a friend, Clarence Noble, to produce “pure and superior” grated horseradish and other bottled products. With that, Heinz Noble & Company was formed in 1869.

In the company’s first year, Heinz found success as he proved to be an excellent salesman. Trouble came, however, in 1875, when the price of horseradish dropped drastically. As a result of the oversupply, demand crashed, and Heinz was forced to declare bankruptcy. Nobody wanted to buy his expensive horseradish anymore when there were cheaper alternatives.

Despite the blow, Heinz remained determined to bring his product to the market. Teaming up with his brother and a cousin, Heinz founded his second venture and called it F & J Heinz. One of their first products was tomato ketchup.

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