Obituary: Orville Redenbacher

Edward Helmore
Thursday 21 September 1995 23:02

Orville Redenbacher, agricultural scientist; born Brazil, Indiana 1909; married (two daughters); died Coronado, California 19 September 1995.

Orville Redenbacher was an agricultural scientist who revolutionised the popcorn industry in the United States with a fluffier, tastier brand.

In an oversize bow tie and with his signature white wavy hair, Redenbacher often overshadowed his own product. Behind his country bumpkin appearance - he once described himself as a "funny-looking farmer with a funny-sounding name" - he developed the first significant improvement on the variety that Iroquois Indians gave the founding fathers at the first Thanksgiving 300 years ago. That strain of corn has been traced back 5,600 years by popcorn archaeologists.

In the 1940s, while managing a 12,000-acre farm with his partner Charlie Bowman, Redenbacher began to experiment with hybrids of corn until, in 1965, after 30,000 strains had been tried, he found a kernel that would expand to 20 times its original size when popped.

Known as the Redenbacher-Bowman "snowflake", this breakthrough was far more expensive to produce and was initially shunned by the industry. Redenbacher persisted and began to sell his popcorn, called Red Bow, from store to store across his native Indiana.

Though he claimed never to have missed a sale, it was not until he hired a Chicago marketing firm that his product became a national success. For $13,000 the firm suggested he called the product Orville Redenbacher Gourmet Popping Corn and put his picture on the label. The name, he never tired of reminding people, was one that his mother dreamed up for free. Within five years of its introduction in a Chicago department store in 1970 the brand was the leader in an industry that had never had one.

Like Colonel Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Redenbacher made hundreds of personal appearances a year and appeared in folksy commercials with a wholesome, middle-American image that remained after he sold the business in 1976. Last year Redenbacher's was still the national leader, accounting for 45 per cent of the $1bn in annual sales.

Orville Redenbacher was born on his father's farm and sometimes sold popcorn from a roadside stand. After graduating from Purdue University in 1928 he began his research into hybrid corn. Though 80 per cent of popcorn now sold is microwaved and comes in many flavours, including Cheddar cheese, Redenbacher said he remained a purist and preferred the stove-cooked variety.

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