Guideposts Classics: Orville Redenbacher on Wise Counsel

In this story from September 1990, the popcorn purveyor with the memorable name shares how a certain Bible verse led to success in selling his gourmet popping corn.

by

Orville Redenbacher

The man behind the desk listened to my sales pitch with that look people get when they think you’re trying to sell them stock in a phony gold mine.

Pushing my sample jar of Red Bow popcorn back at me, he smiled politely. “I don’t care how good you say this is, Orville. Popcorn is popcorn. Folks aren’t going to pay more for yours.”

“But...” I started to explain, then ruefully shook my head, picked up my sample and trudged out of the regional food processor’s office. I knew it was useless to talk any further. He was the umpteenth prospect to turn down the new, improved popcorn that had taken me years to develop. No one seemed to want it.

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Celebrating Guideposts' 75th AnniversaryI got into my car and gloomily drove through the Indiana countryside toward my office in Valparaiso. Was I, at the age of 63, pursuing a foolish dream?

My eye caught a roadside stand, bringing memories of the time I sold fresh produce door-to-door as a farm boy in Indiana. Back then, to help make ends meet, I would traipse 15 miles from our farm near the town of Brazil to Term Haute twice a week to sell our fruit, vegetables, eggs and dressed chickens. But even then, peddling popping corn was my main interest.

I grew an acre of it as a 4-H project in which I tried year after year to come up with a better variety.

Maybe I liked popcorn so much because every night Dad would pop a batch in a long-handled wire popper in the fireplace or on the potbellied stove; I loved its warm homey aroma. In those days, especially during World War I, when schoolmates made fun of my German-sounding last name, I found solace in my family, who gathered together in front of the fire each evening.

I smiled to myself. As a kid I wasn’t a bad salesman, selling my popping corn in Brazil and Terre Haute, where grocery stores would display it in bushel baskets on their wooden floors. But why couldn’t I sell it now, in 1970, after all these years of perfecting it?

I turned into the driveway of Chester Hybrids, the firm I owned with Charlie Bowman. Both of us had gone to Purdue University (where I majored in agronomy, played the sousaphone in the marching band and won a letter in track).

I had teamed up with Charlie in 1952. Before that, I had been a county agricultural agent, then manager of the 12,000-acre Princeton Farms, where I worked with liquid nitrogen and started breeding hybrid popcorn seed.

Charlie concentrated on the engineering end of our business, such as grain storage and drying, and irrigation systems. I spent most of my time on fertilizers and continuing the hybridizing of a better popping corn. This was a new concept, for popping corn hadn’t really changed much in 5,000 years.

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Even the popcorn the Iroquois Indians introduced to the colonists wasn’t much different from what was on grocery store shelves. Finally, with the help of breeding expert Carl Hartman, plus 40 generations of crossbred popcorn, we came up with a superior Snowflake variety that, when popped, was lighter and fluffier.

The Indians thought popcorn popped because a demon lived inside the kernel; when heated, the demon became irate and exploded in anger. Actually, moisture inside turns to steam and literally blasts the kernel apart.

Our secret was to dry the corn carefully and slowly to maintain an exact moisture level—13.25 percent—in each kernel, making for nearly 100 percent popability. This helped eliminate the tooth-crunching unpopped grains I call shy ones.

Selling Red Bow popcorn, however, was another story. For four years I wore out car tires and shoe leather going from farmer to processor to retailer. Farmers didn’t want it as seed corn because it yielded less per acre. Every processor had the same negative reaction as the one I had just visited.

And the retailers? “There are over eighty different brands of popcorn on the market,” snorted one chain-store buyer. “We don’t have room for another, especially when it costs two and a half times as much.”

That night in 1970 I didn’t even feel like popping my usual treat. Ten years down the drain. Maybe I had better stick to seed and fertilizer, I thought. Although I’d been successful in developing my new popping corn, now I evidently had no talent for selling it.

Talent. I thought about that for a long time—and what I had done with my abilities since I was young. Mom had talked about talents. When I’d practice my cornet at home as a youngster, she would wince at my bleating. “God gave you your share of talents, son, but playing the cornet is not one of them.”

Yes, God had given me talents. I believed they were from Him. I’d even taught about talents as a Sunday-school teacher. Something from Sunday-school teaching tickled my memory, something about seeking advisers.

I picked up our Bible and riffled through its pages. Yes, there it was, Proverbs 24:6: “For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Revised Standard Version).

Of course. Charlie and I were farmers. We ran a good local business. But what did we know about the ins and outs of big-time marketing? I decided it was time to get my ego out of the way and admit someone else might be of help.

I began to ask around for the name of a good marketing company. A few days later I traveled to Chicago to seek guidance from my chosen counselors, the advertising and marketing firm of Gerson, Howe and Johnson, then in the Wrigley Building. I found myself at a table with two young copywriters, a retailing expert and Mr. Gerson, the president.

“Talk to us about popcorn,” he said.

I talked on for about three hours, feeling foolish while they just listened.

“Come back next week,” they said, “and we’ll have something for you.”

The following week I returned wondering what great marketing scheme they had come up with.

“We think you should call it Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn.”

I stared at them, dumbfounded.

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“Golly, no,” I gasped. “Redenbacher is such a...a funny name.” I remembered those kids giggling back in Indiana.

“That’s the point. People will love it.”

I drove back to Valparaiso wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born.

Our marketing counselors also recommended we put my picture on the label, which I thought was another mistake. That proverb had better be right, I thought, beginning to question the wisdom of counselors. If people had balked at the price before, what would they say about a funny name and funny face?

There was one way to fund out. I would package some as the counselors had recommended and then test-market it.

On my own, I decided to approach the biggest retailer in the area, Marshall Field’s in Chicago. I found out the name of the manager of their seventh-floor gourmet food department and sent a case of our newly labeled product to his home, but I did not enclose a note or return address. A month later I phoned him. “Did you like it?” I asked.

“Like it?” he answered. “We want to stock it!”

It was a sizable order. I loaded it into our pickup truck and drove it in to Chicago as the sun was coming up over Lake Michigan. There I delivered it to Marshall Field’s big State and Randolph Street store’s loading dock. As an extra gimmick, I offered to autograph jars.

Marshall Field’s took the idea and ran with it. They published newspaper ads, and I was there three days getting writer’s cramp. Eyewitness News came over and ran coverage on their evening programs. That started the bail rolling with more news elsewhere.

In track I was told, “when you’re out in front, you’d better keep running.” So I ran the wheels off that pickup driving up to Byerly’s around Minneapolis, one of those super groceries with carpets all over, and then out to Churchill’s in Toledo. In a way I felt like I was peddling my popcorn back in Terre Haute, only this time I was filling warehouse shelves, not bushel baskets.

When folks discovered it truly was an improved popping corn, we could hardly keep up with orders. Today Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Popping Corn is a product of Hunt-Wesson Foods. Part of the deal was that I would still help them sell it by appearing on TV commercials.

Well, I’m grateful for the “wise guidance” of an “abundance of counselors,” as the Bible puts it, though I’m still befuddled. What do I, at age 82, know about selling popcorn on television? I’m just a funny-looking farmer with a funny-sounding name. But I still think my popping corn is the best.

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